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.