It is a testament to Elon Musk’s genius that it transcends how fantastically immature he is.
Musk is knocking on the door of 50 but released a song called ‘RIP Harambe’ that included the lyrics, ‘RIP Harambe/Sippin’ on that Bombay/We thinkin’ about you/Amen, amen.’ At this point, Harambe, and the Harambe meme, had been dead for almost three years. Maybe that was the point.
When Musk’s contribution to the rescue of Thai schoolkids from waterlogged caves was insulted by British diver Vernon Unsworth, Musk summoned up all the wisdom of his five decades on Earth and called him ‘pedo guy’. He appears to love nothing more than uploading memes involving anime characters to Twitter. Admit it, if this man was your 49-year-old uncle you would be quietly disinviting him from Christmas dinner.
Still, Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company, who briefly ascended to the status of the world’s richest man in early 2021, is fantastically popular. He has almost 45 million Twitter followers, and his followers are passionate, dedicated fans. His promotion of ‘dogecoin’, a conspicuously phony crypto-currency, helped drive its value up by 800 percent.
Musk’s juvenile and erratic behavior is part of what makes him so widely loved. When Mark Zuckerberg hangs out with normal people, or Jeff Bezos takes selfies with pop stars, it makes them look eerily like aliens trying to blend in with the human race. Imagining a personality cult based around Zuckerberg or Bezos, never mind Bill Gates, is like imagining a national flag colored beige. Musk at least appears to have a personality, even if it can be an aggravating one.
Cleverly timed appearances in popular culture have burnished Musk’s public image. He appeared in an embarrassingly sycophantic episode of The Simpsons, in which Lisa announced him to be ‘the world’s greatest inventor’. ‘It’s like some Simpsons writers met Musk at a TED talk, got smitten when they found out Musk was a fan, and turned an episode of the show over to him,’ said Dennis Perkins of AV Club.
Then there was the interview on The Joe Rogan Experience. Tesla stocks plummeted after Musk appeared to smoke weed on the show. Perhaps I am wrong but I suspect that despite the short-term hit, the attention that it earned Musk and his companies did them no harm in the long run.
Even if you find the man’s antics irritating you have to appreciate his far-sightedness and his ambition. Genius has its privileges. Isaac Newton was an asshole. Nikola Tesla was an oddball. Wernher von Braun made rockets for the Nazis. When you get within a mile of that level of talent, character becomes less important than work.
Musk invested in online payment processing and electric vehicles well before they were the subject of mainstream interest – and he was talking about AI risk and solar energy long before they were the modish objects of discussion that they are today. Tesla’s market value, as unstable as it is, passed those of General Motors and Ford combined in 2020. Musk’s work is performed in concert with others, of course, but you cannot achieve all that he has by virtue of being very rich and extremely online. It is easy and sometimes legitimate for commentators to criticize him but dismissing him entirely would raise the awkward question of what someone has accomplished to be so smug.
The more interesting question is how clearly and consistently Musk will maintain his far-sightedness. His empire, after all, is built less on what his companies have done than what they have the potential to do. Cheap shots about recent explosions of unmanned SpaceX rockets would be unwarranted. ‘Failure is an option,’ Musk once said, ‘If you are not failing, you are not innovating.’ True enough. How else can you learn? He could have been quoting Samuel Beckett from ‘Worstward Ho!’: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Musk appears to be a fan of Beckett. He named the first machine of his charmingly quixotic tunnel construction venture The Boring Company ‘Godot’ after Beckett’s most famous play. Perhaps he knows that, as others have written, the moneyed classes’ memeification of Beckett’s ‘failure’ quote obscures the overall tenor of the Musk’s projects. ‘Worstward Ho!’, as you can probably discern from the title, is not a tribute to human resilience but a kind of satire of our ‘vain longing’ for transcendence in the face of the void.
Musk’s aspirations are ambitious, and ambitiously diverse, encompassing human space travel to Mars, the implantation of brain-computer interfaces, the development of friendly artificial intelligences and the small matter of pioneering electric cars. The future of these projects is based, in a technological and business sense, to an eerie extent on Musk’s judgement. Everyone made bad calls over COVID, and Musk’s lockdown skepticism may be justified, but if he wants to succeed even on his own terms he will have to restrain the overconfidence that led him to insist that US cases would have disappeared by May of 2020.
If his admirers want him to succeed, as well, some of them could develop a more critical attitude – in the sense of skepticism rather than hostility. One more reason for his popularity is that people want to feel optimistic that someone with Tony Starkesque smarts is taking care of the future. That could inspire complacence.
I am painfully aware of the irony of an opinion columnist telling anyone to be humble and to question themselves. But it remains true that a man with fantastic ambition is assuming fantastic responsibility. You can and should believe in your potential for both triumph and error.