Elon Musk is making one of the tech world’s most useful idiots relevant again
Last week Tim Urban, the creator of the blog Wait But Why, tweeted an infographic summarizing the federal state of abortion access in a post-Roe v. Wade universe. No one had sought the opinion of Tim Urban, the creator of the blog Wait But Why, on the federal state of abortion access in a post-Roe v. Wade universe. But where others had seen the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe as a call to arms, Urban took it as an invitation to advertise his particular brand of panglossian, happy-go-lucky artistic whimsy. The infographic drew post-Roe America as an undifferentiated mass of ponytailed women, some of whom have access to abortion and some of whom – hey, sucks but that’s the way things go! – don’t. It claimed a federal abortion ban was “not on the table,” despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Why Urban felt compelled to share these thoughts in public was not immediately clear. Six minutes after he posted his tweet came an explanation of sorts. Elon Musk replied, “Accurate.” This was an automatic indication that almost everything about the illustration was wrong.
But the endorsement also provided a kind of vindication for Urban, who has spent the weeks since Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter reaffirming his status as Silicon Valley’s most loyal in-house philosopher. Urban has described Musk as “the world’s raddest man,” and the admiration is clearly mutual. Urban came charging out of the gate in favor of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, declaring to any of his 563,000 followers suspicious of the rad man’s motives: “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him and I wholeheartedly believe his heart is in the right place in his endeavors.” The two have busily amplified each other’s tweets in the weeks since, a full-court online press designed to legitimize Musk’s supremely stupid takes on free speech, the public sphere, and political polarization. The relationship works for both of them: Musk’s attention boosts Urban’s profile, and Urban helps assure Musk and his fellow founder-gods that they’re engaged in a noble quest for knowledge rather than the grubby pursuit of profit. The tech world needs its useful idiots, and in Silicon Valley, Tim Urban is among the most useful idiots of all.
It’s no real surprise that Urban’s understanding of the politics surrounding the pregnant human body is weak. After all, this is a man who has built his career on turning every human into a stick. Urban rose to prominence in the early 2010s with a series of stick figure-illustrated blog posts about scientific topics like the Fermi paradox and the age of the universe since the Big Bang. Urban was the leader of a new generation of bloggers and YouTube videographers intent on making science “cool.” Combining the synoptic pep of a Malcolm Gladwell book with the twee aesthetic of a Zooey Deschanel vehicle and the resistance to shame of the Safran Foer-Portman correspondence, Wait But Why fit the shoddy optimism of the Obama years. Urban’s fame probably peaked in 2016, when he did a Grub Street Diet (favorite beer: Stone IPA; breakfast: “not a thing;” Chinese food: “a gross situation”), but now Musk has made him relevant again.
Urban described his abortion infographic as a “little summary of the situation.” I read this in a baby voice, which I think is the appropriate mode of recital for all of Urban’s writing: here’s my widdle summawy. Everything in Urban’s universe is little, unless it’s incredibly large. Nothing is allowed to exist at its actual scale; every element of existence must be shrunk or expanded until the very notion of proportion, which is the essence of criticism, is rendered meaningless. If, as seems by this stage of the century fairly uncontroversial, we are all children of Silicon Valley now, Urban seems determined to prove a much bigger point: we are all children. He describes himself on Twitter as a “writer, infant,” and his life’s work is to remake the world around him in his own infantile image. This works well enough when his subject matter is the cosmos, the size of Greenland, or “mind=blown”-style illustrations of the passage of time (did you know that we’re as far today from the 28th Super Bowl as the 28th Super Bowl was from the first??), but things start to go awry when he wanders onto pricklier terrain.
On Twitter and in his shorter blog posts, Urban paints a worldview in total alignment with the whiny consensus of Silicon Valley’s billionaire class, laying out a familiar catalog of gripes about, say, waiters who ask whether anyone at the table has allergies, having to turn phones to flight mode when on a plane, or how Twitter is (pout) “a fun and gratifying place to have thoughtful, nuanced, productive conversations about politics.” But it’s in the long blogs that the real Urban emerges. And boy, are the blogs long. A Mycoplasma genitalium, Urban once infographicked, measures 250 nanometers. This is also, incidentally, the average size of the scroll bar at the edge of each interminable Wait But Why post. Several of these blogs are written as alternative history: “You Won’t Believe My Morning,” for instance, argues that the coronavirus was created by the tiny inhabitants of a sub-atomic world similar to ours who wanted to give us a common enemy to defeat. Others cast Urban as a kind of illustrated Jordan Peterson, dispensing advice on life and love in a cruel world. “How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You)” confronts readers with a critical and often overlooked question in the realm of career management: are you still in Denial Prison grasping for your Non-Negotiable Bowl, or has your Yearning Octopus granted full access to your Want Box? “The Marriage Decision: Everything Forever or Nothing Ever Again?” offers tough love and a handy litmus test for any “brain person” who has become a “Paralyzed Pre-Marriage Relationship Person” (or PPMRP for short) and cannot decide whether to spend their life, in Urban’s tasty metaphor, eating a single grilled cheese or feasting at the fuck-buffet. It includes the following line, perhaps unique in the history of marriage counseling: “I’m not an expert on this, nor am I married.”
