Review: Walter Isaacson’s “Elon Musk” botched from the start

by MMC
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Goodbye

Elon Musk

By Walter Isaacon
Simon & Schuster: 688 pages, $35

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The first pages of “Elon Musk,” Doorstop’s new biography Walter Isaacsonthe bestselling chronicler of the great, innovative men of modern history, is shocking, especially to anyone expecting to be greeted by courageous stories of improbable genius.

On the first page, we are told that Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, owner of X (formerly Twitter), and currently the richest man in the world, was born in a country of incredible violence in South Africa, “with machine gun attacks and knife murders common”, where boys have to “wade through pools of blood” on the way to concerts and are sent to wilderness camps that resemble “Lord of the Flies paramilitary,” according to Musk. Young Elon is bullied relentlessly – by his classmates but also by his abusive father – until he grows old enough to fight back.

Presenting the 688-page biography in this way seems designed to respond Musk’s recent turn towards combativeness and cruelty – if not justifying it, at least offering a key to understanding where it is rooted. But as we learn throughout the book, the Musks are persistent fabulists, prone to embellishment and fabrication, and this becomes the first of many narrative sequences the reader must consider in pitting truth against convenience narrative.

And Isaacson’s truth is above all selective. Given Musk’s recent complicity with white nationalists And junk race science peddlers and his tirade continues against the Anti-Defamation Leaguewhom he blames (rather than himself) for driving advertisers away from Twitter, it seems surprising that nothing in these first pages mentions his experiences with Twitter. aside. Much of this horrific violence that took place in South Africa in the 1980s was precipitated by a brutally racist government; we only discover that he taught Musk to survive adversity. “My pain threshold is very high,” he told Isaacson.

We learn that Musk’s Canadian grandfather was involved in a fringe political party with anti-Semitic views and moved his family to South Africa because he preferred government – he is described as harboring “original conservative views” – and that Musk’s father is now openly racist. . But in a book that strives to dissect the transmission of habits and ideas from father to son, Elon is allowed to remain a mother.

"Elon Musk," by Walter Isaacson

Such silences come to haunt the spacious shell of “Elon Musk” – to the point that they risk completely drowning the project.

After the explosion of violence in the introduction, we arrive in more familiar territory, led by Isaacson’s lively and propulsive prose: Musk is a spacy, lonely stranger who is brilliant but has trouble making friends. He disappears into video games and science fiction and soon dreams of horizons far beyond his hometown and sets off for North America with an entrepreneurial spirit in tow. He graduated with a dual degree in physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was accepted into a doctoral program at Stanford, but decided instead to jump into Silicon Valley’s bustling startup scene.

He founded Zip2 with his Brother Kimbal, sell it, and earns a lot of money. He founded the first iteration of X.com, merged with PayPal and created even more. Initially CEO of both companies, he was forced out of each. As a bit of foreshadowing, Musk is kicked out of PayPal due to his monomaniacal dedication to the porn-adjacent letter X, as well as the idea that PayPal should try to “take over.” the global financial system. His dismissal, provoked by a coup d’état led by Pierre Thiel and other members of the so-called PayPal Mafia, leaves him with a large stash of cash, an ax or two to grind, and the aspiration to achieve bigger goals.

Here, the limitations of Isaacson’s project are revealed: Musk had pushed some of the worst ideas of his young career. From a business point of view, it seemed his colleagues had been right to oust him, preserve their product and make them fabulously rich in an IPO and subsequent sale. eBay. But here’s Isaacson’s diagnosis: “He was a visionary who didn’t play well with others.” » The word “visionary” in this app does a lot of work.

The narrative is filled with moments of similar dissonance, with Isaacson quick to praise Musk’s relentless risk-taking after disaster, or to excuse his rude behavior toward subordinates as necessary to get things done, or to shake his head in prose as Musk announces his latest idea that will transform the world. He pushes back sometimes, like when Musk claims that Hyperloop will change everything (“It didn’t change everything”), but Isaacson essentially accepts Musk’s confident predictions as gospel.

