At this year’s Met Gala it wasn’t Rihanna’s extravagant pope ensemble or a Kardashian’s ethereal interpretation of sainthood that grabbed the internet’s short attention span, but rather the debut of an unlikely couple: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and experimental pop artist Claire Boucher, who goes by Grimes. The juxtaposition of Musk’s white jacket and priest’s notched collar with Grimes’ goth gown and silver Tesla choker underscored the sense of surreality surrounding their coupling. Musk, one of a new generation of tech titans, an elite group consisting of household names like Bezos and Zuckerberg, embodies a greater neoliberal push toward innovation at any cost, often accompanied by hazy ethical grounding. Grimes, on the other hand, is a counter-cultural synth icon who has gained a cult following by working with the avant-garde.
The unlikely union is at once shocking for what seems like a bizarre mismatch in fundamental ideology, and completely logical. Musk has become an object of fixation in pop culture for his electric cars and spaceships, with artists like Tyler the Creator immortalizing him in rap lyrics and Kanye West citing him as a source of inspiration. This cultural phenomenon has elevated Elon Musk from Silicon Valley CEO to cultural icon worthy of dating Grimes. Beyond internet-meme fodder, this relationship and its roots in social-media (the couple met on Twitter) hints at the larger ubiquitousness of technology in our culture and the media we consume.
From the exponential number of Soundcloud rappers with tech words in their names (ex. Wifigawd and Wifisfuneral), it is clear the music industry has embraced technology as both a cultural phenomenon and as a means of survival. Overall, this has its benefits; streaming has increased revenues in the recording music industry and smaller artists are able to gain traction independently through social media platforms. However, on a deeper level, there lies a question as to whether artists and musicians, hold a responsibility to examine and question systems and societal norms as cultural cultivators. In the frenzy for cultural clout and earnings, it is easy to ignore the problematic moral underpinnings of large tech corporations. This year alone, we have passively watched Mark Zuckerberg testify before senate on Facebook’s data privacy scandal, Tesla called out for poor labor practices and anti-union activity, and Amazon escape paying taxes that would go to affordable housing in its home city of Seattle. While some artists critique the pervasiveness and extent to which our society trusts technology, for the most part, in mainstream culture, these large looming problems are swept away, reduced to adlibs and rhymes while tech companies and their leaders are put on pedestals.
In an interview with The Independent, author of Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield, talks about a learned helplessness- the acceptance and agreement to whatever technology appears on the scene simply because the general public doesn’t feel that they have the power or technical knowledge to question or change the overwhelming tide in which technology is moving. This sense of apathy has created an environment where Apple feels confident rolling out a device with no headphone jack (I want to listen to music AND charge my phone at the same time!) and, on a more sinister level, we ignore the implementation of surveillance technologies like location-tracking and communications eavesdropping systems that betray the day-to-day activities of our private life.
As an avid user of technology I am well-versed in this learned helplessness. I love to talk about how technology shapes my everyday experience, about how social media has changed how we interact with each other, about how much I care about internet ethics. But what I mean when I say that internet ethics is important to me is that sometimes I delete the Uber app when incriminating evidence about their data hacking, sexism, or bad labor practices are publicized (and redownload it when I need to get a ride), or sometimes I’ll provide fake information when prompted with subscription pop-ups and wifi log-in screens. These small coping mechanisms, in-the-moment rebellious anomalies, provide a balm of false complacency that allow me to forget that I actively use and sometimes even rely on Find Your Friends and Amazon Prime. We are all to some extent implicated in this learned helplessness, continuing to place trust in the hands of companies who we believe must know better than us.
Elon Musk and Grimes have started dating, their relationship has been mired by mishaps that range from an Azealia Banks Instagram rant to a move to take Tesla private. During this time, Grimes has come under fire and has had to deal with the consequences of something incredibly intimate, a private, romantic relationship, in a public way. This includes tweets defending Musk of union-busting accusations and donations to Republican campaigns. However, as someone who has gained a following partially because of her identity as a leftist, Grimes has had to confront her learned helplessness and make a choice. Often we look to artists, musicians, and creators as pioneers, pushing the boundaries of perception and what is accepted. In reality, they are more like a litmus test, trading in stories and the distinctly human, making things that reflect our own values and hopes. As Musk and Grimes continue to play out their relationship in the public eye amongst memes and controversy, perhaps it is time we take a second look at our own relationships with technology.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the college of Art, Architecture, and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.