Sinking in: a assessment of the Elon Musk’s biography and his contradictory life

Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, has his fingers in lots of pies, none of them your normal 4 and Twenty – area exploration, electrical automobiles, AI and social media, amongst others.

He grew to become a world chief in area exploration when NASA had nearly vacated the sector, and his electrical automobile firm Tesla, headquartered within the gas-guzzling United States, has by far the largest market capitalisation of any automobile producer on the earth, but he has few formal {qualifications} in both area.

Assessment: Elon Musk: A Biography – Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)

Many see Musk as a Twenty first-century fool savant. Others, watching him scale back an vital social media platform – Twitter – to cyber-rubble, consider him merely as an fool. Possibly each are true, or perhaps different readings of his life are true. Aged 52, Musk definitely deserves a great, looking biography.

Walter Isaacson appears properly credentialed for the duty. He has written biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci which have gained awards or turn out to be bestsellers, or each.

Isaacson started his working life as a journalist. He spent greater than 20 years at Time in the course of the journal’s heyday, rising to turn out to be editor in 1996. Since then, he has been chief government of the CNN cable tv community, headed the Aspen Institute (a longstanding non-profit assume tank), turn out to be a professor of historical past at Tulane College, and completed varied jobs for each Republican and Democrat governments.

This yr he was awarded the Nationwide Humanities Medal by US President Joe Biden.

Isaacson’s advantage as a biographer is his reporter’s capacity to assemble monumental quantities of fabric and rapidly render it as a (usually) easy and readable account of a life bursting with dramatic occasions. His undertaking solely started in 2021 and covers occasions as much as House X’s unsuccessful Starship rocket launch in April 2023.

Musk made himself accessible for quite a few interviews. He gave Isaacson entry to locations and folks at key moments, similar to the acquisition of Twitter (now generally known as X), and recurrently emailed Isaacson at 3am together with his ideas – and thought bubbles.

Isaacson additionally interviewed 130 different individuals, and his labours have uncovered newsworthy info that has been broadly reported – and, in a single case, corrected – for the reason that guide’s publication.

As an illustration, Isaacson builds on earlier reporting by the Washington Submit to disclose the extent to which Musk’s Starlink satellite tv for pc community has been essential to the Ukrainian navy’s capacity to struggle Russia’s invasion, offering them with continued entry to the web on the battlefield after the Russians destroyed entry to different web providers. He exhibits how Musk was persuaded by the Russians to quickly lower off the Starlink entry after he believed their entreaties that any additional victories by Ukraine would provoke nuclear conflict.

The implications of those outstanding revelations have been examined by the ABC’s Matt Bevan in a current episode of his If You’re Listening podcast. However despite the fact that Isaacson revealed this info, he doesn’t pause to debate it in any element. That’s one of many shortcomings of this guide.

Lord of the Flies on steroids

Maybe seduced by Musk’s obvious candour or a writer’s stress to hurry to print, Isaacson accepts his topic’s phrases with out ample scepticism. As an illustration, Musk’s childhood experiences at a veldskool in Nineteen Seventies South Africa learn like Lord of the Flies on steroids. Bullying was the norm and kids had been inspired to struggle over meagre meals rations.

“Each few years, one of many children would die,” writes Isaacson.

Actually? Says who? Musk, apparently. Nobody from the college is listed within the supply notes, to substantiate or refute this account. All through the guide, Musk comes off as a shameless self-dramatiser, however that doesn’t imply his biographer ought to succumb to it.

Isaacson is an adherent of the “grand man” college of historical past. He has written just one biography of a lady – the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna. He’s far much less involved in, or snug with, the function buildings and methods play in shaping occasions.

Elon Musk book

Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography

As Jill Lepore identified within the New Yorker, Isaacson additionally has “an government’s affinity for the C-suite”, which means he pays little consideration to the individuals who work for Musk or the affect of his actions on their lives.

The core query driving the biography is: has Elon Musk needed to be such an “asshole” (Isaacson’s time period) to attain what he has? Isaacson acknowledges it’s a lot the identical query he requested about Steve Jobs in his earlier biography of the Apple cofounder.

I misplaced depend of the instances the query, or a variation of it, was posed in the course of the guide’s 670 pages, however in traditional Time-style both-sidesing, Isaacson retains toggling between admonishing Musk for behaving like an “asshole” and admiring his capacity to get outcomes. He hardly ever if ever lifts his gaze past this binary, which suggests he ignores classes discovered from all these individuals, previous and current, who’ve achieved issues with out treating individuals appallingly.

It additionally means achievements are seen solely by the prism of 1 particular person’s actions. In a perceptive article in Vox, Constance Grady reminds us that Musk’s willpower to override security considerations in Tesla factories has led to employee harm charges equal to these in a slaughterhouse.

