Less than a month before the first reports on an outbreak of a mysterious new virus began circulating in the news, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s latest model: the Cybertruck. The dramatic reveal at the Tesla Design Center in Los Angeles on November 21, 2019 was pure spectacle, complete with an opening narration delivered by an actress in the role of an AI cyborg.
This Tesla “cybergirl” went on to introduce the company’s latest model as a “solution” for the future and “number one mode of transport” in a world where the “skies are polluted” and its citizens “addicted to oil.” Marketed to an affluent and professedly socially conscious set, the Cybertruck was hailed as “the greatest evolution of vehicular fashion and function.”
Within mere months, the launch of this new model of electric automobile would seem frivolous as the public’s attention became riveted on the emergence of the COVID-19, which by March 2020 would wreak havoc to the global economy throwing many into poverty. That this catastrophe was soon followed in the United States by social upheavals ignited in response to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, which brought unprecedented attention to what can be described as an epidemic of police brutality and systemic racism, offered a reminder that the function behind the Cybertruck’s form remained all-too-relevant in a world that seemed on the verge of collapsing into an apocalyptic nightmare. And all of that with the rejection of the results from the 2020 presidential election, and the attempted overthrow of American democracy on January 6th still waiting in the wings. Yeah, it’s been a rough few years.
For some, it was as if the Cybertruck was rolled out onto that dimly lit stage just in time. The affirmation of its necessity punctuated by lasers pulsating through artificial smoke and pyrotechnics worthy of London’s Ministry of Sound (with similarly Orwellian overtones), and set to the electro beats of the aptly-titled track, “End of Time.” It was an auspicious introduction that reinforced the striking appearance of a passenger vehicle described as having a “nearly impenetrable exoskeleton" fabricated out of an “Ultra-Hard 30X Cold-Rolled stainless-steel structural skin,” and with a cabin shielded by “armor glass."
Equipped with these features, along with Tesla’s standard electric engine (save the planet, right?) and self-driving technology, it’s offered as the perfect vehicle to transport us into that long-dreamed cyberpunk future. Or, as the footage of the Cybertruck roving over the California desert, along with the leather-clad engineers who exited the vehicle at its reveal, attest, it would seem equally at home commanding the horizon of any Mad Max-esque wasteland.
Adding a cinematic element to this deftly scripted fantasy, Tesla’s launch of the Cybertruck also coincided precisely with the timeline of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner set in a post-nuclear war Los Angeles of November 2019—and adapted from Philip K. Dick’s classic dystopian novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Such associations were not lost to commentators reacting to the unveiling, with industrial designer, Syd Mead, credited as the visual futurist on Blade Runner, calling the vehicle’s appearance “stylistically breathtaking.” In paying homage to these Sci-fi classics, the Cybertruck also stands as a reminder of these works’ vision of global catastrophe and dystopia.
Yet the blurring of Tesla’s latest offering with Ridley Scott’s speculative future—set in a world ravaged by radioactive contamination and mass extinction—begs a vital question. Just when does the techno music reverberating from Tesla’s stage stop sounding like a celebration of the triumph of techno-industrialism and give way to a slow-building crescendo portending the results of escalating social conflict, environmental catastrophe and projections of doom?
Given these dystopian musings, we might now even seem justified in imagining the Cybertruck as serving a terrestrial purpose similar to the interplanetary escape craft featured in Don’t Look Up. In that film’s final scenes, a small group of wealthy and politically connected passengers, many of whom bear considerable responsibility for the impending catastrophe, flee the plant to escape the destruction to be inflicted by the impact of a colliding comet. A world-destroying catastrophe that was anticipated much like the environmental and social problems that afflict our real world, and like the threat of Don’t Look Up’s fictional comet, possibly also avoidable.
When Tesla’s meticulously rehearsed demonstration of the Cybertruck’s invulnerability went awry with the shattering of one of its windows by a steel ball lobbed by Tesla’s Chief Designer, Franz von Holzhausen, however, few seemed to be asking why civilians might need a vehicle outfitted with armored glass capable of stopping a bullet fired from a 9mm handgun anyway? What benefit could it possibly serve for Tesla’s marketers to remind their
audiences consumers of the possible consequences of accelerating political divisiveness, inequality, and oppression? Much less the insinuations of dystopian violence and apocalyptic destruction lurking below the Cybertruck’s gleaming stainless-steel surfaces?
After all, with the astronomical rise of Tesla’s stock price over a period marked by worldwide economic crisis and a realization by many that the capitalistic system is rigged, through wave after wave of outbreaks of successive COVID variants, Musk’s baby has now grown into the most valuable automobile company in the world. The latest turn of events in a narcissistic, me-first world in which Musk’s astounding success has morphed into just another dismal example of American greed with his decision to move to Texas, while taking Tesla’s corporate headquarters with him. Actions, of course, that allow him to realize huge savings on individual and corporate taxes to further enlarge his already massive fortune. This decision also has major implications for Tesla employees with the movement of operations to a state with far fewer protections of the rights of workers.
