I think we can definitively argue that Elon Musk has a cult


Popular Mechanics has published a defense of Elon Musk, and it’s disturbingly creepy. They’ve got multiple contributors, and the first compares him to Mark Twain.

Not everybody liked Twain. They still don’t. He could be scandalous and self-indulgent. He smoked too much. Judgmental. And Twain, a one-time river­boat pilot, made nothing substantial, produced no commodities or goods, except his tales and observations. He took you somewhere. Mark Twain didn’t think for you, you barrel-hoop baron you. But he was out there. Thinking. He spoke past his newspaper editor, directly to the people, to his readers, whether they agreed with him or not. And while he certainly produced outsize, often painful, observations about what we had become as a people, he also offered glaring, satiric propositions concerning what we might want to try to be henceforth. And why. In person, he could be wily, cold, and unpleasant, but Twain stood out as a man who reliably saw the truth of human purpose beneath the weighty mess of human foibles. He had ambitions for humanity. At the very least, he believed that humanity ought to have ambitions for itself.

And now, Elon Musk walks the earth. The pleasure of his presence on this mantle is similar to Twain’s. You might live in Tacoma and make a living working in a consulting firm that helps affordable hotel chains rebrand themselves using urban graphic-design strategies and overlapping pricing platforms. But admit it, among your everyday pleasures is the possibility that you might pick up an item in the news feed on your smartphone concerning Elon Musk’s next great idea. Electric cars. The colonization of Mars. Tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Brains linked to computers.

I mainly pick up on news about Musk because he’s obnoxiously weird. Accusing divers of being pedophiles. Abusing his employees (look up Mary Beth Brown). An ugly divorce. Unable to profit despite receiving millions of dollars from his fellow capitalists. Smoking a joint on a YouTube video.

Electric cars are a great idea — it wasn’t his. He wants to colonize Mars to “save” humanity — it won’t. His tunnels are bizarre and impractical. He doesn’t know how to link brains and computers.

He’s no Mark Twain.

Another guy has a different comparison.

Bruce Wayne. Elon Musk. Tony Stark. Three men worth billions of dollars who care more about solving important problems than living comfortably, but only one of them is real.

SpaceX and Tesla cars are great. I don’t know that they make up for the fact that he’s an obnoxious asshole with a cult of personality.

Comments

  1. brett says

    Reading that piece, just . . . ugh. Musk does not need any more defenders – he is his own worst enemy, and virtually all the problems surrounding his twitter account, the SEC, and the diver situation has been self-inflicted. I hope the contributors for that piece at least got paid for this.

    I get it – I’m a space fan myself, and it’s been very good that Musk has a genuine commitment to getting the cost of spaceflight down and the resources and capability to actually get it done. The history of spaceflight is absolutely littered with underfunded companies that promised all kinds of hype and couldn’t deliver on any of it (because they were essentially trying to “fake it till you make it”). But that’s no excuse to indulge his worst impulses and behavior.

  2. monad says

    An unsupervised adult running around karate chopping poor people in a halloween costume. A canonical douchebag whose inventions nearly wiped out humanity. And Elon Musk, in the best of company.

  3. says

    If Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark were really interested in solving important problems, they’d be following The Gates Foundation’s lead rather than dressing up and punching crooks…

  4. kevinv says

    Twain’s not that bad a comparison, Twain lost a huge fortune investing in technologies that failed to take off.

  5. Becca Stareyes says

    I mean, the thing about comparing a real person to Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark is that we don’t live in a superhero universe. In the real world, ‘dressing up, getting a bunch of high-tech toys, and punching crime lords in costumes’ isn’t an effective solution to crime, and ‘strategic donations to charities and political lobbying’ is. So if Elon Musk wants ‘range of solutions, some of which only work in fiction’ and possibly ‘deep-seated emotional issues and character flaws’, he can be Bruce or Tony.

  6. woozy says

    You might live in Tacoma and make a living working in a consulting firm that helps affordable hotel chains rebrand themselves using urban graphic-design strategies and overlapping pricing platforms.

    That’s …. bizarrely specific.

    But admit it, among your everyday pleasures is the possibility that you might pick up an item in the news feed on your smartphone concerning Elon Musk’s next great idea.

    Um… no…. If it were I’d admit it but… it isn’t.

