Elon Musk’s plan to buy Twitter—or maybe not—has brought him once again to the center of attention, at least among the chattering classes for whom Twitter is the national town square. Per usual, attitudes toward Musk tend to be starkly divided between adulation and hatred, except who falls into which category seems to have shifted.
Five to 10 years ago, Musk was more a darling of the left, embraced not just because he was a self-declared “socialist” but because by making the electric car cool, he seemed to be fulfilling the great environmentalist dream of an all-electric, solar-powered future—a “revolt against the fossil fuel industry.” Now he is being embraced by the right as he complains about the excesses of the “woke” left, vows to curb the censoriousness of left-leaning social media managers, and says he will let Donald Trump back onto Twitter.
Musk’s fans and detractors tend to be equally adamant, and, believe me, they have a tendency to swarm your comments section or social media feed if you offer even moderate dissent. So who’s right? Who is Elon Musk?
A Greenwashed Ayn Rand Hero
The form of the question seems appropriate because I long ago speculated that in the popular imagination, Musk is “a greenwashed Ayn Rand hero.” So I was amused recently to see someone describe the Twitter buyout story as “my new favorite Ayn Rand novel.”
Some of the elements of an Ayn Rand story are there: the maverick engineer who starts a visionary new enterprise, sets out to do what everyone else dismisses as impossible and proves all the doubters wrong. Except that this was “greenwashed,” given a gloss of environmental virtue by way of electric cars and solar panels. (Never mind the carbon footprint of a SpaceX rocket launch.) Musk was an Ayn Rand hero, but by using his powers to curb global warming, became the one swashbuckling industrialist enlightened “progressives” could acceptably cheer.
Yet there is something that’s doesn’t quite work in this comparison: Musk’s clear penchant for seeking public attention and notoriety. Ayn Rand’s heroes are supremely indifferent to public opinion and the views of others. One of the protagonists of “Atlas Shrugged” declares, “I never had any wish to be talked about.” I don’t think Musk could plausibly make that claim. When the hero of “The Fountainhead” is confronted by one of his critics who dares him—“Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish” —he responds, “But I don’t think of you.” That would be a sick burn, except that he sincerely means it.
Given the opportunity to reply to his critics, Musk is more likely to launch into a Twitter rant. He is always stirring up a controversy, whether it’s taking potshots at Tesla short-sellers or making libelous insinuations against a British expat cave diver in Thailand out of petty spite. If anything, Musk is more like an Ayn Rand hero as rewritten by Tom Wolfe, which better captures the carnival barker aspect of his personality.
America’s Carnival Barker
Tom Wolfe loved the idea of America as a carnival, with himself as the ringmaster serving as a colorful and enthusiastic guide to the spectacle. He urged writers to find inspiration in the chaos of “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” Both in his reporting and in his fiction—and it’s hard to tell the difference between the two—Wolfe loved to depict flamboyant characters goaded by an obsession with status and attention. Elon Musk is a character straight out of that mold.
This explains Musk’s oddly uneven record, which careens from huge achievements to outright flimflam. He became wealthy by starting up an online bank that became part of PayPal, helping to build the payment system of the internet. He then used that money to start SpaceX, which has revolutionized access to space with reusable rockets that have dramatically slashed the price of sending payloads into orbit.
Moreover, SpaceX brought America back to manned spaceflight at just the right time, giving us access to the International Space Station independent of the Russian rockets we had been using since retiring the Space Shuttle in 2013. This is why our astronauts remain up there after the invasion of Ukraine—while the Russians are leaving.
Speaking of Ukraine, SpaceX’s satellite internet service, Starlink, has been crucial in keeping that country online during the Russian invasion, finding both civilian and military uses. And for those of us who live in rural areas, Starlink has been a huge leap forward in internet access.
