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Saturday, July 13, 2024

How the Elon Musk biography exposes Walter Isaacson

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The difficulty started days earlier than the biography was even printed.

CNN had a narrative summarizing an excerpt of Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk that claimed Musk had shut down SpaceX’s satellite tv for pc community, Starlink, to stop a “Ukrainian sneak assault” on the Russian navy. The Washington Publish adopted it up, publishing the excerpt the place Isaacson claimed Musk had basically shut down a navy offensive on a private whim.

This reporting didn’t move the scent take a look at to me, and I said so at the time; I puzzled concerning the sourcing. One of many issues that anybody masking Elon Musk for lengthy sufficient has to reckon with is that he loves to inform hilarious lies. As an example:

The factor you be taught after some time on the Musk beat is that his most self-aggrandizing statements normally bear the least resemblance to actuality. Musk says a number of stuff! A few of it’s exaggeration, and a few isn’t true in any respect.

Isaacson’s sweeping 670-page biography has an intense quantity of entry to the person at its heart. The issue is the person is Elon Musk, a man who in 2011 promised to get us to space in just three years. In actuality, the primary SpaceX crew launched into orbit virtually a decade later. Positive, entry is the enchantment of the biography — however entry provides Musk will get a lot of possibilities to promote his personal mythology.

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I wished to know if Isaacson had executed his homework

So once I opened the Musk biography, I wished to know if Isaacson had executed his homework. The very first thing I did was flip to the again, the place the writer lists his sources for the Ukraine factor. They’re: interviews with Musk, Gwynne Shotwell, and Jared Birchall (Musk’s physique man); emails from Lauren Dreyer; and textual content messages from Mykhailo Fedorov, “offered by Elon Musk.” Different sources are information articles, certainly one of which was about SpaceX curbing Ukraine’s use of drones. Crucially, although, this text says nothing about Ukrainian submarines — as a substitute, it’s primarily about aerial automobiles.

 In his e book, Isaacson writes:

All through the night and into the evening, he [Musk] personally took cost of the scenario. Permitting using Starlink for the assault, he concluded, could possibly be a catastrophe for the world. So he secretly informed his engineers to show off protection inside 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. Consequently, when the Ukrainian drone subs bought close to the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they misplaced connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.

That last sentence is arresting, isn’t it? I might discover no assist for it in any of the information articles that Isaacson listed as sources for this chapter. There is a Financial Times story that confirms some Starlink outages during a Ukrainian push in opposition to the Russians, nevertheless it says nothing about drone subs or washing ashore harmlessly. A New York Occasions article confirms Musk doesn’t need Starlink operating drones however says nothing about drone subs.

What might the potential supply for this sentence be? Within the following paragraph, Isaacson quotes textual content messages from Fedorov, who had “secretly shared with him [Musk] the small print of how the drone subs have been essential” to the Ukrainians. Not very secret now, I suppose.

Musk disputed Isaacson’s account on Twitter: “SpaceX didn’t deactivate something,” he stated. “There was an emergency request from authorities authorities to activate Starlink all the best way to Sevastopol,” he went on, though he did not specify which government’s authorities. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX can be explicitly complicit in a significant act of struggle and battle escalation.”

Isaacson caved immediately:

To make clear on the Starlink problem: the Ukrainians THOUGHT protection was enabled all the best way to Crimea, nevertheless it was not. They requested Musk to allow it for his or her drone sub assault on the Russian fleet. Musk didn’t allow it, as a result of he thought, in all probability accurately, that may trigger a significant struggle.

Super assertion. “To make clear” obfuscates what’s occurring: is Isaacson saying his e book is improper? Absolutely that’s what this implies since “future editions will be updated” to correct it. The Publish corrected its excerpt, anyway. “The Ukrainians thought” — which Ukrainians, and the way did Isaacson know their considering? In his listed sources, we’ve got solely the textual content messages of 1 Ukrainian, who, for diplomatic functions, could also be obscuring what he is aware of. “They requested Musk to allow it for his or her drone assault” is a completely completely different account than the one given within the e book, which says Musk shut off current protection quite than approving prolonged protection; what might presumably be the supply right here? And naturally, the final sentence — “Musk didn’t allow it as a result of he thought, in all probability accurately, that may trigger a significant struggle” — is easy boot-licking.

