This essay, on the mystique of Elon Musk, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 20 November 2022, under the headline “Beware self-made ‘genius’ entrepreneurs promising the earth. Just look at Elon Musk”.
Trussonomics trashed within eight weeks. Donald Trump’s anointed candidates cut down in the US midterms. Sam Bankman-Fried, the poster boy of the crypto world, collapsing into bankruptcy. Elon Musk throwing Twitter into turmoil. The bursting of myths and the shredding of reputations seem to be the themes of the day.
Each of these cases is, of course, distinct and the root causes of each disaster different. There is a danger, too, in discussing these developments, of seeming to revel in failure. Too much of the debate about Musk and Twitter, especially, has mixed despair with schadenfreude. Yet, viewed collectively, these cases also tell us something deeper about our age and in particular about the ways in which we think about innovation and change.
Since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, Musk has emerged as the leading virtuoso of technological innovation. “His brilliance, his vision and the breadth of his ambition make him the one-man embodiment of the future,” fawned Fortune magazine in 2014.
The world seems to divide into Musk lovers and Musk haters, a cleavage that has become particularly acute since his acquisition of Twitter last month. For Musk supporters, the critics are little more than know-nothing dullards, attempting for political reasons to hack down a genius of the day. “It’s remarkable how many people who’ve never run any kind of company think they know how to run a tech company better than someone who’s run Tesla and SpaceX,” tweeted the computer scientist and venture capitalist Paul Graham.
Look more closely at Musk’s record, though, and the mystique begins to vanish. Musk was removed as CEO of each of the first companies he helped found: Zip2, an online business directory; X.com, an online bank; and PayPal, created by the merger of X.com with its much more successful competitor Confinity, co-founded by another Silicon Valley wannabe, Peter Thiel. Nevertheless, the sale of Zip2 netted Musk $22m (£18.5m) and the acquisition of PayPal by eBay $176m. He used that money to set up a series of other ventures, most notably the electric car company Tesla and SpaceX, which manufactures and launches spacecraft. Yet his record here, too, is hardly that of an entrepreneurial genius.
Tesla is today the world’s most valuable car company. It has, however, been plagued by a host of major problems, from fatal crashes to fines for alleged fraud to accusations of creative accounting. Tesla has also been accused of garnering more than $295m in green subsidies from the state of California for a battery-swapping technology that was never made available to customers.
SpaceX nearly folded in 2008 before a last-minute $1.6bn contract from Nasa. Before that contract, Musk acknowledges, “we were running on fumes”. His projects were so reliant on public money for survival that in the days before he discovered the necessity of voting Republican to provide “balance” to American politics, conservatives derided the degree of state support for his ventures.
The icon of the self-made entrepreneur of genius has survived only because of fabulous state subsidies. Nor is it just public money that Musk arrogates. According to his biographer Ashlee Vance, Musk constantly appropriates for himself the credit for the work of his engineers and programmers. “I don’t really have a business plan,” he has boasted, never letting, in the words of Vance, “the fact that he knew very little about [an] industry’s nuances bother him”.
Musk’s real genius is in creating an aura around himself, of making vast promises and getting people to believe that he can deliver. Sometimes he does deliver; many times he does not. It is an approach, however, that yields dividends in an age in which people yearn for the visionary, without particularly scrutinising the vision, who will on the disrupter without necessarily caring what the disruption will be.
It’s the approach that allowed figures such as Elizabeth Holmes, last week jailed for 11 years for marketing a seemingly miraculous but in reality fake blood-testing system, and Bankman-Fried, whose cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed earlier this month, to win acclaim and adulation from investors, politicians and pundits.
Before he finally bought Twitter, Musk was sued by the social media platform for seemingly backing out of the deal. As part of the litigation, a huge document of emails and text messages, sent and received by Musk, was made public by the court. What they reveal is a world of very rich people who, for all their self-mythologising, are defined largely by the shallowness of their understanding and their use of their wealth to insulate themselves from having to think too closely about what they might be investing in or what change might entail. “Solve free speech,” Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of the publisher Axel Springer, tells Musk in his “#Gameplan” for Twitter, as if to state it is to solve it.
“I’m very sceptical of books,” Bankman-Fried claimed in an interview in September (a flattering piece that since the collapse of FTX seems to have been deleted by Sequoia website). “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that.” He added that “if you wrote a book, you fucked up and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post”.
I doubt Bankman-Fried has never read a book and I doubt whether reading a book would have helped save FTX from bankruptcy. But it is the kind of flaunting of ignorance, the parading of shallowness, that in certain circles now passes for profundity.
Not just in technology or business but in politics too, we can see the yearning for the visionary who promises the world so long as you don’t look too closely at the small print, and the creation of politicians, from Trump to Truss, who come to believe in their own fantasies. It is an age of growing support, especially among the young, for authoritarian leaders and “strongman” politics, the inevitable product of disenchantment with democracy and of a lack of faith in traditional agencies of change.
There is a danger in all this that, as the self-proclaimed titans and saviours tumble, what becomes nurtured is a cynicism about change and innovation. The problem is not having a transformative vision about the future, whether in technology or in politics. It is the shallowness and lack of seriousness of those who today present themselves as messiahs.