Elon Musk Is the Messy Hero of Our Messy Age – DNyuz

Elon Musk Is the Messy Hero of Our Messy Age

In the midst of a noisy and chaotic culture, one thing is increasingly clear: We live in an age of fleeting fame. Anyone can amass enormous followings on social media, but very few influencers of yesterday (in this case, almost literally) remain influencers of today. That is true not just of the passing social media star, but even of icons. And even if they do remain at center stage, they are likely to confront strong backlash. We live in an unheroic age, or at least an age where we seek to knock our heroes off the pedestals we recently erected.

That is palpably the case for Elon Musk. The South African-born Musk, only 52 years old, has lived a lifetime of this cycle—from hero to tarnished icon—and all in less than 15 years. His story is by no means done, but he has already received more attention, both good and bad, than most will, and far more wealth than all but a few ever could. There’s no question that he is worthy subject of a biography, titled simply Elon Musk and published in September, from one of the premier biographers of our days, Walter Isaacson.

There is, however, a question of whether, for all his fame and cultural impact, Musk the man is nearly as compelling as the Musk the icon.

Since the mid-2000s, Musk’s profile has risen almost as vertiginously as one of his SpaceX rockets. He was anointed “person of the year” by Time magazine in 2021, which may not carry its former cache but is still a symbol of standing globally. For the past two years, he has been in an unofficial “who is the world’s richest man” competition with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also has a competing rocket company, which along with a space venture led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson has led to a derisive dismissal of these private space companies as billionaire boys and their toys.

Yet SpaceX, a still-private company that as recently as July was worth an estimated nearly $150 billion, is anything but a lark. It has succeeded in designing and launching a re-usable rocket. It has become a primary subcontractor for NASA and the U.S. federal government, and as Isaacson shows repeatedly in his book, has been able to lower costs dramatically and innovate with a speed that NASA has been unable to match since the 1960s. And that is only one of Musk’s companies.

Isaacson has become a genius biographer, in both senses: He has written a series of brilliant books about brilliant people who have shaped the world, from Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs and Jennifer Doudna. Musk is both a natural next subject and yet not.

To write the book, Isaacson ensconced himself in Musk’s world for two years, and it’s clear that that proximity to Musk did not make it easier to write about him. Musk, Isaacson has observed in interviews since the book’s publication, is “driven by demons,” is a “control freak” and can be “cold and brutal.” At the same time, Isaacson is acutely aware that you don’t get to simplify a human being à la carte. “It can be hard to remove the dark [strands],” he writes, “without unraveling the whole cloth.”

As Isaacson found with Jobs, the demons are part of the mix. And in the case of Musk, they may be the crucial ingredient, without which there’d be none of the relentless drive that has produced Tesla, SpaceX, the satellite internet service StarLink (which helped save the Ukrainians in the early days of the Russian invasion), Neuralink, the Optimus robot, and now artificial intelligence venture X.AI. There would also have never been the purchase of Twitter (now called X) in late 2022, which more than any single thing has deeply undermined Musk’s image as a risk-taker whose risks were transformative.

The story of Twitter is hardly over, but the first year of Musk’s ownership has been brutal in terms of public relations. It may well be that Twitter was bloated with thousands of employees who were not strictly needed for maintaining and updating the platform, but the way that Musk purged thousands of them, with little regard for what they did or who they were, is emblematic of his persona and his worldview. As he said to Isaacson after harshly critiquing a SpaceX engineer, “Physics does not care about hurt feelings. It cares about whether you got the rocket right.”

Musk applies that philosophy to his employees: It doesn’t matter who they are; it matters what they do and whether they can do it. And if they can’t, they get fired.

To many, it seemed more an act of vanity and ego to buy Twitter than a continuation of a vision to transform the lived human experience. Twitter was certainly a different type of venture from those that marked his earlier years. Having been part of the cohort that created PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX and acquired control of Tesla in an attempt to colonize Mars and commodify self-driving electric cars. Those were heady ambitions. Life, Musk felt, was not just about solving problems: “It also had to be about pursuing great dreams.” And what dreams are greater than space exploration and the next generation of transformative technologies and artificial intelligence?

