Elon Musk’s Philosophical Musings On Space (And Other Observations From Code Conference)

Musk on space and taxes, Satya Nadella on TikTok, Marc Benioff on the workplace, and more.

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After so many months of isolation, there was Elon Musk. The brilliant, mercurial technology founder helped kick off the tech industry’s unofficial exit from quarantine this week as he strode on stage at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Wearing a black bandana around his neck, Musk took his seat beside Kara Swisher as the headliner for her annual Code Conference. The two gazed out at the crowd of 600 tech executives, investors, and media filling the traditional home of the Golden Globes, and, just like that, it was almost as if we were back in 2019. 

From a few feet away, I spent the week listening to Musk and other tech leaders as they spoke with Swisher about the tech industry's future. Here are my observations: 

  1. Musk gets philosophical on space travel. Musk has articulated his motivations for building SpaceX. First, he believes space travel is good business (SpaceX is valued at $74 billion). Second, Musk thinks we’ll have a better chance of surviving the next extinction event by making our species interplanetary. But this week, he went a level deeper, offering a perspective I found fascinating. “If we want to understand what the universe is about, and what’s the meaning of life, we need to get there and find out,” he said. “And the more that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness, the more we’ll be able to understand what questions we need to ask about the answer that is the universe.”

  2. Musk finally addresses his taxes. ProPublica reported in June that Musk paid no federal income tax in 2018. Musk this week finally addressed the situation, explaining that he's compensated mainly in stock options that will eventually be taxed. Musk complained that he kept his stock options while his companies struggled and felt targeted now that his bet on himself proved wise. Asked why he didn’t speak with ProPublica, Musk said they weren’t interested in the truth. That’s a shame, since his comments were worth considering. He didn’t answer all questions, but it would’ve benefited readers to hear his perspective when ProPublica published its stories. 

  3. TikTok ghosted Microsoft. It was fun to watch Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recall Donald Trump’s attempt to force TikTok to sell itself. Nadella said TikTok first approached Microsoft about a deal. And after the company engaged, “It just disappeared.” Acquiring TikTok would’ve been a win for Microsoft, which could’ve supported it with security, cloud hosting, and artificial intelligence. But instead, TikTok left Nadella sitting in the cold like a spurned teenage lover. “It’s the strangest thing I've ever sort of worked on,” Nadella said.

  4. Maybe we won’t go back to the office? Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff made a scene speaking about the future of the workplace. “We're not all going back,” Benioff said. Benioff has good reason to root for a “hybrid” workplace: He bought Slack for $27 billion last year. 

  5. Netflix the uninspiring Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos didn’t seem to be in the mood to discuss competition even though every company in the world has a streaming service with a “+” at the end. “It's great for everyone to talk about competition, it’s great for everyone to think about competition. We really don't,” Sarandos said. For a company lacking a distinct technological advantage over its competition, it was a strange position.

  6. Where’s the inventiveness? This question is somewhat dumb since today’s email led with a space company. But attendees wondered where the new and surprising technology was. Crypto has promise but substantial drawbacks. Otherwise, the same few companies played Freebird: Salesforce, Microsoft, Netflix, Alphabet, etc. 

  7. The SEC seems ready to crack down. Speaking of crypto, SEC chair Gary Gensler appeared via video and had stern words for the portion of the industry flaunting the rules. “This is not going to end well if it stays outside the regulatory space,” Gensler said at one point.

  8. Facebook discussion falls flat. People may be starting to get tired of Facebook criticism. Not because it’s unmerited, but because it feels a bit repetitive given how little has changed. Benioff went off comparing the company to tobacco (it’s complicated), MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle compared Facebook to crack cocaine, and other speakers took their swings. The crowd applauded each time, but there was little Facebook talk off stage.

  9. The people like drugs Psychedelic drugs were an unexpected theme of the week. Musk praised them. So did Chelsea Handler. Psychedelics were the main topic of discussion on the conference’s final day. You know, after all this time in isolation, a few mushrooms might not be the worst idea.

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