We’re coping with not one however two unreliable narrators: Musk and Isaacson himself

Isaacson “clarified” additional in one other tweet. ”Primarily based on my conversations with Musk, I mistakenly thought the coverage to not enable Starlink for use for an assault on Crimea had been first selected the evening of the Ukrainian tried sneak assault that evening,” he wrote on Twitter. “He now says that the coverage had been carried out earlier, however the Ukrainians didn’t comprehend it, and that evening he merely reaffirmed the coverage.”

There was a approach to discover out what’s true right here, and it will have been to interview extra sources, each Ukrainian and US navy ones. Isaacson selected to not. Musk’s phrase was ok for him — and so, when Musk contested the characterization, Isaacson rolled over.

I’m lingering right here as a result of it highlights a significant downside with Isaacson’s biography. We’re coping with not one however two unreliable narrators: Musk and Isaacson himself. In spite of everything, simply earlier than issuing his clarification, Isaacson had been touting a walk through the SpaceX factory with CBS’s David Pogue to advertise his e book. 

Isaacson writes a particular sort of biography. There may be even a “genius” boxed set of his biographies that features Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and — considerably incongruously — Steve Jobs. 

One approach to preserve Musk’s fable intact is solely to not examine issues out

Having made a sample of writing biographies of necessary males — and one necessary lady, Jennifer Doudna of CRISPR fame — Isaacson is now within the place of a sort of kingmaker. To maintain up his sample, everybody he writes about implicitly is branded a genius. 

One approach to preserve Musk’s fable intact is solely to not examine issues out. Throughout the first three paragraphs of the e book, Isaacson describes a wilderness survival camp Musk attended, the place “each few years, one of many youngsters would die.” It is a hanging declare! I flipped to the “notes” part to see if Isaacson had interviewed any of Musk’s schoolmates. He hadn’t. There aren’t any information articles backing it up, both. So what’s the supply? Presumably a number of of the Musks — Elon is quoted straight as saying the advisors informed him to not die like one other child in a earlier yr. 

Arguably all the Musk household has an curiosity in presenting Elon Musk as preternaturally robust and likewise as utilizing his robust childhood as an excuse for his persevering with unhealthy conduct. There are some bizarre selections in consequence.

Isaacson writes that Musk’s “blood boiled if anybody falsely implied he had succeeded due to inherited wealth or claimed he didn’t should be referred to as a founding father of one of many corporations he helped begin.” The bolding on “falsely” is mine as a result of Isaacson had earlier detailed Errol Musk, Elon’s father, giving Elon and Kimbal Musk “$28,000 plus a beat-up automotive he purchased for $500” to assist them begin Zip2. Maye, Elon’s mom, contributed one other $10,000 and “allow them to use her bank card as a result of that they had not been authorised for one.” Actually Musk bought began with household cash. Is the issue concerning the that means of “inherited wealth”?

Skipping how dependent Musk is on Texas is a howler

Right here’s one other unusual selection. “Through the years, one criticism of Tesla has been that the corporate was ‘bailed out’ or ‘backed’ by the federal government in 2009.” This isn’t fairly proper. Through the years, the criticism has been that Tesla has gotten a great deal of assistance from state, federal, and local governments, generally screwing them within the course of, as demonstrated by the Buffalo Gigafactory. By one estimate, Tesla alone has gotten greater than $3 billion in loans and subsidies from state and local governments. Whereas Isaacson provides an in depth accounting of Tesla’s $465 million in loans from a DOE program, he skips all the remainder of the assists Musk has gotten over time — goodies which have inspired jealousy from the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Then there’s this description of Neuralink, Musk’s mind implant firm: “The thought for Neuralink was impressed by science fiction, most notably the Tradition space-travel novels by Iain Banks.” Possibly so, however there’s precise science truth: brain-machine interfaces had been implanted in humans as early as 2006, one thing Isaacson doesn’t point out. Musk definitely didn’t provide you with the thought; brain-machine interfaces already existed. Nor does Isaacson mention the gruesome allegations about Neuralink’s test subjects.