On political topics Urban’s hand is every bit as cocksure. Consider, for example, his parody transcript of the first Trump-Biden presidential debate, which hilariously has Trump saying at one point: “I want clean water and air. I’ve planted a biyyon trees.” (For those unfamiliar with the argot of New York’s outer boroughs, the joke here is that Trump pronounces the word “billion” as “biyyon.”) The post runs to 2,600 words, which is the equivalent of an epigram in Urbanland. It’s a mere appetizer, though, to the main meal: “A Sick Giant,” Urban’s Ezra Klein-endorsed magnum opus on contemporary American politics. In a prose style reminiscent of Ned Flanders, Urban declares: “The history of the U.S. has certainly been a roller coaster, with plenty of upward macro trends and some eras of negative progress too. I’m not enough of a U.S. historian to take a respectable crack at what the full graph of that roller coaster might look like.” What follows is a 16,000-word essay in which Urban does exactly that. The “U.S. Thought Pile,” Urban confidently if enigmatically asserts, has “gone from a steep hill to more of a flat mesa.” Politics, meanwhile, “is always a bit bottom-heavy on the Psych Spectrum.” The problem with a lot of Urban’s thinking on politics is not so much that it’s contestable as that it makes zero sense. It sounds, quite simply, insane. “Remembering to remember not only the Psych Spectrum tug-of-war but also Emergence Tower,” Urban writes in “A Sick Giant.” “Ants are cells in a giant colony ‘organism.’ Polar bears are individual organisms in themselves.” Okay man, whatever you say. As is the case with many of the self-styled intellectuals and contrarians of the tech world, Musk especially, Urban’s “political” arguments are so convoluted and unintelligible that it’s virtually impossible to refute them. The rhetorical strategy here is not persuasion but exhaustion: Urban does not seek to convince us but outlast us, one inscrutable biological metaphor, Concept Or Personality Type Strung Out Over Several Words And Capitalized For Some Reason, basic fact expressed through 15 different infographics, and 25,000-word blog post at a time.
To the rare extent that a coherent historical narrative ever emerges from Urban’s political writing, it is invariably both superficial and wrong. Urban thinks the big problem in America today is polarization, and that responsibility for polarization lies with the left. “A Sick Giant” presents the story as one of legitimate retaliation by the Newt Gingrich-led 1990s GOP against naughty Democrats: “When Gingrich won his first election in 1978, the Democrats were starting their 25th straight year as the majority in Congress. During this long tenure, the Democrats didn’t always treat the Republicans so well. So Gingrich innovated.” Urban, unsurprisingly, was among the most ardent boosters of Musk’s now-notorious tweet illustrating the progress of polarization in the US since 2008.
In the mid-2010s a flood of gushing profiles hailed Urban as the savior of longform journalism, the man who showed there’s still a place for thoughtful, in-depth writing online. But like many in the content business he is, at heart, a dirty little engagement freak: Urban claimed his post about abortion was good, actually, because it got 15 times more likes than comments. It’s in this type of accounting – in the simple act of measurement rather than in politics or debate – that his real interest appears to lie. Urban takes a childlike delight in numbers and the relations between them, in the fact that some things are big and others are small. There’s nothing wrong with this on its own, of course. But as is the case with Musk, the obsession with scale and time, with pushing beyond the frontier of the planetary, serves a much more nefarious purpose: it becomes a justification for dismissing politics, questions of the public good, or whatever else is consuming humanity at any given moment in the early 21st century as cosmologically inconsequential.
Why bother getting steamed up about inequality or health care or voting rights when you consider that Genghis Khan was around ten lifetimes ago? Humans are so new! Your great-to-the-power-of-77 grandmother was friends with Jesus! None of this matters! This “just give it time and everything will work out” worldview is, of course, conservatism by another name, and it turns historical change into the work of great men possessed of unique, world-altering genius, rather than something to be debated and fought for collectively. Whenever the discourse turns feral, whatever the issue, Urban is always ready to jump into the fray and supply much-needed perspective by saying something like, “Hey guys! Did you realize that if everyone on earth was shrunk down to the size of a gnat and we all lived as densely as they do in Manila, the whole of humanity could fit on my dick???” (I made that line up, but my Yearning Octopus made me do it.) Urban believes that “modern democracies are a brand new idea, currently in beta testing” and that we should “criticize in private, praise in public,” which is another way of neutering the public sphere and leaving power in private hands. As the wealth of society’s richest 10 percent breaches the planet’s atmospheric limits, Urban invites the rest of us, stuck working our shitty jobs for peasant pay, to read his whimsical little bloggy woggies and focus on what matters in life, which is that a hydrogen atom is to a grape as a grape is to the earth. Yay!
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the stick figure philosopher’s return to the spotlight, almost a decade after he became the toast of the business press with posts like “Is the Man Saying Bar or Far? Depends on Which Clip You’re Looking At,” is that he genuinely believes he has something useful to add to political discourse in this country. The caning he received online for his recent tweets about polarization and abortion seemed to catch him by surprise (“I tried to make a neutral explainer. What do you object to?” he asked one critic), and the reason for his bewilderment soon became clear: Urban says he has been working on a book about “what’s going on in the US politically” for the past six years. Like so much else about the man’s career, the question this project prompts is just: why?
Aaron Timms is a writer in New York.