Grady permits that Isaacson stories the elevated harm charges, however notes his vagueness about precisely what sort of accidents occurred. Citing 2018 work by the Middle for Investigative Reporting, she reveals Tesla employees had been “sliced by equipment, crushed by forklifts, burned in electrical explosions, and sprayed with molten metallic”.

She additionally notes Isaacson downplaying the corporate’s expertise of COVID-19. Musk, a fervent libertarian allergic to any type of regulation, stored the manufacturing unit working in the course of the international pandemic. Isaacson says “the manufacturing unit skilled no critical COVID outbreak”, however Grady stories there have been 450 constructive instances.

From Twitter to X

Musk has an immense work ethic and expects everybody working for him to share it. By relentlessly questioning all assumptions – “the legal guidelines of physics are unbreakable; the whole lot else is a suggestion” – Musk and people working in his firms have certainly achieved so much.

I’m not actually in any place to evaluate Musk’s contribution to area exploration, AI or automobile manufacturing. However I’m prepared to simply accept the proof of Isaacson’s biography that they’ve been substantial – or, within the case of AI, promise to be.

I really feel higher capable of assess Musk’s contribution to social media. Right here, the proof offered by Isaacson and plenty of others is that Musk has broken, maybe irretrievably, Twitter – which he has renamed X, a letter of the alphabet to which he appears inordinately connected. Not solely has he named one in all his youngsters X, he waves away the letter’s different connotations.

In 1999, Musk cofounded the web financial institution He quickly discovered there was one other firm geared toward revolutionising on-line transactions, PayPal, based at across the identical time by Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and Luke Nosek.

The businesses merged in 2000, amid a traditional Silicon Valley phallus-waving battle over who had the thought first and who ought to take over whom. Levchin derided as a “seedy web site you wouldn’t speak about in well mannered firm”. “If you wish to take over the world’s monetary system,” Musk rebutted, “then X is the higher title.”

Musk misplaced the nomenclature conflict then, however realised his dream greater than 20 years later when he purchased Twitter for US$44 billion and will name it no matter he favored.

Impulsive, decided, clueless

The image of Musk that emerges in Isaacson’s guide is of an impulsive, completely decided one that is genuinely proficient as a physicist and businessperson, and genuinely clueless relating to human relationships. He both doesn’t get individuals or doesn’t care about them – or, extra possible, each.

Elon Musk

Talking bluntly: Musk smoking marijuana on Joe Rogan’s present in 2018

He dotes on his youngsters, particularly X (I suppose it is advisable to do one thing to compensate for naming a baby after a letter), but he’s able to breathtaking callousness and rank sexism. He whispered in his first spouse’s ear on their marriage ceremony evening that he was the alpha male within the relationship.

In 2021, Musk’s third spouse, Shivon Zilis, was pregnant with twins conceived with Musk by in-vitro fertilisation, and was in a hospital in Texas experiencing issues. On the identical time, and in the identical hospital, a lady serving as a surrogate for Musk and his ex-wife, Claire Boucher – higher generally known as the Canadian-born musician Grimes – was additionally experiencing being pregnant issues.

Zilis and Boucher, to not point out the surrogate, didn’t know in regards to the different’s being pregnant.

As Isaacson drolly feedback elsewhere within the guide:

Musk developed an aura that made him appear, at instances, like an alien, as if his Mars mission had been an aspiration to return house, and his want to construct humanoid robots had been a quest for kinship.

Musk is on report saying humanity is in peril of not having sufficient good individuals and it’s his obligation to populate the planet with as a lot of them as attainable. To this point, he has 11 youngsters. If that notion sounds disturbingly like eugenics, it isn’t one thing Isaacson displays on as he studiously paperwork Musk’s chaotic love life.

Nor does he delay his rat-a-tat-tat narration of each twist and switch in Musk’s dramatic life to query his topic’s burning want to make humanity a “multi-planet civilisation” by colonising Mars. Musk is obsessive about this objective as a result of he’s fearful in regards to the prospect of our planet being destroyed by the accelerating penalties of local weather change.

A laudable ambition, little question. However neither he nor his biographer stops to ask: if humanity fails so badly that it destroys this world, why would you assume it might make life higher on one other, already inhospitable planet?

The floor of Mars. NASA/JPL, Public area, through Wikimedia Commons

Startling achievements and infantile petulance

It’s straightforward and tempting to poke enjoyable at Musk. Maybe it is because his persona combines grandiose visions with arrested improvement, startling achievements with infantile petulance. His concept of weight-reduction plan is to pay money for the diabetes remedy Ozempic – the dieter’s drug du jour – start an intermittent fasting regime, then make his first meal of the day a bacon-and-cheese burger and sweet-potato fries topped with a cookie-dough ice-cream milkshake.

Or do you bear in mind how Musk responded in 2018 to a gentle rebuke of his frenetic want to play the hero rescuing youngsters trapped in a collapse Thailand with a purpose-built mini-craft? That’s proper, by labelling one of many precise rescuers a “pedo man”.