However I need to get to the true massive one: Musk’s politics. It is a recurring theme for Isaacson, and his perspective is bewildering.

Musk’s dependence on taxpayer largess performs a job right here; skipping how dependent Musk is on Texas is a howler. Musk has often donated in ways that will benefit him in Texas, the place he has a considerable operation. So writing a sentence like “Musk has by no means been very political” when Musk has donated more than $1 million to politicians within the final 20 years is odd.

Now, I personally view Musk as a political nihilist, prepared to say no matter he must say to get taxpayer cash. But it surely’s plain that he’s spent a long time palling round with libertarian-to-far-right sorts (most famously Peter Thiel and David Sacks, who’s inexplicably described as “not rigidly partisan” regardless of coauthoring a noxious e book with Thiel that, amongst different issues, suggested date rape wasn’t real). 

If you realize these particulars, Musk appears to be like like a dolt

These long-standing right-wing ties belie the notion superior by Isaacson that the true reason behind Musk’s right-wing pivot is his daughter, Jenna; I discovered these sections of the e book tough to learn, as they basically quantity to sufferer blaming. In Isaacson’s telling, “Jenna’s anger made Musk delicate to the backlash in opposition to billionaires.” She stopped talking to her father in 2020 and transitioned with out telling him. 

I ponder, although Isaacson doesn’t, if she didn’t inform him as a result of she was afraid to. Musk discovered from a member of his safety element — and it’s revealing to me that not one of the individuals round Musk who knew, together with Grimes, wished to interrupt the information. It’s commonplace for queer individuals to cover from dad and mom they believe will reject them; there’s a purpose many homosexual and trans individuals have “found families.” 

When Musk tweets, “Take the crimson tablet,” in 2020, Isaacson notes that it’s a reference to The Matrix however doesn’t add that The Matrix is a film made by two individuals who later got here out as trans. In actual fact, The Matrix itself is a trans story — within the ’90s, prescription estrogen was literally a red pill. Isaacson contains Ivanka Trump’s reply (“Taken!”) however not that of Matrix creator Lilly Wachowski: “Fuck both of you.” If you realize these particulars, Musk appears to be like like a dolt — type of an issue for a biographer attempting to write down a Nice Man e book.

Equally, Isaacson falls flat on racial points — the existence of apartheid in Musk’s youth is barely talked about. It’s an odd omission; Musk’s maternal grandfather, Joshua Haldeman. was the chair of the nationwide council of the Social Credit score Occasion, which was brazenly antisemitic. Haldeman’s beliefs are characterised by Isaacson as “quirky conservative populist views,” which… led him to immigrate to Pretoria, South Africa, which was dominated by the racist apartheid regime. 

Justine Musk and Amber Heard are each disparaged

One of many different issues Isaacson doesn’t point out is the alleged racist working conditions at Tesla’s Fremont factory. Just lately, a former Tesla employee was awarded millions for racist abuse at work. This does appear related to Musk’s politics.

Additionally related: how Isaacson treats Musk’s exes. Justine Musk and Amber Heard are each disparaged. Of Justine Musk, Elon’s mom stated, “She has no redeeming function.” Kimbal Musk, Elon’s brother and generally enterprise companion, is quoted as saying, “That is the improper individual for you.” We don’t hear Justine’s aspect of the story, besides through {a magazine} article she printed throughout her divorce, “I Was a Starter Wife.” It makes me marvel: is Justine underneath a non-disclosure settlement? Did she signal one thing with a non-disparagement clause, like Tesla founder Martin Eberhard? Isaacson spoke to her — so why did she don’t have anything to say?

Equally, Amber Heard is described by Kimbal as “so poisonous,” by Grimes as “chaotic evil,” and by Musk’s chief of employees as “the Joker in Batman… She thrives on destabilizing every part.” Heard is even blamed for Musk’s misbehavior — together with “funding secured” in 2018. Even so, Heard’s response is muted sufficient (“I really like him very a lot,” she says. “Elon loves fireplace and generally it burns him.”) that I ponder if she, too, is NDA’d. By not even mentioning this risk, Isaacson’s story is inherently skewed.

