He has many interests, including space exploration, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, and social media.
His electric vehicle company, Tesla, is headquartered in the gas-guzzling United States and has the largest market capitalization of all car manufacturers in the world. Yet he has very few formal qualifications.
Many see Musk as a 21st-century idiot savant. Others, watching him reduce an important social media platform – Twitter – to cyber-rubble, think of him simply as an idiot. Maybe both are true or maybe other readings of his life are true. Aged 52, Musk certainly merits a good, searching biography.
Walter Isaacson has a good reputation for this task. Walter Isaacson has won awards for his biographies on Henry Kissinger and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Franklin.
Isaacson started his career as a reporter. Isaacson spent over two decades working at Time magazine during its heyday. He rose to the position of editor in 1996. He has held various positions in both Republican and Democrat government.
The National Humanities Medal was presented to him by US President Joe Biden this year.
President Joe Biden awards Walter Isaacson the National Humanities Medal at the White House in Washington DC, on March 21, 2023. Michael Reynolds/AAP
Isaacson is a great biographer because of his ability as a reporter to quickly gather a lot of material and then render it into a smooth and readable account. His life was full of dramatic events. His project began only in 2021, and it covers the events that led up to Space X’s failed Starship rocket launch on April 20, 2023.
Musk was available for many interviews. Musk gave Isaacson access at crucial moments to people and places, including the purchase of Twitter now known as X. He also regularly emailed Isaacson with his thoughts – and thought bubbles – at 3am.
Isaacson has also interviewed 130 people and his work has revealed newsworthy information which, in some cases, corrected since the publication of the book.
Isaacson, for example, builds on previous reporting by The Washington Post in order to show how important Musk’s Starlink network was to the Ukrainian military, allowing them to continue to access the internet even after Russians had destroyed other internet services. Isaacson explains how the Russians convinced Musk that they would temporarily shut down the Starlink network if Ukraine won any more battles.
Matt Bevan of ABC’s If You’re listening podcast examined the implications of these astonishing revelations in a recent show. Isaacson does not discuss this information in detail, even though he revealed it. This is one of the flaws of this book.
Read more: Starlink satellites are ‘leaking’ signals that interfere with our most sensitive radio telescopes.
Lord of the Flies on steroids
Isaacson, perhaps seduced either by Musk’s sincerity or the publisher’s desire to get the book out as quickly as possible, accepts Musk’s words with little skepticism. Musk’s experiences as a child at a South African veldskool during the 1970s read like Lord of the Flies boosted up. Children were bullied and encouraged to fight for meager food rations. Isaacson writes that “every few years, a child would die.”
Really? Who? Musk, apparently. The source notes do not list anyone from the school to confirm or deny this story. Musk is portrayed as a self-indulgent drama queen throughout the book. But that doesn’t make his biographer liable to follow suit.
Isaacson adheres to the “grand man’s” school of historical thought. Isaacson has only written one biography about a woman, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna. He is less interested or comfortable in the role that structures and systems have in shaping events.
Isaacson, as Jill Lepore noted in the New Yorker, has “an executive’s affinity for the C-suite,” which means he doesn’t pay much attention to those who work for Musk and the impact his actions have on their lives.
Isaacson asks the following question: Has Elon Musk been such an “asshole”, as Isaacson calls him, to achieve all that he has achieved? Isaacson admits that it’s the same question as he asked in his previous biography of Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder.
Isaacson, in Time’s classic style of both-sidesing and admonishment, keeps switching between admiring Musk’s ability to achieve results, while also criticizing him for acting like an “asshole”. He never looks beyond the binary. This means that he doesn’t learn from those who have done great things in history and today without being a scumbag.
This also means that achievements are only seen through the lens of one individual’s actions. Constance Grady writes a thoughtful article for Vox that reminds us of Musk’s determination in Tesla factories to ignore safety concerns, which has resulted in worker injury rates comparable to those found in slaughterhouses.
Grady acknowledges that Isaacson reported the higher injury rates, but he notes Isaacson’s vagueness in describing what injuries were sustained. She cites 2018 research by the Center for Investigative Reporting to reveal Tesla workers were “sliced and crushed by machines, burned by electrical explosions, sprayed with metal molten, and sprayed by molten metal.”