  7. Sean Boyd says

    I do live in Tacoma. Maybe, were I employed in the glamorous world of consulting, I’d lap up every dribble issuing forth from ‘twixt Elon’s nethers. Maybe. Instead, I live in the real Tacoma. I’m about a half-block from a food bank, which is across the street from a homeless service center. My neighborhood has seen a dramatic rise in the population of the homeless, which preceded the genesis of the service center. Both of these exist largely through the generosity of the Puyallup tribe, which runs the homeless center and donates to the food bank. Funnily enough, while I have seen a Tesla or two in the neighborhood, I haven’t seen any asshole billionaires helping to solve actual, real-world problems. Until that happens, Elon Musk (and the rest of them) can fuck off.

  8. says

    Look, let’s say for argument’s sake that he’s just like. That would not negate what we know about Musk. It would mean that we have to add what we know about Musk to what we think we know about Mark Twain.

    I’ve never read a biography of Twain. I know almost nothing about his life beyond what is implied in his writings or necessary to learn to understand his writings. And I enjoy many of Twain’s written pieces. But I know very little about the man himself.

    Musk? I know from the recent SEC case that he made a false statement in public that was designed to affect stock activity. I know that’s seriously verboten. I know he’s megalomaniacal and treats many other people badly. I know that the two times I’ve ridden in a Tesla I thought each was a nice car. From the totality of what I know, I can infer that he loves tech and that he’s a jerk of a human being on way too many occasions.

    So… okay. Twain was a jerk who loved tech.

    What does that tell us about how we should respond to Musk?

    See, what’s going on here is that they’ve deliberately chosen a comparative figure that few of us know anything about. Instead, we know something about what he’s made (brilliant writing), but nothing about the person. I can think Teslas are pretty neat cars and still think Musk is a raging jerkface, but with Twain living so long ago, even if he was a raging jerkface, most of us wouldn’t know that. Most of us get all our information about Twain – or at least all the information that causes us to view the person negatively or positively – through discussing Twain’s products.

    The comparison, then, is far more revealing than PopSci intends: They’re not saying he’s just like all those qualities of Twain with which you’re familiar, because you aren’t familiar with any qualities of Twain as a human being.

    They’re saying, “You judge Twain entirely on whether or not Huckleberry Finn is a good read, and we think you should judge Musk entirely on whether Tesla is a good car.”

    But no, PopSci, that’s not the way the real world works. My abuser did great work in popular science education on a small scale by working in a science museum and being absolutely brilliant with kids. Then she came home and beat the shit out of me and stole money to spend on alcohol. Maybe her work outcomes were good (when she was sober enough to show up), but she was still a raging jerkface.

    But at PopSci, all that matters is if you turn out a cool widget. It’s the perfect venue for this defense of Musk.

  9. says

    And now, Elon Musk walks the earth. The pleasure of his presence on this mantle…

    Is this supposed to be funny? I sure as fuck hope so.

  10. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    PZ: “SpaceX and Tesla cars are great.”

    Musk automatically assumes that every problem he doesn’t understand must be easy. Since he doesn’t understand a whole lot of things, he winds up being kind of a bull in a china shop. And speaking of shops, Teslas tend to spend a lot of time there. Unfortunately, that is not an option for a space taxi. It scares the crap out of me that we are putting the lives of astronauts in his hands starting next year.

  11. laurian says

    SpaceX and Tesla cars are great. I don’t know that they make up for the fact that he’s an obnoxious asshole with a cult of personality.

    Uh, non sequitur. Elon can be a dick and the technology he has collaborated to create can save humanity.

  12. ridana says

    #5 @ Holms: Bruce and Tony seem to be living pretty comfortably in their fictional milieus as well. I don’t know what sort of yardstick the author is using to make such a bizarre statement.

  13. angela78 says

    SpaceX and Tesla are a scam and a waste of resources. The only reasons for their popularity are 1) social marketing, and 2) people buy them in order to feel cool and futuristic and ecological without actually relinquishing any bad habit they have.

  14. says

    Musk may be an asshole, a grifter a con man and maybe he has questionable personal hygiene. However his ability to piss off people who want the world to drown in the fumes from gas guzzling SUV’s is worth the pain. The fact that Tesla has produced 100 000 Model 3 sedans already is seriously upsetting people used to the business as usual scenario of endlessly replaced hordes of passenger cars and pickups roaming the world belching greenhouse gases and other nasties.

  15. stumble says

    @17

    SpaceX is a private company, no one is buying it because it isn’t for sale (or its shares). As for it being a scam, the current SpaceX cost to launch to LEO is about $65mm/launch (Falcon9 price), the next closest is $450mm/launch. In what possible way is charging 1/8 your costs competitor a scam? Right now the Falcon Heavy is about 25% the cost/lb to LEO of any other available launch vehicle. You can say what you want about Musk, but SpaceX really is radically transforming space.