Isaacson does have time for lots of Steve Jobs comparisons, which, after some time, start to really feel like product placement

The employees at Musk’s corporations, usually, don’t curiosity his biographer a lot. Isaacson begins describing the 2018 Fremont manufacturing push from Musk’s perspective: “Musk had come to appreciate that designing a very good manufacturing unit was like designing a very good microchip.” In the course of the manufacturing surge, Musk started strolling the ground, barking questions at employees, and “making selections on the fly.” He determined that security sensors have been “too delicate, tripping when there was no actual downside.” 

On this chapter, Isaacson cites tales the place rank-and-file employees complained about being pressured to take shortcuts and work 10-hour days. “There was some reality to the complaints,” Isaacson writes. “Tesla’s harm price was 30 p.c greater than the remainder of the business.” Depart apart the risible “some reality.” There’s a very apparent query that Isaacson had the entry to discover: how did Musk’s meddling with the protection sensors, the seat-of-the-pants fixes adjustments to the manufacturing course of, and basic “manufacturing hell” have an effect on that harm price? He selected to not. The accidents amongst Tesla’s employees aren’t talked about additional.

Isaacson does have time for lots of Steve Jobs comparisons, which, after some time, start to really feel like product placement for his different e book. Within the index, Jobs is listed as exhibiting up on 20 pages. You’d be forgiven for considering Jobs was an necessary a part of Musk’s rise, based mostly on the index alone.

It’s unattainable to flee the conclusion that Musk views everybody round him as disposable. The biography teems with mentions of Musk firing individuals on the spot, demanding to have issues his personal means even when it’s silly and costly, and being unable to tolerate even the slightest dissent. “When Elon will get upset, he lashes out, usually at junior individuals,” Jon McNeill, the previous president of Tesla, says. 

The later chapters aren’t very revealing

“You positively understand you’re a device getting used to attain this bigger goal and that’s nice,” says Lucas Hughes, who labored as a monetary analyst at SpaceX and was one of many junior individuals Musk lashed out at. “However generally instruments get worn down and he feels he can simply exchange that device.” Musk believes that “when individuals need to prioritize their consolation and leisure they need to depart,” Isaacson writes.

The later chapters aren’t very revealing. Isaacson is purchased in on Musk’s imaginative and prescient of AI and his hinky Tesla Bot. The biographer has swallowed Musk’s hype right here wholesale. However I bear in mind the times of the “alien dreadnought,” the guarantees for swappable batteries that by no means materialized, and the numerous different issues Musk stated that turned out to be, at greatest, exaggeration. In 10 years, the large revelation that Musk switched off the Ukrainian web entry throughout a battle will not be probably the most embarrassing factor Isaacson has dedicated to the web page.

Isaacson wraps up the e book by ponderously questioning if Musk’s achievements are potential with out his unhealthy conduct: 

Would a restrained Musk accomplish as a lot as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he’s? May you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electrical automobiles with out accepting all facets of him, hinged and unhinged? Typically nice innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty coaching.

This appears to me to be the improper set of questions. Listed below are another ones: If Musk have been extra receptive to criticism, would his corporations be in higher form? If Musk cared extra concerning the crew round him, what else might he have achieved by now? Is attaining the particular imaginative and prescient Musk has for the world definitely worth the accidents he’s inflicted on his workforce? Can we — the readers of Isaacson’s e book — need this explicit man’s imaginative and prescient of the longer term in any respect?

Whereas Isaacson manages to element what makes Musk terrible, he appears unaware of what made Musk an inspiring figure for therefore lengthy. Musk is a fantasist, the sort of one that conceives of civilizations on Mars. That’s what people liked all this time: dreaming massive, fascinated by new potential worlds. It’s additionally why Musk’s shifting political stance undercuts him. The fantasy of the conservative motion is small and unhappy, a restricted world with nothing new to discover. Musk has gone from dreaming very, very massive to seeming very, very small. Within the fingers of a proficient biographer, this sort of tragic story would offer wealthy materials.

Correction 11:00AM ET: The unique model of this mischaracterized Musk’s donations — he has donated greater than $1 million, no more than $1 billion. We remorse the error.

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