How the Elon Musk biography exposes Walter Isaacson

The trouble began days before the biography was even published.

CNN had a story summarizing an excerpt of Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk that claimed Musk had shut down SpaceX’s satellite network, Starlink, to prevent a “Ukrainian sneak attack” on the Russian navy. The Washington Post followed it up, publishing the excerpt where Isaacson claimed Musk had essentially shut down a military offensive on a personal whim.

This reporting did not pass the smell test to me, and I said so at the time; I wondered about the sourcing. One of the things that anyone covering Elon Musk for long enough has to reckon with is that he loves to tell hilarious lies. For instance:

The thing you learn after a while on the Musk beat is that his most self-aggrandizing statements usually bear the least resemblance to reality. Musk says a lot of stuff! Some of it is exaggeration, and some isn’t true at all.

Isaacson’s sweeping 670-page biography has an intense amount of access to the man at its center. The problem is the man is Elon Musk, a guy who in 2011 promised to get us to space in just three years. In reality, the first SpaceX crew launched into orbit almost a decade later. Sure, access is the appeal of the biography — but access gives Musk gets lots of chances to sell his own mythology.

I wanted to know if Isaacson had done his homework

So when I opened the Musk biography, I wanted to know if Isaacson had done his homework. The first thing I did was flip to the back, where the author lists his sources for the Ukraine thing. They are: interviews with Musk, Gwynne Shotwell, and Jared Birchall (Musk’s body man); emails from Lauren Dreyer; and text messages from Mykhailo Fedorov, “provided by Elon Musk.” Other sources are news articles, one of which was about SpaceX curbing Ukraine’s use of drones. Crucially, though, this article says nothing about Ukrainian submarines — instead, it’s primarily about aerial vehicles.

 In his book, Isaacson writes:

Throughout the evening and into the night, he [Musk] personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within a hundred kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.

That final sentence is arresting, isn’t it? I could find no support for it in any of the news articles that Isaacson listed as sources for this chapter. There is a Financial Times story that confirms some Starlink outages during a Ukrainian push against the Russians, but it says nothing about drone subs or washing ashore harmlessly. A New York Times article confirms Musk doesn’t want Starlink running drones but says nothing about drone subs.

What could the possible source for this sentence be? In the following paragraph, Isaacson quotes text messages from Fedorov, who had “secretly shared with him [Musk] the details of how the drone subs were crucial” to the Ukrainians. Not very secret now, I suppose.

Musk disputed Isaacson’s account on Twitter: “SpaceX did not deactivate anything,” he said. “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” he went on, though he did not specify which government’s authorities. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

Isaacson caved immediately:

To clarify on the Starlink issue: the Ukrainians THOUGHT coverage was enabled all the way to Crimea, but it was not. They asked Musk to enable it for their drone sub attack on the Russian fleet. Musk did not enable it, because he thought, probably correctly, that would cause a major war.

Tremendous statement. “To clarify” obfuscates what’s going on: is Isaacson saying his book is wrong? Surely that is what this means since “future editions will be updated” to correct it. The Post corrected its excerpt, anyway. “The Ukrainians thought” — which Ukrainians, and how did Isaacson know their thinking? In his listed sources, we have only the text messages of one Ukrainian, who, for diplomatic purposes, may be obscuring what he knows. “They asked Musk to enable it for their drone attack” is an entirely different account than the one given in the book, which says Musk shut off existing coverage rather than approving extended coverage; what could possibly be the source here? And of course, the last sentence — “Musk did not enable it because he thought, probably correctly, that would cause a major war” — is simple boot-licking.

We are dealing with not one but two unreliable narrators: Musk and Isaacson himself

Isaacson “clarified” further in another tweet. ”Based on my conversations with Musk, I mistakenly thought the policy to not allow Starlink to be used for an attack on Crimea had been first decided on the night of the Ukrainian attempted sneak attack that night,” he wrote on Twitter. “He now says that the policy had been implemented earlier, but the Ukrainians did not know it, and that night he simply reaffirmed the policy.”

There was a way to find out what’s true here, and it would have been to interview more sources, both Ukrainian and US military ones. Isaacson chose not to. Musk’s word was good enough for him — and so, when Musk contested the characterization, Isaacson rolled over.

I am lingering here because it highlights a major problem with Isaacson’s biography. We are dealing with not one but two unreliable narrators: Musk and Isaacson himself. After all, just before issuing his clarification, Isaacson had been touting a walk through the SpaceX factory with CBS’s David Pogue to promote his book. 

Isaacson writes a specific kind of biography. There is even a “genius” boxed set of his biographies that includes Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and — somewhat incongruously — Steve Jobs. 

One way to keep Musk’s myth intact is simply not to check things out

Having made a pattern of writing biographies of important men — and one important woman, Jennifer Doudna of CRISPR fame — Isaacson is now in the position of a kind of kingmaker. To keep up his pattern, everyone he writes about implicitly is branded a genius. 

