Who Is Elon Musk?
The richest man in the world has been getting a lot of extra attention lately by acting like a Twitter troll, which is interesting because he is supposedly about to buy Twitter—though he is now characteristically casting doubt on the deal. (My favorite part of Musk’s Twitter feed is watching him pick up, one by one, all the obsessions the typical extremely online right-winger discovered ten years ago.)
I’ve been following Musk for a while, particularly five or six years ago when I was writing a lot about self-driving cars and other emerging technologies, which meant spending a lot of time keeping up with Musk’s latest pronouncements. He was a maddening figure, because one day he would do something amazing, like another perfect landing of a re-usable SpaceX rocket, and the next day he would say something that was ridiculous hype.
All of this prepared me for writing my latest piece at Discourse, in which I ask “Who Is Elon Musk?”
The form of the question seems appropriate because I long ago speculated that in the popular imagination, Musk is “a greenwashed Ayn Rand hero.” So I was amused recently to see someone describe the Twitter buyout story as “my new favorite Ayn Rand novel.”
Some of the elements of an Ayn Rand story are there: the maverick engineer who starts a visionary new enterprise, sets out to do what everyone else dismisses as impossible and proves all the doubters wrong. Except that this was “greenwashed,” given a gloss of environmental virtue by way of electric cars and solar panels. (Never mind the carbon footprint of a SpaceX rocket launch.) Musk was an Ayn Rand hero, but by using his powers to curb global warming, became the one swashbuckling industrialist enlightened “progressives” could acceptably cheer.
Yet there is something that’s doesn’t quite work in this comparison: Musk’s clear penchant for seeking public attention and notoriety….
Musk is more like an Ayn Rand hero as rewritten by Tom Wolfe, which better captures the carnival barker aspect of his personality.
Tom Wolfe loved the idea of America as a carnival, with himself as the ringmaster serving as a colorful and enthusiastic guide to the spectacle. He urged writers to find inspiration in the chaos of “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” Both in his reporting and in his fiction—and it’s hard to tell the difference between the two—Wolfe loved to depict flamboyant characters goaded by an obsession with status and attention. Elon Musk is a character straight out of that mold.
I then survey how this is reflected in Musk’s uneven technological track record and his weird obsession with yelling at people on Twitter when he could be out doing something real like launching rockets. But I conclude that this carnivalesque aspect of a capitalist economy is not entirely a bad thing: “as we have proved again and again, better a carnival than a closed bureaucratic establishment.”
Plus, check out this graph that came across in my research that sums up what Musk achieved with SpaceX.
The only thing I would add, for this audience, is that if Elon Musk is like an Ayn Rand character, he is more like a character from The Fountainhead than from Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas, her theme pushed her to sort her characters a little more uniformly. Those who built successful businesses are generally of the consistently first-handed mold of her main heroes, while the cronyists and parasites—the ones who get rich through government favors—are a bunch of whining, manipulative second-handers.
In The Fountainhead, by contrast, because her theme is more about art than commerce, she is free to give us characters like Gail Wynand—geniuses at business who are sent off the rails by the psychological and philosophical mess inside their heads. As the career of Elon Musk indicates, that is probably the more realistic of the two approaches.