However it’s dangerously straightforward. Social media performs an vital function in fashionable society. No matter its advantages, and they’re many, the algorithms embedded in social media platforms – by their homeowners, let’s not overlook – neatly sidestep nuance and purpose in debate, turbo-charge battle and emotion, and play a task within the unfold of misinformation and disinformation.

Musk is now the proprietor of 1 such social media platform. However since shopping for Twitter final yr, he has not been capable of bend it to his will. His mistake – maybe deadly, based on Isaacson – seems to be that he sees it as a know-how firm, one thing he understands, when it’s actually an “promoting medium based mostly on human feelings and relationships”, one thing he doesn’t perceive.

Musk proclaims himself a free-speech advocate, however he has already displayed flagrant biases. He allowed Ye (previously Kanye West) to tweet anti-Semitic remarks. He tweeted a florid conspiracy idea in regards to the savage assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of the then speaker of the US Home of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. And he has asserted China’s repression of the Uyghurs was a difficulty that “had two sides” – maybe as a result of China was vital to his automobile firm, Tesla.

Musk has turn out to be obsessed by what he calls the “woke-mind virus”, which he believes is infecting social discourse. Regardless of the excesses and blind spots of these on the progressive facet of politics, Musk sees this virus virtually in every single place.

A longtime devotee of comics and science fiction, he has more and more given rein to his conspiratorial tendencies, as if he actually thinks The Matrix trilogy was a documentary sequence. In one in all his 3am tweets, Musk wrote: “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”.

As Isaacson trenchantly feedback:

It made little sense, wasn’t humorous, and managed, in simply 5 phrases, to mock transgender individuals, conjure up conspiracies in regards to the 81-year-old public well being official Anthony Fauci, scare off extra advertisers, and create a brand new handful of enemies who would now by no means purchase Tesla.

Nor does Musk’s perception in free speech prolong to the social media postings of Twitter workers or their feedback on inside Slack messaging. He trampled on the corporate’s inside tradition of wholesome dissent, peremptorily firing three dozen workers who had criticised the corporate.

His longstanding, largely profitable mantra of getting issues completed cheaply and rapidly, no matter impediments, lastly ran aground after he proposed reducing the corporate’s workforce by 75%.

Simply earlier than Christmas final yr he determined it was crucial to maneuver all the corporate’s servers from Sacramento to Oregon as a means of saving cash. Bear in mind how presidential aspirant Ron De Santis’ huge dwell interview on X went horribly flawed earlier this yr? That was due to issues with the servers, writes Isaacson.

Extra not too long ago, the drastic reducing of the positioning’s moderators led to floods of misinformation following the assault on Israel by Hamas on October 7.

Musk has additionally begun to understand that promoting, which beforehand comprised 90% of Twitter’s income, is vulnerable to public perceptions. It fell by greater than half within the first six months of Musk’s possession, based on Isaacson.

Geopolitical implications

As talked about earlier, Musk has discovered himself taking part in a key function in a conflict with geopolitical implications.

Instantly earlier than invading Ukraine in early 2022, Russia launched a malware assault that crippled the US satellite tv for pc firm offering web service to Ukraine. Its deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, reached out to Musk through Twitter, interesting for assist.

Musk did, donating US$80 million price of know-how to Ukrainian forces, together with Starlink’s photo voltaic and battery kits, which had been capable of defeat Russian efforts to jam them.

Musk’s intervention was broadly praised, however in September 2022, when the Ukrainians deliberate to make use of Starlink to information a drone assault on the Russian naval fleet at Sevastopol in Crimea, he refused to assist. He had been listening to the Russian ambassador, who had reached out to him a couple of weeks earlier than.

Russia had annexed Crimea in 2014 and the ambassador persuaded him not solely of Russia’s inalienable proper to Crimea, however of the prospect of nuclear conflict if the Ukrainians had been allowed to try to retake it. He instructed Isaacson he had been finding out overseas coverage and navy historical past: “Musk defined to me the main points of Russian regulation and doctrine that decreed such a response.”

Has know-how put a person non-public citizen in such a place earlier than?

Particular person firms, such because the Krupp manufacturing firm, notoriously performed an vital function in arming Nazi Germany. Particular person media proprietors, similar to Rupert Murdoch, have performed a task in encouraging conflict, as when Murdoch’s media retailers overwhelmingly editorialised in favour of the US invading Iraq in 2003.

The mix of latest international communication applied sciences and a long time of unwillingness by governments to seek out methods to manage them adequately has now put one unelected citizen, as childishly impulsive as he’s good, in a uncommon place.

The query is just not merely, is he geared up to make such choices, however how and why has it come to this?The Conversation

This text is republished from The Dialog below a Inventive Commons license. Learn the authentic article.

Scroll to Top