Walter Isaacson on Musk's Legacy and Criticism of His Biography

C.E.O. of Tesla, Chief Engineer of SpaceX and C.T.O. of X Elon Musk speaks during the New York Times annual DealBook summit on November 29, 2023 in New York City. Credit - Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images

In an excerpt from a new podcast, On Musk with Walter Isaacson, biographer Isaacson, the bestselling author of Elon Musk (and a former TIME editor), talks with host Evan Ratliff about criticism of his book, Musk's geopolitical influence, and why he took over Twitter.

Evan Ratliff: I want to talk about some of the criticism that comes up around the book and giving you a chance to respond. There's Musk being a difficult and demanding person, even an asshole, whether that matters for how creative he is, how innovative he is. And then there's these sort of larger societal accusations. Let's say like, allowing misinformation or encouraging misinformation, or the self-driving and people getting killed or the sort of lawsuit against Tesla when it comes to racial discrimination. Those seem to be two separate ideas, and I'm wondering, we've talked a lot about the first one and how you feel about that second basket, that question of whether, aside from whether he is or isn't a bad person to his employees, there are things that he's doing in the world that have negative implications.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, I think when you barrel ahead impulsively, you do things that have negative implications. You know, bad workplace environments. Well, it starts at the top because he's all in, hardcore driven. He's not there to what he thinks are touchy feely HR, guidelines. And that's bad. Likewise, he pushes a little fast on full self driving. I mean, he feels that humans will kill 10 or 100 times more people than a self-driving car will. So he doesn't get the fact that a self driving just, you know, one time as it did this once hit a side of a big white truck, you know, and that's been in the news after three, four years. It's still in the news. He says, you know, people focus on that, not the million of people got killed by humans. It's because he doesn't have a real feel for human feelings and emotions. He doesn't realize that a self-driving car smashing somebody into a truck is gonna really shake people up more than the fact that a bad driver, you know, here on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans got into an accident. So these are the things that his engineering mindset doesn't feel as well.

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And I feel like when people bring those things up, they're often saying, they want you to engage with those things more. And we've talked about, you know, explaining what's going on versus moralizing. But how do you feel about how you engaged with sort of that aspect of Musk?

I like the fact that people who say I'm not as tough on Musk as I should be are always using anecdotes from my book to show why we should be tough on Musk. And a couple people have pointed that out. Certainly if you're looking at the bad workplace environments that he may engender either at Tesla or at Twitter–that's in the book, you know, in no uncertain terms. Likewise, the accidents on the self-driving cars are definitely in the book starting with Autonomy Day in 2019 all the way to the present. There's a lot of evidence that his obsession with this might be moving things too fast.

So, I'm perfectly happy when people say I should have been tougher on Musk, but also say, man, read the book. If you want ammunition, both of how amazing he can be at times and getting things done, but also the rubble he leaves in his wake.

When it came to the Ukraine Starlink situation, you've talked about that…the thing that got corrected in the post and Musk tweeting, but maybe you've talked about this, but I haven't heard it yet, but I'm interested in what it felt like for you. Like you strike me as someone who's like relatively unbothered by some of the noise that's around these things.

I think you have to be unbothered by the noise and you have to keep the essence of the story. And the essence of that story was fine, it was correct, which was that night he was deciding whether or not to allow Starlink to be enabled or not be enabled to allow a sneak attack on Crimea. And there was a fix that had to be made because it had already been geofenced, so his decision was not to permit the movement of the geofencing.

I hadn't gone into it enough, I just said he turned it off, so that was oversimplifying. But I didn't want to get distracted from the main thing, which is this private citizen is suddenly deciding that night whether or not Ukraine gets to do a sneak attack on the Russian fleet in Crimea. The essence is a private citizen has that power to decide and neither he nor anybody else corrected that.

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And then I talked to him, I said, have you talked to the U. S. government? And he turns over power to these satellites to the U. S. government.

At a later point.

Yeah, at a later point, after that night where we talk about it. So you see... All of these things happen, and I try to have it shown in real time. And the essence of the story being, how does somebody acquire this much power? Why is it that the rest of government and other contractors have become so paralyzed and sclerotic that they can't do some of these things? And then how does he, with his megalomania, finally back down and say, maybe I should give up some of this power.

