New Kids on the Block

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk delivers Model X electric sports-utility vehicles during a presentation in Fremont

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk delivers Model X electric sports-utility vehicles during a presentation in Fremont, California September 29, 2015. Tesla Motors delivered the first of its long-awaited Model X electric sports-utility vehicles on Tuesday, a product investors are counting on to make the pioneering company profitable after years of losses. REUTERS/Stephen Lam – RTS2CJW

In my previous article a week ago, I wrote on celebrity politicians not being a new phenomenon, and drew parallels with mainstream career politicians such as Angela Merkel. As it turns out, in the time since the article was released, a campaign committee has sprung up in support of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson running for President in 2020, and Kid Rock is apparently making a bid for the Senate seat for Michigan. Or is he? In this week’s article, however, we look at a newer breed of celebrity politicians: the ones that actively try to reshape our daily lives.

Technocrats, Roll Out

For those who reject the political system as being inherently broken, another type of celebrity politician has risen to stardom: the technocrat. Think Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, founders of SpaceX and Facebook respectively. The former is a latter-day Tony Stark, making the stuff of science fiction come to life, whilst the latter presides over what would be the largest nation in the world if it occupied any physical space, its population 2 billion and counting. For comparison, China has a mere population of 1.371 billion.

The technocrat’s message is deceptively unique: the solution to the world’s problems is innovation through technology. Mr. Musk believes that it is only a matter of time before something happens to humanity on planet Earth, whether it is a disaster of our own making or some depressing twist of fate that the universe has dealt us. Enter SpaceX, with the solution of making space travel affordable in the hopes of colonising other planets in the distant future. For Mr. Zuckerberg, revolutionising the way we access knowledge is the end goal, and he means to get there through Internet.org.

In fact, these one-liner answers are reminiscent of someone else’s, if only worded differently. Planet Earth is a ticking time bomb? Time to go colonise other planets – we can start with Mars. Bad hombres giving you problems? We can build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and that will solve things.

Of course, comparing Donald Trump and Elon Musk is akin to comparing the Sun and the Moon; one is actually a successful businessman and has a coherent vision, even if it is one that others may disagree with, and has a public image that is envied by others (hint: it’s not Trump). Unfortunately, the same mistakes that led to Trump being elected are also leading us to fall in love with Mr. Musk and his friends, rose-tinted glasses and all.

In their own ways, the new and old breeds of celebrity politicians are a symptom that public faith has been eroded in the political system, and there is a need for a revolution in the way we do things. Our fetishisation of their abilities and solutions, however, is liable to lead us down a dangerous path. The messages they provide should not distract from the fact that the messengers themselves are very much human and fallible, and sometimes, their great ideas may trample on some fundamental rights that we must protect.

In the case of Internet.org, or Free Basics as it is now known in India, Mr. Zuckerberg’s plans to use Facebook as a platform to access the wider Internet through mobile operators as intermediaries appears to be stopped dead in its tracks. The crux of the problem derives from Facebook acting as the gatekeeper to the web; there is nothing to stop Facebook from abusing its position to show only products and services related to it or its partners, and in the process completely conquer a market that would otherwise be open to competition.

Elsewhere, Google faces a record fine from the European Commission for manipulating search results to prioritise their shopping platform over competitors, and that is barely scratching the surface of their legal woes.

Sound familiar?

In the years to come, the power concentrated in the hands of these oligopolies will only increase, and at the forefront will be the tech industry, dominated by players such as Google and Apple. The revenues of some of these corporations trump that of some small nations; unlike governments, however, there are no internal checks and balances beyond the conscience of their leaders, and no incentive to help the wider populace than their philanthropic interests. Without constant public scrutiny, we may very well find ourselves in a different mess altogether – as the ongoing scandals engulfing Uber from sexual harassment to intellectual property theft prove.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Of course, there is no denying the individual successes and brilliance of people like Mr. Musk and Mr. Zuckerberg, and their many peers and revolutionaries. Their achievements are notable and have brought us that tiny bit closer to utopia (perhaps), and they ought to be given credit for that. Likewise, old-school celebrity politicians who have transitioned from other fields into politics can rightfully be given credit for changing the rules of the game. At the end of the day, however, they are merely distractions from what has actually gone wrong, and that is an entire generation’s disillusionment with politics.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to correct these wrongs. Millennials have had and will continue to have it rough – we are the first generation to earn less in real income than our parents, it is likely that us and our offspring will have to deal first-hand with the impact of climate change, and we are frustrated with leaders who in our eyes do not represent our views or speak about the issues we want them to care about. We are also the first generation since World War II to not consider democracy important, and to actively prefer authoritarian leaders over other alternatives. It is no coincidence that celebrity politicians are part of the flotsam we cling to, adrift as we are in this new world.

These celebrity leaders do not always have the solutions that we seek for our problems. The political system is here to stay, and for better or for worse, it is the best way we have to tackle issues that transcend borders and time zones. Problems like migration and in the regional context, the Indonesian haze will only be resolved in these international arenas, and they are best guided by the calm, safe hands of statesmen and stateswomen like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and their fellows.

Career politicians are not perfect. Decades of war in the Middle East as a result of the policies pursued by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and to a lesser extent Obama have led to a rejection of Americanism and business as usual in Washington; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government continues to sit idly by as Rohingya Muslims are persecuted in Myanmar. Elsewhere, Venezuela descends into chaos under the ‘leadership’ of Nicolás Maduro, and Turkey’s Erdogan moves further away each day from the model that Ataturk envisioned. To give up hope in the system and the status quo is entirely justified – particularly if you feel that you are on the receiving end of these actions.

The answer, however, does not lie in picking people who are manifestly unqualified and inexperienced in governance and leadership to helm our nations and the world. Celebrity politicians may doubtless have only good intentions in their hearts, and likewise the visionaries and innovators of the tech industry likely will offer some innovative ideas to problems that politicians alone could never conceive.

Nevertheless, that is merely what their solutions are: smaller parts of a bigger picture, one that requires us to take the long view and vote for the people we know who truly represent stability and commitment to the values that underpin our existence. It will never be perfect, but it is our best chance and the one least likely to trigger upheaval. To sum up: pick your politicians wisely.

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