Tesla’s big achievement was to make the electric car cool, changing it from an environmental hairshirt to a fun toy for the well-off. At the same time, the list of things Tesla promised and didn’t deliver is pretty long. Musk famously boasted that in addition to creating a new car, he would revolutionize automobile production by building a hyper-automated factory. That is an innovation that would have actually justified Tesla’s absurdly high stock valuation. But it turned out to be harder than Musk thought, and Tesla had to dial back the effort.
The company now produces many more cars than it used to, but it’s still only a fraction of the production of one of the big legacy automakers. Tesla’s former mainstay, the Model S, hasn’t had a fundamental redesign in 10 years; and its current mainstay, the Model 3, hasn’t been redesigned in almost four. Its next new model, the Cybertruck, has been pushed back another year to 2023. Musk has long resisted the realization that auto manufacturing is extremely difficult and cannot be “disrupted” simply by pulling an all-nighter to write new code.
The symbol of this is Tesla’s “full self-driving” capabilities, which Musk has repeatedly hyped and sold to his customers as a feature. Yet the system is, as one report coyly puts it, “not, in a literal sense, fully self-driving.” Full self-driving is Level 5 on the automation scale. Tesla’s current capabilities are at Level 2.
This is the pattern for a number of Musk’s other “visionary” experiments. Neuralink, which promises memory-enhancing brain implants, has produced results described as “underwhelming” or as “bad science fiction” that lures funding away from more promising research. The technology of brain implants is so futuristic that nobody really has any idea what they’re doing yet.
As for Hyperloop, which proposed to build a national network of giant vacuum tubes to suck passengers from Point A to Point B, the idea has fundamental practical problems. It’s less a technology at this point as it is an idea for a technology.
That’s not to mention Musk’s utterly unrealistic promise about having a million people living on Mars, with no plan for how or why they would live there. The problem isn’t that Musk entertains these visionary ideas. The problem is that he promotes them with full seriousness as something to be delivered in the near future, and that many of his fans believe him.
Twitter is an extension of this pattern. Twitter is not a productive or highly profitable company, and it is falling behind its social media rivals as a home for the celebrities and influencers who generate the most revenue. The only thing that makes Twitter important is its dominance in a small and relatively unprofitable area: its popularity among media types, particularly the political media.
That Musk has, at least until now, been willing to cannibalize a large portion of his vast fortune to own this domain says a lot about his priorities. He could be out doing real things in the real world, building cars and rockets. Why waste time chasing the shadows of prestige and publicity on social media?
The Carnival of Capitalism
Musk is an odd combination of innovator and flimflam man—somewhere between Nikola Tesla and Harold Hill from “The Music Man.” Yet such characters are an indelible part of American capitalism and part of its strength. It’s easy to complain about the overhyped ventures like WeWork and Theranos that go spectacularly bust. (Next up: NFTs.) But the advantage of a free-wheeling system of venture capital is that nobody knows for sure, ahead of time, which ideas are overhyped and which are truly visionary.
Remember that a Harvard Business School class advised Jeff Bezos back in 1997 that Amazon was doomed and his best bet was to sell out to Barnes & Noble. (If you only vaguely remember what Barnes & Noble was—well, that’s the point.) Similarly, Apple’s Steve Jobs was infamous for laying out a vision so compelling people called it the “reality distortion field”—yet he made good on technology that really did transform how we use computers and communicate with one another.
As for the takeover of Twitter, the problems of moderating a social media platform are deep and intractable. How do you balance promises about vibrant discussion and freedom of speech against the real problems of spam, bots, trolls, abuse and incitement? Yet it is good that an established player like Twitter has to face the prospect of being shaken up by anyone who can raise the capital to either compete with it or buy it out.
Yes, a free economy is something of a carnival, and it will have its hucksters and mountebanks. But as we have proved again and again, better a carnival than a closed bureaucratic establishment. Don’t underestimate the advantage of a little freewheeling chaos in producing the diverse ideas that drive progress, and don’t be too quick to dismiss the mercurial figures like Musk who keep a healthy marketplace unpredictable.