‘The smartest person in any room anywhere’: in defence of Elon Musk, by Douglas Coupland
‘The smartest person in any room anywhere’: in defence of Elon Musk, by Douglas Coupland
I t’s interesting whenever Elon Musk’s name comes up and people begin discussing his accomplishments, such as the reinvention of money, automobiles and space travel, there’s always someone who says: “Yeah, but I hear he can be a real dick.”
Take that , Elon.
So then, let’s be totally honest here, because in your heart, you know, and I know, dear reader, that you can be a real dick, too. So can I, and, if we’re being truly honest, so can, say, the Queen. She probably has to be a dick 10 times a week. So since when does being a dick somehow invalidate you as a person? It doesn’t. That’s just stupid. And what’s in it for you to dis someone you don’t know, anyway? Being negative is a stupid person’s way of trying to appear smart without actually being smart. And let’s also be certain about something else: we all hate a goody two-shoes, so come on, what kind of perfect behaviour is it you expect from a person, any person, let alone Elon Musk?
But he seems like he’s only out for publicity Elon Musk is actually terrible at publicity. His Cybertruck launch was a disaster , and the “Tesla in space” thing was cringey. When being interviewed he’s opaque, overly techy and difficult to connect with – Richard Branson is a million times better with publicity, but there’s something about Musk that makes Branson seem a thousand years old.
Tesla Cybertruck launch. But he seems like he’s trying to manipulate the media He’s terrible at that, too. After the deplatforming of Donald Trump, Musk is undebateably the planet’s alpha tweeter. One of those Kardashian people can make a line of armpit hair remover go viral, but Musk can generate or destroy billions of dollars of wealth in three or four words. Why on earth would he bother wasting three brain cells trying to manipulate the media? As well, his often-lame tweets frequently backfire, as he’s the first to attest with his all too true tweet: Tweeting on Ambien isn’t wise . Musk doesn’t need to manipulate the media because what he does is fantastically interesting. He isn’t someone who needs to fish for press.
But he’s just out to make money a) So, what if he is? But, b) He isn’t. He’s just doing what he does. He’s also, at the time of writing, the second richest person on Earth. He probably got used to going to the candy store and buying 10 of everything a long time ago. He lives modestly. He always reinvests in his own ideas and his ideas are good.
But self-driving cars will kill people! Grow up.
Musk didn’t just generate a few fundamental patents and move to Santa Barbara to golf for the rest of his life. Every day he tries to reinvent the wheel and it’s working. Shopped online lately? Ever wanted to visit the International Space Station? Want a new car? With cars alone, Musk pretty much single-handedly shamed and forced the global auto industry to accelerate the electric car rollout by seven to 10 years. Yet people kvetch, and it makes me wonder if there is something fundamentally flawed about our era that it is almost impossible to get people to say something nice about pretty much anyone else. A “like” given to someone else is a like that could have instead gone to oneself, which I suppose indicates that there’s something fundamentally different about selfhood than, say, 25 years ago. I pick 1996 because it seems to me to have been the acme of the celebrity profile – remember them? In Vanity Fair , say. The glossy cover. The fawning. The expectation of dirt revealed. Will they backstab? Even the interviewers were famous for interviewing, and it all feels like a million years ago. Are there any celebrity interviewers left? Oprah, I guess, but her heart doesn’t seem to really be in it, and she now seems to be merely an enabling conduit for the Megan-and-Harry feelings politics that blights our era.
But I hear he treats his employees badly First, we already discussed this: he can be a dick, so don’t be surprised when he is. Second, people know they’re going to be working with Elon Musk, so they can’t play woe is me if he goes Elon on them. And third, he’s incredibly smart and is used to working with the world’s smartest and most accomplished people, so if you don’t cut the mustard then you didn’t cut the mustard. And here’s something funny he actually said to someone who was pissing him off in the Tesla factory: “You know, I could be drinking mai tais with naked supermodels, but instead I’m here with you.” He has a point.
But he hurt my feelings and made me feel like I was in an unsafe and triggering work environment Dear God, is this what our society has been reduced to?
