Jennifer Wright: Let's stop treating tech jerks like gods

Could we stop worshipping rich men who are jerks?

On Tuesday Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, took to Twitter once again with bizarre comments, saying how “strange” it is that the cave diver who rescued the Thai boys didn’t sue him after he called him a pedophile. The notion that the diver might not want to get into a legal battle with a mean-tempered billionaire seemingly hadn’t occurred to him. (Though the diver’s lawyer is now reportedly preparing a libel suit.)

This comes after what was largely seen as Musk’s melodramatic New York Times interview, in which he complained, among other things, about having to work on his birthday (“I first worked on my birthday when I was 8” quipped former child star Mara Wilson on Twitter in response. Elon Musk is 47.)

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs has painted a depressing picture of her father in her memoir “Small Fry” due out Sept. 4. In it, she reveals how he denied her financial support and told her she smelt “like a toilet.” The fact that she’s not horrified by his behavior is more a testament to her than him.

Despite tremendous financial security, success and personal comfort, these men gained a reputation for being petty and ungenerous whenever possible. They don’t exemplify very many personality traits we associate with a good person.

My grandmother would have said “they don’t seem like very happy people.” I’m more inclined to worry about how unhappy they seemed to make everyone around them.

Now, it’s possible to be both brilliant and cruel, innovative and un-self-aware, successful and miserly. People can create things we enjoy and still be bad people. But you wouldn’t know that from their fan bases. It’s not that they’re grappling with the idea of their heroes being complex individuals, it’s that they see these men as wholly aspirational.

Their fans think that they are perfect and are willing to go to war with anyone who thinks otherwise.

Tech Web site Mashable has stated that people who aren’t Musk fans meet the “immutable wrath of Musk’s fans online, which comes typically via some nonsensical defense of a billionaire’s right to do whatever he wants and variations of the word ‘bitch.’ ” Science journalist Erin Biba writes that “MuskBros, as we call them, make it their mission to descend on women who criticize Musk and tear them to pieces.” And back in 2015, Salon wrote that Jobs, who died in 2011, was a “messiah to jerks.”

If that’s true, there are a lot of them. The website Cultofmac showcases fans who have gotten Jobs’ name or face tattooed on their bodies. A “dress like Steve Jobs day” was held in San Diego in 2011 to encourage people to dress like the late Apple founder.

They didn’t need the encouragement. So many devotees have copied his style throughout the years that it became a joke on the show “Silicon Valley” with one character saying “Are you dressed like Steve Jobs?” And the other replying, “Oh, am I? Well, I suppose Steve and I always have shared a similar aesthetic.”

In 2016, pop culture website The Ringer wrote of Elon Musk that, “not since Steve Jobs has a tech entrepreneur ignited such unabashed fandom.” The Elon Musk Quote & News page on Facebook, which sells T-shirts with captions like “Take Me To Mars Elon,” has 313,000 members. That hardly compares to his 22.4 million Twitter followers. One fan, @_ill_ink tweeted that “it physically hurts to see people attack [Elon.]”

And yet, Musk runs a company where, according to a 2017 report in The Guardian, employees in Tesla factories are passing out face-down from exhaustion and other workers are being told to work around the bodies.

If you believe your children or spouse are practically perfect, well, so be it. Love makes us a bit irrational. But it’s incredibly irrational to extend this level of hero worship to someone you haven’t even met.

True, Jobs made a device I use every day. I also use my toaster pretty much every day. I do not hang out on Twitter talking about how the inventor of the toaster is an amazing genius who should have been allowed to treat anyone else however he wanted.

Tech founders more deserving of acclaim seem to pass utterly under the radar. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has devoted his money to curing malaria, and, now, combatting Alzheimer’s. He and his wife of 25 years, Melinda, seem happily invested in their charity work. He’s on Twitter, something that surprised me because he’s seemingly never sent out a controversial, newsworthy tweet. His bio reads “Sharing things I’m learning through my foundation work and other interests.” Most of his tweets appear to focus on doing good around the world and teachers he admires. His most fiery tweet might be “I hate mosquitos” (he goes on to explain it is because they spread malaria, perhaps to show he’s not the kind of guy who would just go around hating a universally despised bug for no good reason).

When fans worship people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and aspire to be like them, they’re not saying that they’d like to make a device that the world uses. They’re not even saying that they’d like to be very wealthy. They’re saying that they’d like to achieve a level of wealth and power where no one can judge them and they can behave as horribly as they like — just as Jobs and Musk have done. They don’t want to do good in the world, like Bill Gates, they just want to be able to say any horrible thing they want on Twitter.