More broadly, Tesla’s successes have largely been achieved by selling an economically prosperous population on a utopian vision predicated on the harmonious merging of social responsibility, technological innovation and luxurious style. Well, along with the tongue-in-cheek approval of Tesla’s “autopilot” function to allow for sexual multitasking. Aspirations and actions that give lip service to Tesla’s mission “to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy,” while virtue signaling an implicit concern for the well-being of all life on earth. Sentiments that are all-to-often revealed to be little more than a convenient cover to sustain lifestyles of mass consumption.
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Matters such as these recall the capitalistic promises of personal success and unfettered freedom—for those who can afford it—in a world where we place trust in technology to keep
humanity the rich and famous of the so-called, first world, ahead of the disaster curve—a response Donna J. Haraway has diagnosed as a reflection of our “comic faith in technofixes.” Values that, nonetheless, also reflect the longstanding desire of the elite and wealthy to quarantine themselves from the vulgarity, primitivism and danger of common people, while continually disregarding the lessons of the past.
Before we all remit deposits to reserve our own Tesla Cybertrucks, however—something reportedly done by 200,000 people in the first 24 hours after its launch—we might pause to consider the enormous costs of the kind of socially conditioned detachment the very existence of such a vehicle represents. Far from placing blind faith in technology or the indifferent institutions, innovators and figureheads responsible for its pervasive infiltration into almost every aspect of our lives, there are some writers, filmmakers and social critics including Donna Haraway, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler and Charlie Brooker, who have sought to bring attention to humanity’s most urgent problems in the context of technology. And, perhaps, just as urgently, the conditions out of which recent sociopolitical and historical developments have also emerged, including the global rise of nationalism, international terrorism and neofascism. As we move towards a future that is more uncertain than ever the idea that technology can save us from our blindness has become clearly untenable.
This is precisely because the challenges and threats humanity currently face have only become more acute with the ever-widening gap between the 1% and everyone else. Outcomes spurned on by sustained attacks on the value of education and its defunding, the weakening of social safety nets and inaccessibility to adequate healthcare. Policies contrasted by shifts in tax policy in which benefits overwhelmingly favor the wealthy and corporations, and to the detriment of almost everyone else. As such, the widespread anxieties, suspicions and fears that issue from these developments are reflective of the deep social fractures that continue to plague contemporary American society.
While we are more than three decades removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, a deep sense of frustration and cynicism about the future of democratic structures similar to that articulated by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in proclaiming there’s “no future, no future, no future for you,” also resonates among many Americans. For they share a deeply suspicious attitude about the promise of illusory rewards, whether dispensed through institutional structures of social programs created in the wake of World War II, or the empty promises of success ensured by a college education only achievable by taking on massive student loan debt to claim a level of economic security and personal success otherwise available only to the most privileged.
The stark social realities that the emergence of Tesla’s Cybertruck serves to distract us from in its stainless-steel gleam actually draws our attention more intensely to the demise of an illusory utopian democracy most commonly associated with the myth of the American Dream. This harsh realization has become fodder for a litany of frustrations amongst a disaffected populace among whom so many feel deceived and cheated despite following the rules of capitalist ideology in anticipation of their hard-earned rewards.
With the accumulation of such reactions, and spurred on by the widening gulf between the 1% and everyone else, it is not difficult to see why there has been a growing fear of the exploited and the downtrodden masses. This returns us to the notion expressed by Philip K. Dick in speaking of “the tyranny of an object” and also now recalled by the Cybertruck’s impenetrable stainless-steel body and bulletproof windows. A vehicle that seems the perfect accessory to the impenetrable iron gates, unscalable security walls, 24-hour security and tyranny of surveillance cameras that Mike Davis warned us about in Ecology of Fear, along with the panic rooms and disaster shelters adopted by many as the preferred response to an increasing sense of terror invoked by others, especially those less fortunate. And almost always to escape the consequences for behaviors and actions practically all citizens of industrialized societies are complicit in somehow.
Before we rush headlong into the arms of safety or oblivion, it’s worth considering what we stand to lose in a future where survival requires the inflict of ever greater forms of isolation and detachment. Shall we accept a world brimming with inequality and the erosion of civil liberties by corrupt or indifferent authority figures? Forces to which the common response has become to retreat into even more dire forms of isolation within whatever protective shells we can muster?
How long can we remain tethered to social media and associated forms of mediated reality as an easy substitute for being active in a society that has become too difficult to face, while further augmenting our responses by the simulated selves of virtual worlds whereby we relinquish ever greater degrees of agency to multinational corporations and internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Google, Instagram, Microsoft and Apple. Choices that make us into veritable slaves to the devices and digital networks pulling us away from the real world, along with algorithms that track our every move and archive our deepest desires?
Will we continue to tolerate a social existence in which truth and reality have no relevance or standing, while our tears become lost in acid rain?
Billy J. Stratton