One way to keep Musk’s myth intact is simply not to check things out. Within the first three paragraphs of the book, Isaacson describes a wilderness survival camp Musk attended, where “every few years, one of the kids would die.” This is a striking claim! I flipped to the “notes” section to see if Isaacson had interviewed any of Musk’s schoolmates. He hadn’t. There are no news articles backing it up, either. So what is the source? Presumably one or more of the Musks — Elon is quoted directly as saying the counselors told him not to die like another kid in a previous year. 

Arguably the entire Musk family has an interest in presenting Elon Musk as preternaturally tough and also as using his tough childhood as an excuse for his continuing bad behavior. There are some weird choices as a result.

Isaacson writes that Musk’s “blood boiled if anyone falsely implied he had succeeded because of inherited wealth or claimed he didn’t deserve to be called a founder of one of the companies he helped start.” The bolding on “falsely” is mine because Isaacson had earlier detailed Errol Musk, Elon’s father, giving Elon and Kimbal Musk “$28,000 plus a beat-up car he bought for $500” to help them start Zip2. Maye, Elon’s mother, contributed another $10,000 and “let them use her credit card because they had not been approved for one.” Certainly Musk got started with family money. Is the problem about the meaning of “inherited wealth”?

Skipping how dependent Musk is on Texas is a howler

Here’s another strange choice. “Over the years, one criticism of Tesla has been that the company was ‘bailed out’ or ‘subsidized’ by the government in 2009.” This is not quite right. Over the years, the criticism has been that Tesla has gotten a great deal of assistance from state, federal, and local governments, sometimes screwing them in the process, as demonstrated by the Buffalo Gigafactory. By one estimate, Tesla alone has gotten more than $3 billion in loans and subsidies from state and local governments. While Isaacson gives a detailed accounting of Tesla’s $465 million in loans from a DOE program, he skips all the rest of the assists Musk has gotten over the years — goodies that have inspired jealousy from the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Then there’s this description of Neuralink, Musk’s brain implant company: “The idea for Neuralink was inspired by science fiction, most notably the Culture space-travel novels by Iain Banks.” Maybe so, but there’s actual science fact: brain-machine interfaces had been implanted in humans as early as 2006, something Isaacson doesn’t mention. Musk certainly didn’t come up with the idea; brain-machine interfaces already existed. Nor does Isaacson mention the gruesome allegations about Neuralink’s test subjects.

But I want to get to the real big one: Musk’s politics. This is a recurring theme for Isaacson, and his perspective is bewildering.

Musk’s dependence on taxpayer largess plays a role here; skipping how dependent Musk is on Texas is a howler. Musk has often donated in ways that will benefit him in Texas, where he has a substantial operation. So writing a sentence like “Musk has never been very political” when Musk has donated more than $1 billion to politicians in the last 20 years is odd.

Now, I personally view Musk as a political nihilist, willing to say whatever he needs to say to get taxpayer money. But it’s undeniable that he’s spent decades palling around with libertarian-to-far-right types (most famously Peter Thiel and David Sacks, who is inexplicably described as “not rigidly partisan” despite coauthoring a noxious book with Thiel that, among other things, suggested date rape wasn’t real). 

If you know these details, Musk looks like a dolt

These long-standing right-wing ties belie the notion advanced by Isaacson that the real cause of Musk’s right-wing pivot is his daughter, Jenna; I found these sections of the book difficult to read, as they essentially amount to victim blaming. In Isaacson’s telling, “Jenna’s anger made Musk sensitive to the backlash against billionaires.” She stopped speaking to her father in 2020 and transitioned without telling him. 

I wonder, though Isaacson doesn’t, if she didn’t tell him because she was afraid to. Musk found out from a member of his security detail — and it’s revealing to me that none of the people around Musk who knew, including Grimes, wanted to break the news. It’s not unusual for queer people to hide from parents they suspect will reject them; there is a reason many gay and trans people have “found families.” 

When Musk tweets, “Take the red pill,” in 2020, Isaacson notes that it’s a reference to The Matrix but does not add that The Matrix is a movie made by two people who later came out as trans. In fact, The Matrix itself is a trans story — in the ’90s, prescription estrogen was literally a red pill. Isaacson includes Ivanka Trump’s reply (“Taken!”) but not that of Matrix creator Lilly Wachowski: “Fuck both of you.” If you know these details, Musk looks like a dolt — sort of a problem for a biographer trying to write a Great Man book.

Similarly, Isaacson falls flat on racial issues — the existence of apartheid in Musk’s youth is barely mentioned. It’s a strange omission; Musk’s maternal grandfather was the chair of the national council of the Social Credit Party, which was openly antisemitic. Haldeman’s beliefs are characterized by Isaacson as “quirky conservative populist views,” which… led him to immigrate to Pretoria, South Africa, which was ruled by the racist apartheid regime. 