    Tesla is suffering from an inflated stock price, and far too much debt. But the vehicles are amazing, and the Model 3 is currently the 4th best selling sedan in the US and sold more than all other luxury sedans combined in 3Q18. Again he may be a dick, and frankly Tesla may get buried by its debt load, but it is reshaping the auto market in a way no one else has even tried. If Tesla can generate enough revenue to keep the banks at bay (I figure a 50/50 proposition right now) for the next 12 months there are very good reasons to believe it will sell more cars than GM in 5 years.

    Musk may be a terrible human being, I really don’t know, but he is a visionary business leader and is doing quite a lot to change the world. Steve Jobs was also a huge ass to work for, but he also built a company that changed computers.

  16. stumble says

    @21

    If it is a toll bridge and can cover its debt load and maintenance costs let me know. Toll bridges (and roads) show a substantial ROI, with substantial YoY growth, in some cases more that 20%. Which is why muni bonds tied to toll roads are in such high demand.

  17. says

    The comparison to those specific comic book heroes is quite telling.

    Batman’s inability to make the slightest dent in the Gotham crime rate is at the heart of his character. He’s constantly being asked whether all the crazies that plague the city are ultimately his fault.

    Tony Stark is notorious for doing questionable things with disastrous consequences. Even in the movies, Ultron is his own fault.

    The one is a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to solve complicated problems with simplistic solutions, the other is your standard icon of the hubris of power and wealth, or possibly just intelligence.

  18. says

    And now here we are spending more time discussing Musk’s products and his companies’ value than discussing Musk.

    That is exactly the wrong-headed focus that PopSci wanted: the product matters in discussing the person.

    No.

    You can talk about whether Musk has had an important role in changing the auto industry or the space industry. But if you’re trying to gauge Musk as a human being, how cool the cars are is a very separate issue.

  19. drst says

    I’m fairly convinced Musk pays an army of trolls to defend him across social media. The worshipful tone is so consistent and so bizarre for someone much of the world has never and will never hear of who has done very little to impact the lives of humans. But if you say anything even mildly critical of him, especially on Twitter, you get swarmed.

    Twitter was suspending people for changing their user names to something including “Elon Musk” for a while there too: https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/24/17610348/twitter-elon-musk-display-name-change-lock-account-crypto-scams

  20. stumble says

    @24

    I don’t think there is much if any push back on if Musk is at least seriously flawed, if not a terrible person. For me at least the interesting question is how to resolve the conflict between someone who may be objectively a terrible person and that person doing things that are in mankind best interests.

    There is a non-trivial argument to be made that it takes an ass hole to leapfrog human civilization, and Musk is doing exactly that. People who are comfortable with the current state of mankind do not drive it forward, it takes people who no one likes trying to force the world to their point of view to make real substantial changes. These people are almost always terrible human beings, because they are so self centered they almost reflexively reject the idea that other people matter. It is however this combination of being a dick, incredible intelligence, and risk taking capacity however that also pull the rest of humanity along with them.

    I have zero interest in being friends with Musk, not do I think his results justify his behavior. But to dismiss him as just an ass hole is also to miss the fact that he is fundamentally reshaping the world we live in, in many way for the better. Even assuming many of his future projects fail his effects on mankind have already reshaped the world we live in. I do think when “trying to gauge Musk as a human being” it is important to ALSO include his positive effects no matter how odious he may be personally.

  21. petesh says

    It’s stretching things a bit, but I can produce a justification for comparing Musk with Twain, and it does not favor Musk. Twain correctly saw that mechanized typesetting was the way of the future, also that one James Paige had figured out a theoretically excellent way of doing the job, and invested pretty much all he and his wife had into Paige’s endeavor. But it turned out to be too late and too expensive. Bye, bye to Twain’s fortune. Et tu, Elon?

  22. KG says

    the technology he has collaborated to create can save humanity. – laurian@13

    No, it can’t. Saving humanity – or at any rate, civilization, is primarily a political problem. And reliance on supposed entreprenurial geniuses to solve climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and salination, depletion of aquifers, the rise of the far right and its kakistocratic despotisms, and the ever-present threat of nuclear war, is simply delusional.

  23. KG says

    Folow-up to #25. Actually, it’s worse than delusional. It’s relying on one of the main symptoms to cure the disease, which is a fundamentally destructive socio-economic system called capitalism.

  24. says

    drst

    I’m fairly convinced Musk pays an army of trolls to defend him across social media.

    That just shows that you don’t understand the Musk phenomenon. His most devoted fans pay him thousands of dollars on the hope of acquiring one of his techno toys. Of which Tesla has managed to produce around 200K of so it’s still quite likely the fans will get what they desire with a white hot passion.