Here are a few readily available facts about Musk: …He’s a good father with six sons: triplets, twins and one solo. A first son died of Sids at the age of 10 weeks.
…He has been married to two women (his second wife twice).
…He is famous for his need to be in love and for being unable to sleep alone.
…He spent his 47th birthday in his factory fixing robots for 24 hours .
…He loves his mother, who is a top global fashion model at 73.
…He sees no future in fossil fuels.
…He hates visible seams on his products.
…He swears a lot.
…In 2018 his tunnel-drilling company, the Boring Company, sold 20,000 novelty flamethrowers as a publicity stunt . They now sell on eBay at an average of $3,000.
But he’s not political! No, he’s not. The left doesn’t like him because he doesn’t fund them or show interest in their causes. And the right doesn’t like him because he messes around with the stock market and doesn’t take classical capitalism seriously. For example, he thinks short selling the stock market should be banned. Musk donates to Democrats and Republicans only because it’s the cost of having a voice in government. He seems to see left versus right as an obsolete binary and instead focuses his altruistic energies on ecology and invention. He seems to be more about the systems that create signals rather than the signals themselves.
But he’s trying to save the world, and trying to save the world is kind of corny I know, “saving the world” – could anything be more Megan-and-Harry? But Musk isn’t trying to save the world, only to make it better. Musk has created three multibillion-dollar companies in four profoundly difficult fields in which to create anything. And these companies are successful, usually without help from the people we once considered gatekeepers. Like lots of people who do lots of things, he’s too busy for elaborate introspection.
But what’s the deal with him wanting people to go to Mars? This is actually the most baffling thing about Musk: what’s his deal with Mars ? He loves discussing the creation of new platforms for humans elsewhere in the cosmos. He wants humans to be multiplanetary, telling Rolling Stone : “There have been five mass-extinction events in the fossil record. People have no comprehension of these things. Unless you’re a cockroach or a mushroom – or a sponge – you’re fucked.” So, I guess he’s expecting a mass extinction event soon, but really though, aren’t we all? *Nervous chuckle* Well, maybe not. But his Martian plans will probably happen soon enough, and if nothing else have spurred great general discussion on just what sort of person it takes to go to Mars on what is most likely a one-way trip. I know nothing about therapy, but it strikes me that perhaps Musk sees himself as a prime candidate. This is maybe reading too much into it. Maybe he simply thinks it’s a cool idea. Sometimes it’s that simple.
But he gave his kid a weird name This is true. But Zowie Bowie turned out just fine , so why shouldn’t X AE A-XII Musk?
Musk with his partner, the musician Grimes, 2018. Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/WireImage But what’s with him saying AI is going to take over humanity and destroy everything? OK, but what if he’s right? The radio gave us Hitler. The internet gave us the past five years. Maybe AI will happily surprise us, but Musk only foresees a 5-10% chance of humans being able to contain AI and make it safe. It will possibly do this using the systems devised by his non-profit, Neuralink, which aims to create mind/machine interfaces. So… combatting potential AI enslavement down the road may seem quixotic, but frankly, why not give it a go?
But it’s like he’s giving up on Earth and is hence not being any help down here He’s done more than his share down here, if nothing else, making great leaps at reducing fossil fuel consumption, but I have no idea if he recycles rubbish at his house wherever he lives. What if he didn’t? That’s right: that would make him a terrible human being. We could go jump on him and beat him with sticks.