Isaacson – biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin — is interested in the study of men who move the world (and sometimes a woman). What motivates innovators? What makes them successful? (In Musk’s case, the prognosis can be summarized as follows: a high appetite for risk, a willingness to alienate colleagues, a deep knowledge of industry and science, an ability to handle management tasks work as an algorithm and a predilection to learn lessons from video games and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.“)

Perhaps this type of framing made sense early on, when so many people were giddy with optimism that Amazon’s everything store and the iPhone would transform the world for the better. It makes less sense 12 years later”Steve Jobs» – now that we have seen the toll that the tech giants have taken on society: labor exploitation at Amazon, Uber and, yes, Tesla; misinformation and harassment on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and, yes, Twitter. These costs are almost entirely omitted from the “Elon Musk” equation.

Perhaps this is because there is an unspoken pact between author and subject in Isaacson’s biography of the “great man”: the author will dig up unflattering personal anecdotes and share stories about the subject’s capacity to be cruel. In exchange, the greatness of the subject will be treated as a hypothesis, the reason for the book itself. In homage to Isaacson’s habit of using concise, memorable sentences to describe a phenomenon, we might call it the “Isaacson Accord.”

A portrait of Walter Isaacson.

Walter Isaacson’s other biographical subjects include Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Franklin.

(Simon and Schuster)

The same is true in “Elon Musk,” whose subject is described as “a visionary” and a “risk-taking innovator” and, more particularly, “one who launches us toward Mars and a future of electric vehicles.” Musk’s many fans will surely take these descriptors for granted. But that seems all the more reason to challenge The hypotheses. Because the Isaacson deal turns out to be a devil’s bargain. We get plenty of palace intrigue, well-told anecdotes, and real insight into Musk’s family psychology; but good things are almost happening spite of Isaacson’s constant presentation of Musk as a brooding but brilliant world-maker.

Worse, in exchange for unprecedented access, the Isaacson Accord requires that many of the most difficult and urgent questions remain unanswered.

Isaacson repeatedly says that one of Musk’s unrivaled strengths as a manager is his extensive knowledge of the factories where his products are made. Yet there is not a single mention of the sweeping allegations of racial discrimination at Tesla’s flagship factory in Fremont, leading juries to find Tesla liable for millions in damages. Workers of color say they’ve been called the N-word and seen swastikas painted on the bathroom. In 2021, Tesla was ordered to pay $137 million to an employee who suffered racist abuse, although this amount was later reduced.

Likewise, there is no examination of the union campaigns in Tesla factories, nor of the wrongful termination case that Tesla lost after dismissing a worker involved in the organization. In all the discussion about Tesla’s autonomous Autopilot program, there is no mention of a former engineer’s blockbuster revelation that one of the the first key Autopilot promotions were heldcontributing to the false sense of security buyers had in the program.

And although the book focuses primarily on the impact of Musk’s abusive father and the character traits that might have been passed down to him, Isaacson goes beyond any explanation of the argument with Jenna, Musk’s trans daughter, allowing Musk to file him away because his political views have simply become too radical. Isaacson does not mention her as a source in the book, like his twin brother, and does not say whether he tried to contact her. Musk’s story that Jenna succumbed to the “awake mind virus” still stands.

No biography can or should be completely exhaustive, but it’s fairly easy to determine what kinds of topics and conversations Isaacson decided would be best avoided altogether. I started “Elon Musk” by wondering if the world needed another book positioning Musk as a great man — one by Ashlee Vance. book of the same title ably covered many of the same bases – and ended up thinking it was time to retire the entire genre from biographies of “great innovators”, period.

The idea that the future is created by imperfect geniuses who accumulate great wealth is outdated and simplistic, and it encourages a flattened view of how technology is developed and its impacts. Just scan the list of sources Isaacson includes in the book: executives, venture capitalists, founders and high-ranking engineers. Yes, Isaacson spoke to “adversaries” like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, but not (at least according to the list) to line workers, or Jenna, or anyone whose family member died in an accident of autopilot, nor to anyone who tried to organize. a Tesla factory.

Ultimately: this is the story Musk himself wants to tell. Sure, he could have left out a handful of details that proved personally embarrassing, but nothing here challenges the idea that Elon Musk is an all-too-human hero valiantly trying to save humanity from the threats he sees it pouring down on us. This is the book that Musk allegedly wrote himself.

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