Roland never wants to go anywhere— unless it involves a long plane ride. So I was so surprised a couple of weeks ago when he suggested we go to the Hammer Museum in Westwood. As it turned out, all but two galleries were closed, one showing portraits done by an Egyptian photographer and one with a kind of light-show. That’s a picture Roland took of me standing in front of it. I recall he named it “Inside HAL’s Brain.” The Hammer has a wonderful, informal Alice Waters restaurant but I was so pissed off that the permanent collection was closed— so no chance to see the paintings by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and René Magritte that they have.
But that wasn’t why Roland chose the Hammer. He fancies himself a tour guide— and, admittedly, he’s very good at it— and wanted to take me to see Elvis’ house, nearby in Trousdale Estates on Hillcrest Road. And guess what’s just a few houses up at the end of the street in a cul-de-sac? The immense fortress Elon Musk is semi-secretly building. So hideous. The other night I went to an event at an overly-opulent Beverly Hills estate. It was horrifying and all I could think about when I got home is that taxes of multimillionaires and billionaires are way too low. We should go back to a 90% marginal rate— say above $20 million— like we had in the 1940s. Especially for Elon Musk who recently sold 7 of his L.A. homes for around $130 million.
Over the weekend, Sarah Frier offered something I think we can all agree on— We don’t need another antihero. She had Musk in mind, the Musk in the authorized biography, Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson. “In Isaacson’s study of the world’s richest man,” she wrote, “the reader is consistently reminded that Musk is powerless over his own impulses. Musk cannot control his desperate need to stir up drama and urgency when things are going well, Isaacson explains. He fails to show any kind of remorse for the multiple instances of brutally insulting his subordinates or lovers. He gets stuck in what [girlfriend] Grimes has dubbed ‘demon mode’— an anger-induced unleashing of insults and demands, during which he resembles his father Errol, whom Isaacson describes as emotionally abusive.
Frier noted that Musk allowed Isaacson two years total access “Reading the book,” she wrote, “is like hearing what Musk’s many accomplishments and scandals would sound like from the perspective of his therapist, if he ever sought one out (rather than do that, he prefers to ‘take the pain,’ he says— though he has diagnosed himself at various moments as having Asperger’s syndrome or bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder). Choosing to use this access mostly for pop psychology may appeal to an American audience that loves a good antihero, but it’s a missed opportunity. Unlike the subjects of most of Isaacson’s other big biographies, including Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, Musk is still alive, his influence still growing. We don’t need to understand how he thinks and feels as much as we need to understand how he managed to amass so much power, and the broad societal impact of his choices— in short, how thoroughly this mercurial leader of six companies has become an architect of our future.”
The standard version is that Musk's entrepreneurial journey began with his own initiatives and investments and not with any family wealth. He co-founded Zip2 (acquired for $307 million from Compaq in 1999) and X.com (later PayPal which was acquired by eBay for $1.5billion) using his own resources and entrepreneurial vision. These early ventures provided him with capital and experience in the tech and business sectors. He used the proceeds from the sale of PayPal to start SpaceX in 2002 and Tesla the following year. Space X and Tesla have both received billions of dollars in government subsidies and contracts. Now he’s worth around $200 billion and may be the only person in the world richer than Vladimir Putin.
“What does it mean,” asked Frier, “that Musk can adjust a country’s internet access during a war? (The book only concludes that it makes him uncomfortable.) How should we feel about the fact that the man putting self-driving cars on our roads tells staff that most safety and legal requirements are ‘wrong and dumb’? How will Musk’s many business interests eventually, inevitably conflict? (At one point, Musk— a self-described champion of free speech— concedes that Twitter will have to be careful about how it moderates China-related content, because pissing off the government could threaten Tesla’s sales there. Isaacson doesn’t press further.)… Isaacson’s central question seems to be whether Musk could have achieved such greatness if he were less cruel and more humane. But this is no time for a retrospective.”
As readers of the book are asked to reflect on the drama of Musk’s past romantic dalliances, he is meeting with heads of state and negotiating behind closed doors. Last Monday, Musk convened with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; on Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister publicly called him the “unofficial president” of the United States. Also, Neuralink, Musk’s brain-implant start-up— mostly discussed in the book as the employer of one of the mothers of Musk's 11 known children— was given approval from an independent review board to begin recruiting participants for human trials. The book does have a few admiring pages on Neuralink’s technology, but doesn’t address a 2022 Reuters report that the company had killed an estimated 1,500 experimented-on animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs, and monkeys, since 2018. (Musk has said that the monkeys chosen for the experiments were already close to death; a gruesome Wired story published Wednesday reported otherwise.)
Isaacson seems to expect major further innovation from Musk— who is already sending civilians into space, running an influential social network, shaping the future of artificial-intelligence development, and reviving the electric-car market. How these developments might come about and what they will mean for humanity seems far more important to probe than Isaacson’s preferred focus on explaining Musk’s abusive, erratic, impetuous behavior.
In 2018, Musk called the man who rescued children in Thailand’s caves a “pedo guy,” which led to a defamation suit— a well-known story. A few weeks later, he claimed that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share, attracting the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Isaacson covers these events by diagnosing Musk as unstable during that period and, according to his brother, still getting over his tumultuous breakup with the actor Amber Heard. (Ah, the toxic-woman excuse.) He was also, according to his lawyer Alex Spiro, “an impulsive kid with a terrible Twitter habit.” Isaacson calls that assessment “true”— one of the many times he compares Musk, now 52, to a child in the book.
The people whose perspectives Isaacson seems to draw on most in the book are those whom Musk arranged for him to talk with. So the book’s biggest reveal may be the extent to which his loved ones and confidants distrust his ability to be calm and rational, and feel the need to work around him. A close friend, Antonio Gracias, once locked Musk’s phone in a hotel safe to keep him from tweeting; in the middle of the night, Musk got hotel security to open it.
All of this seems reminiscent of the ways Donald Trump’s inner circle executed his whims, justifying his behavior and managing their relationship with him, lest they be cut out from the action. Every one of Trump’s precedent-defying decisions during his presidency was picked apart by the media: What were his motivations? Is there a strategy here? Is he mentally fit to serve? Does he really mean what he’s tweeting? The simplest answer was often the correct one: The last person he talked to (or saw on Fox News) made him angry.
Musk is no Trump fan, according to Isaacson. But he’s the media’s new main character, just as capable of getting triggered and sparking shock waves through a tweet. That’s partially why Isaacson’s presentation of the World’s Most Powerful Victim is not all that revelatory for those who are paying attention: Musk exposes what he’s thinking at all hours of the day and night to his 157.6 million followers.
In Isaacson’s introduction to Elon Musk, he explains that the man is “not hardwired to have empathy.” Musk’s role as a visionary with a messianic passion seems to excuse this lack. The thinking goes like this: All of his demands for people to come solve a problem right now or you’re fired are bringing us one step closer to Mars travel, or the end of our dependence on oil, or the preservation of human consciousness itself. His comfort with skirting the law and cutting corners in product development also serves a higher purpose: Musk believes, and preaches in a mantra to employees at all of his companies, that “the only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”
By presenting Musk’s mindset as fully formed and his behavior as unalterable, Isaacson’s book doesn’t give us many tools for the future— besides, perhaps, being able to rank the next Musk blowup against a now well-documented history of such incidents. Instead of narrowing our critical lens to Musk’s brain, we need to widen it, in order to understand the consequences of his influence. Only then can we challenge him to do right by his power.