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Welcome to Memphis, Elon – and I’m sorry for what you’re about to encounter here

Published Jun 5th, 2024 5:26PM EDT
Elon Musk
Image: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

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If I was the richest man in the world, and I was looking to build the biggest supercomputer in the world, the city of Memphis wouldn’t even rank among my Top 100 list of choices. And I say that as someone who’s lived in the city for most of my life.

Elon Musk, though, apparently sees something that I don’t. His AI startup, xAI, is set to build what’s being described as the “Gigafactory of compute” here in the city, in an abandoned Electrolux facility, as part of what’s expected to be the largest capital investment by a new company in Memphis history. The centerpiece of the project is the development of the biggest supercomputer in the world, in a facility that will also be packed with thousands of advanced semiconductors used for both AI computing as well as the training of Grok, Elon’s saucy ChatGPT rival.

A significant economic development coup for my city, no doubt.

“This is the next generation of innovation. It shows that we are leaning into tech,” raved Memphis Mayor Paul Young about the announcement, the way politicians always rush to insert themselves into stories like this.

And also, Mr. Mayor, this announcement shows nothing of the sort.

The city of Memphis in no way deserves this project solely on our merits. The one and only plus in our column that I can see, as someone who’s both lived here for decades and spent a good chunk of my career as a journalist here: We hand out corporate welfare like it’s going out of style. Memphis can go toe-to-toe with any city basically anywhere when it comes to giving away tax incentives and whatever other goodies a new corporate arrival asks for.

But if it’s a decent quality of life, a well-educated workforce, solid infrastructure, and low crime that you’re looking for? Put it this way: The best use of Elon’s supercomputer would be to put it somewhere else, anywhere else, and let it offer suggestions for how to fix this city that basically exists indefinitely on the precipice of failure.

We have a district attorney whose soft-on-crime policies and progressive politics put him slightly to the left of an angry campus protester. For all of us who suffer through constant power outages and the general incompetence of our municipal utility, it sometimes feels like our electricity grid is held together by masking tape. Our Downtown is increasingly vacant and unsafe — so, of course, we promoted the 44-year-old who was in charge of overseeing it to the mayor’s office. This is a city with an abundance of low-wage jobs and a municipal school system that pays hundreds of people way too much money to keep producing a generally low-skilled workforce.

No, we are not leaning into tech — we are running full steam ahead into the warm embrace of anyone who doesn’t realize how mediocre our leadership is. Or the fact that this city is still reeling from a pandemic of mediocrity.

Honestly, the best thing for us would be for Elon to have as little to do as possible with Memphis and with this new project. At least if Elon sics his bulldog of a right-hand man, Jared Birchall, on us and tasks him with wading through the obligatory red tape and buffoonery that awaits at City Hall, there’s less of a chance of Elon feeling personally affronted by some slight and canceling the whole thing. One would think.

Honestly, I can’t wait to leave. Welcome to Memphis, Elon.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.