By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A devastating portrayal of Elon Musk raises serious questions about capitalism run amok

Musk’s control of satellite communications in Ukraine is a source of worry to both Ukrainian and U.S. officials. Photo (cc) 2016 by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

Elon Musk gets the Ronan Farrow treatment in the current issue of The New Yorker. Although much of the ground covered in Farrow’s 5,500-word profile is familiar, the cumulative effect is devastating. Musk comes across as an out-of-control egomaniac with scant regard for safety at SpaceX and Tesla, his grandiosity fed by what may be his overindulgence in ketamine, described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as “a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects.” Emotionally abused by his father, Musk has now been disowned by his daughter, who’s come out as transgender even as Elon has indulged anti-trans hate-mongering on the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.

Farrow also offers new details about the U.S. government’s utter dependence on Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet network, which powers the Ukrainian military’s communications in its war with Russia (as well as Musk’s sucking up to Russian President Vladimir Putin), and on his rocket company, which is the sole means NASA has at the moment for launching its own satellites. The overarching picture that emerges is not just a portrait of a multi-billionaire who has way too much power, but of a culture so enamored of unfettered capitalism that it has forfeited the means to rein him in.

“There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told Farrow. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.” The same could be said of Starlink’s role in Ukraine’s war for survival or, for that matter, Musk’s opening up Twitter to disinformation about everything from COVID to election denialism.

As I was listening to the audio version of Farrow’s story, I was also thinking back to a podcast I heard a few months ago in which tech journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Walter Isaacson, who is writing a biography of Musk. Isaacson is widely respected, and I admired his biography of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Yet he came across as weirdly obsequious in talking about Musk, even going so far as to take seriously Musk’s ambitions to turn Twitter into an “everything app” that would handle your financial transactions and who knows what else. Swisher, to her credit, wasn’t having any of it.

Maybe Isaacson was bluffing so that Musk wouldn’t cut off access or trash his book before it comes out (it’s scheduled for Sept. 12). I hope it turns out to be as tough-minded as his Jobs bio. In any event, Farrow has set a high bar.

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  1. Lex Alexander

    The government should make it crystal-clear to Musk that if he does one thing to help Putin (or helps Putin by refraining from doing something), he will be indicted and prosecuted for treason.

    • Misanthro Mike

      I don’t need to look overseas to find my enemies

  2. John Anderson

    Without disputing that he’s a despicable human being, it’s hard not to respect his accomplishments – raising the money and talent to revolutionize the auto industry, and also dominating the satellite communications industry. Reminds me of Steve Jobs – graphic interfaces, WYSIWYG, iPods, iPads – all things that had zero market share when Apple introduced them. I’ll be interested to hear the contrast of Jobs vs Musk.

  3. Jay Griffin

    Where is Carl Marx when we need him?

  4. Henry Ford, Howard Hughs, and Thomas Edison each improved the world. Musk joins that honored set of inventors and entrepreneurs. His critics have more verbal skills than engineering or invention.

  5. shawn oneill

    I think Musk has made it clear that he does not support Putin. He is supporting Ukraine and even gave them starlink for free. Keep in mind that Starlink is from SpaceX which is a private company. They were not obligated to give away millions of dollars in hardware and services. Yes, he later asked for assistance in covering the cost but again, this was coming out of private pockets.

    Payments make sense. He started Paypal back in the day. He knows that business. Why not add that to X?

    Tesla is kicking the pants off all the other car companies. That is not something that just happens. It takes a lot of engineering and business strategy. Also, Tesla AI is well beyond any competitor. Again, this is a Steve Jobs thing. He pushed this because he has intense interest in it.

    SpaceX did not dominate the space industry by accident. That takes a lot of engineering, business management, etc. Musk might not be what some people call an “Engineer” but he is exactly the type of engineer that is needed to drive innovation.

    Nuralink is another company he started. He is interest in the potential of brain machine interfacing. They have already done some amazing things. Soon, people paralyzed or missing limbs will be as good as new.(It might be a while for this but it will get there some day.)

    Boring company, just an idea to deal with some problems. Kind of a small side adventure. Why not?

    I do not agree with Musk’s choice of politics. I only agree with his engineering and business. But in this country, we don’t have to agree and that is a good thing.

    For those that don’t like capitalism, move to Rusia. Hey, Putin just assonated all the top Wagner leadership yesterday by shooting their plane out of the sky. Also, the Putin media in Russia can tell you what to think and believe so you can be happy.

  6. Matthew Weilenmann

    The hell was that whole ending to this article? Abrupt, and just poorly written.

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