Welcome back to Tech Chronicle. The attention economy never closed, but I hope this fine newsletter will reopen your eyes to the tech world’s many challenges.
The four words no one in Silicon Valley wants to hear: “You can’t do that.”
In tech, rules aren’t meant just to be broken, but disrupted, subverted, refactored and routed around.
Why is Elon Musk insisting on illegally restarting production of electric cars at Tesla’s Fremont factory, when official permission for a safe resumption of manufacturing seems tantalizingly close?
Having studied Musk for decades, I can only conclude that he doesn’t like being told what to do, whether it’s following rules for officers of publicly traded companies or obeying local health orders.
There is some value to his defiance. When Musk invested in Tesla 16 years ago, electric cars seemed hopelessly uneconomical, unsexy, unwanted. Musk ousted Tesla’s inconvenient founders, took control and — with some help from the federal government — got vehicles on the road that woke people’s imagination of what might be possible. He forced automakers in Detroit and Tokyo to take electric cars seriously. That the electric car market seems viable today is a real achievement.
But it’s one thing to break unwritten rules, and another to break written ones. That is what Musk is doing by insisting on reopening Tesla’s car plant before proving to local health officials’ satisfaction that it can be done safely. (Those who have worked on automotive assembly lines doubt the work can be done at a social distance and wearing protective equipment.)
Musk has 34 million followers on Twitter, and his provocations play well with his base there. But Tesla’s future car buyers are another matter. The Bay Area is a big center for electric vehicles. It’s also a region where local shelter-in-place orders, despite the short-term economic pain, are popular and for the most part voluntarily adhered to. Musk’s conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic — first he doubted the seriousness of the disease, then dismissed the need for protective measures — are unlikely to win him new customers outside his current fan base.
It’s also unlikely to make recruiting easier. The pitch for working at Tesla is that you’re making the world a better place and saving humanity. How does putting co-workers at risk of infection fit into that vision?
Musk has said that he’s going to pick up Tesla and move it out of the Bay Area, factory, headquarters and all. For his electric-car rivals, that’s an open invitation to start poaching engineers now. There’s no rule against that.
— Owen Thomas, email@example.com
Quote of the week
“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus.” — Quibi CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, trying to convince the New York Times that starting a streaming service that doesn’t play on TVs is a microbe’s fault
It would have been Google I/O this week. Oh well. Cisco reports earnings Wednesday, if you want to hear from another videoconferencing vendor that’s not Zoom on why they’re not Zoom.
What I’m reading
Dominic Fracassa on Jack Dorsey’s donation to the Give2SF fund, which I guess makes up for the money Twitter employees won’t be spending locally. (San Francisco Chronicle)
Brian Heater on how the iPhone has become Hollywood’s favorite new camera. (TechCrunch)