  25. says

    KG, good luck with trying to change human behaviour. Musk on the other hand is leveraging human desires to help decarbonise transport.

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @29: I don’t think I’ve come across “kakistocracy” before. Good word. My first thought on its etymology was wrong, however. That word would be “skatocracy”, I suppose. Either works.

  27. wzrd1 says

    I see Musk as what he really is, John Hammond, parading his ancient flea circus and attempting to build Jurassic Park.
    All showman, little true skills possessed by himself beyond being barely able to figure out who to hire or fire, to find competent employees enough to muddle through building a bomb that only explodes in one direction, aimed and hopefully not exploding in the usual every direction and instantly.
    Using the knowledge that the US government paid the research money for as a knowledge base.

    Toking up? A populism ploy, garner support from the masses, as he’s fairly certain that the federal floodgates will close soon with this administration.
    The company is doing impressive things. But, Hitler’s Germany did impressive things as well, via the most abominable means imaginable.

    So, we come down to a selection of monsters. Reviewing, he’s a ruthless person, big on self-promotion via his “product”. As is Trump.
    He’s an asshole to everyone about that cannot benefit him in achieving some goal. So is Trump.
    He’s not seeking political power. Trump wasn’t for 99% of his career of grifting, it’s when the money cistern started running dry that he sought politics.

    I fully qualify as a subject matter expert in the field of grift. One, on the civilian side, I was a television repairman, but unlike the stereotype, I actually didn’t rip off customers, I wrote a bill that showed every action that I performed and if I made a mistake and unnecessarily replaced a component, that wasn’t billed for. Yeah, rare indeed. Still made a massive profit for a while, until the damned things became obsolete. But, I also learned videodisc, laserdisc, compact disc and inevitably, DVD, along with VCR’s. Repairing them for warranty, which requires minimal errors.
    End result, I replaced far fewer components than the grifters, allowing me to service more units and hence, customers, earning far more, all with mental effort and accumulated knowledge.
    All, while taking a weekend a month (and frequently, part of a Friday afternoon) and an occasional deployment for a month or three.
    Oddly, I’m not toking up, since I’ve militarily retired.
    But, I’ve garnered an odd reputation, being utterly honest in nearly everything. Where I’m dishonest is where someone’s feelings may be injured, such as “do I look fat in this?”, when well, you look fat in everything, but you do look good in this outfit is suggested as a superior look for the day.
    On the military side, I also had to use my mind, avoiding conflict that was unnecessary. I was a senior enlisted leader, who frequented the very front lines, giving my subordinates a chance to learn and grow by their rotating through my position. Those that succeeded, got a critique anyway, with suggested improvements. Those that failed got the same.

    The point is, knowing bullshitters vs the real deal.
    Which is the real world. And add, my wife and I actually met Trump once, didn’t care for the experience or the rest of the evening as he attempted to hijack everything and well, was the penultimate boor the third, followed by him in the previous titles.
    The Chamber of Commerce function experienced a 70% loss in attendance, just due to that, per the survey that followed the nearly absent next function.
    Showmen are great at the show, lousy at life and social interactions, due to the sociopathy present in them.

    Or, tldr; I’d not trust Musk to fold my underwear and I really don’t give a shit about it being folded!
    He’s muddling through and conning his way through, period.
    I have as many goals and actually, more, but I don’t trumpet them, I implant subversive ideas in various areas and let the notions take root.
    Old habits do die hard.*

    *No, I wasn’t psyops, I was SF. Most of our duties did not involve killing houses, trees and people, but gathering information and disseminating it onward and cultivating a more friendly environment.

  28. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Stumble: “In what possible way is charging 1/8 your costs competitor a scam?”

    It is a scam if you claim you are selling the same thing as your competitor when in fact your product is less reliable. Their reliability now is slightly below that of China and about the same as India’s.

    There’s a reason why “rocket science” is thought of as hard.

  29. jack lecou says

    You can talk about whether Musk has had an important role in changing the auto industry or the space industry. But if you’re trying to gauge Musk as a human being, how cool the cars are is a very separate issue.

    That assumes that gauging Musk as a human being is what they’re trying to do, which isn’t clear to me. I’m not sure it’s even an interesting question: he’s clearly a total asshole. What’s there to discuss?

    The interesting thing is why that sort of article gets written about Musk. If you like, why is there such a Musk cult?

    Why does that particular kind of article, with the glowing comparisons to Thomas Edison or Prometheus himself or whatever, get written? There are scores of other sociopathic executives with loads of money, why not one of them?