Justine Musk and Amber Heard are both disparaged

One of the other things Isaacson doesn’t mention is the alleged racist working conditions at Tesla’s Fremont factory. Recently, a former Tesla worker was awarded millions for racist abuse at work. This does seem relevant to Musk’s politics.

Also relevant: how Isaacson treats Musk’s exes. Justine Musk and Amber Heard are both disparaged. Of Justine Musk, Elon’s mother said, “She has no redeeming feature.” Kimbal Musk, Elon’s brother and sometimes business partner, is quoted as saying, “This is the wrong person for you.” We don’t hear Justine’s side of the story, except via a magazine article she published during her divorce, “I Was a Starter Wife.” It makes me wonder: is Justine under a non-disclosure agreement? Did she sign something with a non-disparagement clause, like Tesla founder Martin Eberhard? Isaacson spoke to her — so why did she have nothing to say?

Similarly, Amber Heard is described by Kimbal as “so toxic,” by Grimes as “chaotic evil,” and by Musk’s chief of staff as “the Joker in Batman… She thrives on destabilizing everything.” Heard is even blamed for Musk’s misbehavior — including “funding secured” in 2018. Even so, Heard’s response is muted enough (“I love him very much,” she says. “Elon loves fire and sometimes it burns him.”) that I wonder if she, too, is NDA’d. By not even bringing up this possibility, Isaacson’s story is inherently skewed.

Isaacson does have time for a lot of Steve Jobs comparisons, which, after a while, begin to feel like product placement

The workers at Musk’s companies, generally, don’t interest his biographer much. Isaacson begins describing the 2018 Fremont production push from Musk’s perspective: “Musk had come to realize that designing a good factory was like designing a good microchip.” During the production surge, Musk began walking the floor, barking questions at workers, and “making decisions on the fly.” He decided that safety sensors were “too sensitive, tripping when there was no real problem.” 

In this chapter, Isaacson cites stories where rank-and-file workers complained about being pressured to take shortcuts and work 10-hour days. “There was some truth to the complaints,” Isaacson writes. “Tesla’s injury rate was 30 percent higher than the rest of the industry.” Leave aside the risible “some truth.” There is a very obvious question that Isaacson had the access to explore: how did Musk’s meddling with the safety sensors, the seat-of-the-pants fixes changes to the manufacturing process, and general “production hell” affect that injury rate? He chose not to. The injuries among Tesla’s workers aren’t mentioned further.

Isaacson does have time for a lot of Steve Jobs comparisons, which, after a while, begin to feel like product placement for his other book. In the index, Jobs is listed as showing up on 20 pages. You’d be forgiven for thinking Jobs was an important part of Musk’s rise, based on the index alone.

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Musk views everyone around him as disposable. The biography teems with mentions of Musk firing people on the spot, demanding to have things his own way even when it is stupid and expensive, and being unable to tolerate even the slightest dissent. “When Elon gets upset, he lashes out, often at junior people,” Jon McNeill, the former president of Tesla, says. 

The later chapters aren’t very revealing

“You definitely realize you’re a tool being used to achieve this larger objective and that’s great,” says Lucas Hughes, who worked as a financial analyst at SpaceX and was one of the junior people Musk lashed out at. “But sometimes tools get worn down and he feels he can just replace that tool.” Musk believes that “when people want to prioritize their comfort and leisure they should leave,” Isaacson writes.

The later chapters aren’t very revealing. Isaacson is bought in on Musk’s vision of AI and his hinky Tesla Bot. The biographer has swallowed Musk’s hype here wholesale. But I remember the days of the “alien dreadnought,” the promises for swappable batteries that never materialized, and the countless other things Musk said that turned out to be, at best, exaggeration. In 10 years, the big revelation that Musk switched off the Ukrainian internet access during a battle may not be the most embarrassing thing Isaacson has committed to the page.

Isaacson wraps up the book by ponderously wondering if Musk’s achievements are possible without his bad behavior: 

Would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training.

This seems to me to be the wrong set of questions. Here are some other ones: If Musk were more receptive to criticism, would his companies be in better shape? If Musk cared more about the team around him, what else could he have accomplished by now? Is achieving the specific vision Musk has for the world worth the injuries he’s inflicted on his workforce? Do we — the readers of Isaacson’s book — want this particular man’s vision of the future at all?

While Isaacson manages to detail what makes Musk awful, he seems unaware of what made Musk an inspiring figure for so long. Musk is a fantasist, the kind of person who conceives of civilizations on Mars. That’s what people liked all this time: dreaming big, thinking about new possible worlds. It’s also why Musk’s shifting political stance undercuts him. The fantasy of the conservative movement is small and sad, a limited world with nothing new to explore. Musk has gone from dreaming very, very big to seeming very, very small. In the hands of a talented biographer, this kind of tragic story would provide rich material.



Source link