But everything he does is all a big scam for him to get rich on cryptocurrency! If you search for Musk online comment threads on, say, Reddit, you’ll quickly sense the presence of teenage male body sprays and stained gym socks. It’s “incel” heaven. Adult voices discussing Musk are rare, and it seems the vast bulk of Musk commentary centres on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and yes, I can hear you stifling a yawn, but we’re stuck with these things, so we’d better cobble together some sort of peace deal with them. Cryptocurrency does seem to be the one topic where Musk genuinely enjoys messing with people’s minds – as well as with stock market regulators. I suspect that he doesn’t have a stand on crypto at all – my guess is that he sees cryptocurrencies as being interesting simply because they exist at all, like Klein bottles or those Japanese Kit-Kats in flavours such as pumpkin or green tea. Regardless, Musk’s public – toxic trolls included – seem to adore his ongoing dance of taunts and teases and hints and they’d have it no other way, especially with a crypto called dogecoin, which is like Daffy Duck to b itcoin’s Bugs Bunny, and the two are locked in an eternal battle for relevance, and even onlooking Belarusian troll farmers must be thinking: “Wow. We were going to fabricate a pseudo-conflict between these two things, but it looks like the real world is already doing it for us. Moi slezy ne soderzhat antibiotikov! ” *
It’s also interesting to note that when Musk posts big events in his life on Twitter, successful experimental space launches, say, his detractors will post things like a photo of a Tesla Model 3 whose real wheels went off a suburban garden ledge – a photo appended by vitriolic meta-commentary along the lines of: My mom’s Roomba has better edge detection than a Tesla . #VeryDisappointed.
PS: Musk is already worth $185bn.
* My teardrops contain no antibiotics!
But at least it must be fun for Musk to have a worthy nemesis in Jeff Bezos *Cringe* Hearing this makes it feel like it’s the 1920s and we’re comparing Vanderbilts with Rockefellers. But, having said this, I will admit that there is a deeply concealed dark part of my soul that aches for Bezos and Musk to even somewhat resemble that blank-eyed, walrus-mustached plutocrat who haunts the Monopoly game board, but alas, that is not going to happen. Both men seem to dress exclusively from Tommy Hilfiger shops at outlet malls. Maybe Lauren Sánchez buys Bezos’s shirts in those hotel lobby stores in coastal resort towns – but honestly, even if you’re the two richest unmarried guys on Earth, whose job is it to pull your wardrobe anyway? Your girlfriend’s? No. So who? A personal assistant? Your mum? It’s actually kind of a miracle that new clothing ever even appear in these guys’ dressing rooms to begin with. But this doesn’t directly address the Bezos/Musk rivalry, which I don’t think actually exists. It technically seems like it could be a good rivalry, but they both made their money in such different ways (and remember, money is a primary lens through which we view them) that it feels wrong to lump them together. Bezos is like your mum’s leathery third boyfriend after her divorce, while Musk is your maths tutor who won the Powerball lottery. Zero overlap.
A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft at the company’s Texas launch facility, 2019. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Getty Images But for real, didn’t he just win some sort of genetic lottery, instead? Right place, right time? People want to believe that, but here’s the thing: Musk has a huge IQ. He is measurably, scientifically, clinically and demonstrably the smartest person in any room anywhere. He can tell you the square root of your Amex card number at a glance. He can tell you, I don’t know – the square root of zinc. He has mild Asperger’s, which prevents him from snagging on details and talking himself out of trying new things. He’s a perfect storm who comes from about as middle class a family as was possible in the late 20th century, so you can’t beat him with sticks. His family was like scores of millions – and then he became one of the richest people on Earth.
But then what does this all mean? I think the biggest difference between the 20th century and the 21st is that in the 20th century you were able to see “the future” in your head. There were new ways of envisioning, say, an information utopia – or an ecological harmonisation of humans with everything non-human. But here in the 21st century we’re only able to possibly glimpse a small workable future, and even then only if we work at it incredibly hard. That’s a huge difference in looking at what lies down the road. Musk’s appeal is that he still sees both “the” future as well as “a” future – albeit a future on Mars, which has 38% of the gravity of Earth and about 1% of its atmosphere. And wifi back and forth to Earth would take six-and-a-half minutes each way. Hardly smoking hot, so good luck watching random episodes of The Big Bang Theory while real-time wisecracking with your former cubicle mates back in Palo Alto.
But when is this going to end? Why can’t he just move to Santa Barbara and play golf for the rest of his life? On 28 June, Musk turned 50. He has at least three more high-functioning decades to go. More likely five or six, so we’re not even halfway through his movie. Pundits who think he’ll soon be “over” are either naive or assassins.
Douglas Coupland’s Binge: 60 Stories to Make Your Head Feel Different will be available in the UK in October via Amazon