    I think the answer is that Musk really is a bit different, for better or worse. He’s weird. He’s unpredictable. And he really does seem to have a genuine passion for, e.g., trying to carve out a future for humanity in space. Which is a goal a lot of people find inspiring.

    Even if you think that goal is ill-advised, you’ve got to admit having one at all is…different. I doubt there are any, say, bank or oil CEOs with quite the same level of dedication to anything but making money. If he was an equally sociopathic exec at Wells Fargo or Exxon, coasting along with defrauding and foreclosing on grandmothers or poisoning the atmosphere in order to hit that end of quarter 0.1% profit growth and putting the requisite bonus into refurbishing his third superyacht, he’d be unremarkable.

    It’s not the assholery or sociopathy that sets him apart, it’s having genuine goals that aren’t quite as banal as is usual for someone in a position of power.

    And then it doesn’t hurt that he does seem to have had success with it, and certainly catalyzed some actual change. He obviously didn’t do it alone, but Spacex, for example, is shaking up the previously rather stagnant rocketry/military industrial complex business quite a bit, and helping pave the way for a lot of others, like Blue Origin, Rocketlab, etc.

  30. jack lecou says

    It is a scam if you claim you are selling the same thing as your competitor when in fact your product is less reliable. Their reliability now is slightly below that of China and about the same as India’s.

    I’m not sure what you’re implying, but on the face it seems pretty silly. Unless you’re claiming there are dozens of secret failed launches that are somehow being covered up, then it’s hard to see how anyone would be getting ‘scammed’.

    Everybody in the industry understands perfectly well that the risks of an ultra-expensive payload vanishing in a spectacular fireball varies from provider to provider, and is decidedly non-zero with all of them. If you’re in the market for a satellite launch, you’ll be doing your homework, and the flight records of the various platforms are easily available and verifiable. Particularly, to, e.g., the payload insurance company that you’re going to be paying alongside the rocket company, and who’s going to charge you extra premiums for unproven or riskier platforms.

    (Also, I’m not sure how you’re counting ‘reliability’. According to the Pfft!, the Indian space program has been developing launch platforms since 1970 or so and looks like it’s achieved target orbit something like 49 times out of 62 attempts, with various platforms. Spacex has 30 fewer years of experience, but stands at 59/63. Of course, a simple overall failure/success ratio is probably the wrong measure anyway. The record for early prototypes obviously isn’t directly applicable to the — presumably more refined and reliable — later models, so you have to look deeper. On that front, it looks like even NASA considers current-model falcons good enough for manned launches, pending some paperwork. One would hope that’s a pretty high bar. Maybe India and China are doing even better, but either way it’s pretty good.)

  31. stumble says

    @36

    You know these numbers are out there right? There is an entire industry that published number on the cost to insure launch vehicles. This is not a direct proxy of course for reliability of a rocket, but they are pretty close. The lowest insurance rate in the industry is 4.2% for the EU’s Ariane5, a heavy lift vehicle with a launch price of $150m. The second lowest insurance rates are for the Falcon 9 at 4.6% with a cost to launch of $50m.

    Even accounting for the slightly higher cost to insure the F9 the total cost to orbit is about $100m cheaper on a $500m satellite (say a Block 3 GPS).

  32. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Jack and Stumble,
    The thing about spacecraft is that they look just fine until they fail–and keeping that from happening requires a process. SpX doesn’t have that. Believe me, I am well aware of the numbers.

  33. jack lecou says

    The thing about spacecraft is that they look just fine until they fail–and keeping that from happening requires a process. SpX doesn’t have that. Believe me, I am well aware of the numbers.

    Then you must have some numbers to back up that reliability claim in 36. From here, it kinda looks like moving the goalposts to a vaguer, FUD-y, less- or un-quantifiable claim about mysteriously deficient “processes”.

    But if you can back that up, go for it. Which processes do you mean, exactly? Engineering? Manufacturing consistency? Quality control? Corporate culture? In what way do they differ or come up short compared to equivalent (and presumably adequate by your standards) processes at NASA, ULA, Arianespace, or Roscosmos? (None of which have proven themselves to be immune to unexpected problems, or “keeping that from happening”, you’ll note.)

    I don’t have any special insight into those “processes” myself, but there are experts out there who do, and the willingness of relatively space-savvy customers like the USAF and NASA to rely on Spacex seems to me to argue against accepting your assertion as the null hypothesis. The fact that they’re neck and neck with ULA in the commercial crew program seems particularly relevant. If there was some fundamental flaw, you’d think that would have come to light by now. (I expect someone at Boeing would surely have sniffed it out and leaked it as widely as possible, if nothing else.)

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