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What Elon Musk should learn from the cave rescue

This frame grab from video tweeted by Elon Musk shows a “tiny kid-sized submarine” being tested in a pool at Palisades Charter High School, Sunday, July 8, 2018, in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Musk’s Space X rocket company tested the submarine that could potentially help rescue the remaining children and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. (Courtesy of Elon Musk via AP)
This frame grab from video tweeted by Elon Musk shows a “tiny kid-sized submarine” being tested in a pool at Palisades Charter High School, Sunday, July 8, 2018, in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Musk’s Space X rocket company tested the submarine that could potentially help rescue the remaining children and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. (Courtesy of Elon Musk via AP) AP

Silicon Valley moguls seem to believe they can fix most anything, and they appear befuddled when their attempts to do so aren’t met with unbridled enthusiasm.

Tech billionaire Elon Musk was among the millions of people captivated by the plight of the 12 boys and their soccer coach recently trapped in a cave in Thailand. But Musk didn’t just follow the story on the news and social media; he has vast resources, so he also tried to help.

He directed his engineers to build a miniature “submarine” (basically a sophisticated metal cylinder) that he hoped could be used for the rescue.

Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand – a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers – Musk responded with irritation.

Instead of venting, Musk – indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole – can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

This approach is what allowed airline Capt. Chesley Sullenberger to safely land a commercial airplane on the Hudson River in 2009 after its engines were disabled.

By contrast, Silicon Valley moguls seem to favor spending money on improbable but impressive-sounding long shots. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million to New Jersey schools as part of a multiyear plan to improve them. The centerpiece was teacher evaluation and charter schools, but it didn’t work well. Some aspects of the plan even made things worse. Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

Silicon Valley also tends to ignore problems in its own house. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has declared that space exploration is one of the main things he should spend his money on. But poorly paid workers in Amazon warehouses, who work under grueling conditions, may have other ideas about how Bezos might best spend his money.

If Silicon Valley wants to help the world, there is a lot it can do, starting with making its own products safer and its own companies more just. Perhaps most important, it can develop respect for hard-earned expertise in areas other than its own.

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina.

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