Musk also seems to have understood, in some liminal way, that risk is embedded in any major innovation. Musk takes risks that few would, and he seems driven to do so. There is much in Isaacson’s book about Musk’s childhood, his difficult father, and how he was thus shaped. Of course, many millions (and maybe even billions) of us humans have difficult upbringings, which cannot alone be a cause of future greatness or future failure. Musk appears to be a unique combination of relentless risk-taking on the one hand and obsessive attention to detail on the other. It’s why he could commodify the production of electric vehicles and the parts as well, along with breaking out of the decades-long ruts that had characterized rocket development before SpaceX.

Driving and space travel share a crucial commonality: If you get them wrong, you die. They offer mortal risks that Twitter just doesn’t. Musk is willing to gamble but he is not reckless when it comes to his core businesses. His attention to detail is extraordinary. He has said that he will not ask anyone who works for him to do something that he would not, and so he expects people to live and sleep their work and inhale every variable. He does the same, and that has given him an unusual sense for when not to take no for an answer.

It also, surprisingly, has allowed him to pull back from automating everything. He is simultaneously ruthless in how he handles the highly skilled people who work at his companies and deeply respectful of the human element as the difference maker in whether something functions or doesn’t. At multiple junctures, especially at SpaceX and Tesla, he has demanded that something that had been automated be de-automated and returned to human control and production because only humans can do certain things. For someone who is seen as an avatar of technology, Musk has shown a genius for making sure humans remain at the center.

The purchase of Twitter has not, to date, gone well in the court of public opinion or for the company’s current value. Musk paid $44 billion for it in 2022, and barely a year later its most recent valuation puts it at $19 billion, and that may be generous. To many, the acquisition seemed to represent not a sound business choice but rather a puerile desire to own his personal public square-cum-platform. Yes, Isaacson acknowledges that Musk believed that “having a digital public square that’s inclusive and trusted” is imperative in a world where technological change depends on the open flow of ideas. But day-to-day, between offhand comments and his unfiltered tweets, Musk often struck Isaacson as a bored tech titan prone to bizarre rants against adversaries real and invented.

Part of the challenge of characterizing events as they are unfolding is that there’s lots of noise that may or may not matter in the greater scheme of things.  It’s fascinating to peer over Isaacson’s shoulder as he peers over Elon’s, but what will matter in 10 years is whether Twitter/X actually does become a more functional digital square that manages to connect people globally to both ideas and commerce. Musk has made a hash of it in the first year, but this story is in its early days; and Musk’s past legacy suggests that it would be a mistake to assume that it’s destined for failure.

Isaacson’s Musk is a difficult person, with a chaotic personal life and a fair degree of emotional dysfunction. It raises the chronic question of whether we have collectively structured a society where only those obsessively driven—and often to a degree that is unquestionably emotionally unbalanced—can produce meaningful change.

For every Musk, there are legions of people of equal ambition who live unrequited lives because luck and fate do not break their way. And for every Musk, there are legions of more balanced souls, who treat those around them with kindness and compassion and do not rise to the level of transformative disruptors nor wish to.

A contemporary biography of Musk cannot help but be a first draft of history. It will be instructive to see how later generations look back at Musk, whether he will prove to be a meteor who burned bright briefly and then faded or whether he set something in motion with his various companies that led to the next wave of human change, in how we get from point A to B, whether by car, or by rocket, or through our neural networks.

For now, Musk is a Rorschach test and an uncertainty principle, who is very much a kaleidoscope and subject to the eye of the beholder. He is all that is good in technology and all that is flawed. He is some ineluctable mix of our best and worst, and in that sense, he is very much the messy hero of our very messy age.

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