There's something chilling about Musk's power and influence growing beyond his companies, beyond the rocket launch pad and the Tesla factory floor. And in the case of Starlink satellite's use in Ukraine, even Musk himself finds this a little unsettling. From failing to understand how people might respond to self driving car deaths, to his outwardly blasé approach to controlling global geopolitics with a thumbs up or thumbs down, like a Roman emperor in the Colosseum. People are not Elon Musk's forte, by his own admission. But we are increasingly in his hands.

And depending on where you stand on Musk, some of his ideas can seem either sinister, logical, or simply baffling. Take, for example, his stated concern about underpopulation and declaration that people need to be having more children. More specifically, smart people need to be having more children. It's a creed he's lived with all 10 of his surviving children born by IVF. He's put his money behind it too, funding a University of Texas at Austin research group called the Population Well Being Initiative, to the tune of $10 million. What I wanted to know from Isaacson… was given his front row seat to Musk's unusual family dramas, what are we supposed to make of this particular Musk obsession?

Like a lot of things with Elon Musk, he goes back to the father a bit. It also goes to Musk's theory that consciousness in the human species is a fragile thing. And one of the threats is a low birth rate. Most of us probably don't think that way. We think we're overpopulated. But there is a decline in birth rate in many, many countries. And Musk deeply feels that that's a problem. And you know, people can totally disagree with that and say, hey, overpopulation is a big problem. They can also think he's weird to fund IVF for other people or fund clinics.

That's it. It feels like such a classic Musk thing that I've learned from reading this book, which is it's the kind of thing where people can look at it and they can say, he has this vision for humanity and it involves like people having more children. And then there are people who dislike him who kind of see it through a lens of, is this some kind of eugenics situation…I feel like people bring these lenses to it and I'm wondering if that has happened in your past work, or if this is a unique situation.

I think it's somewhat unique that people have such extraordinarily strong feelings for and against Musk. When I started working on this book, he was one of the most popular people on earth. There's some people who didn't like him, but his politics was generally a supporter of Obama. He had done really bad, dumb tweets in the past, like saying he was going to take Tesla private or calling some cave diver a pedophile. But generally, he wasn't that controversial. And then his politics shift, and it's reflected in his tweets, and he buys Twitter.

SpaceX's Starship rocket launches from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023. SpaceX on November 18, 2023, carried out the second test launch of Starship, the largest rocket ever built that Elon Musk hopes will one day colonize Mars. <span class="copyright">TIMOTHY A. CLARY-AFP/Getty Images</span>
SpaceX's Starship rocket launches from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023. SpaceX on November 18, 2023, carried out the second test launch of Starship, the largest rocket ever built that Elon Musk hopes will one day colonize Mars. TIMOTHY A. CLARY-AFP/Getty Images

And so I end up with a book in which people either think he's an absolute hero or an absolute villain. And if you come at it from a frame of Musk is inherently an evil person, even having a lot of kids seems like something evil. And, pushing for self driving cars or robots seems evil. Likewise, if you're one of these starry eyed fans, even the weird, dark things he does on Twitter, people will be slamming me for telling the stories of his behavior, both at Twitter and at factories. So, yeah, it's a difficulty that people frame his every action, often based on their own love or hatred for him.

There's a tension it feels like between the way that Musk talks about that epic idea, getting to Mars, helping save humanity with interplanetary species, et cetera, and the way he treats individual people, like he doesn't like people, sometimes he can be very cruel. And I'm wondering does he really care or is he just trying to make himself an epic figure or is he actually trying to solve the energy problem and send us to Mars for humanity reasons?

When Musk first started talking about his three great missions: space travel, artificial intelligence, and sustainable energy, I thought it was a type of pontifications that you'd do for a biographer or do for a podcaster, do for a pep talk. And then I'd see him over and over again, just chanting to himself, like walking around the factory for building Starship and things are getting delayed.

And he would keep saying to himself and others around him, we have to have an urgency of getting humanity to Mars. And I came to believe that I don't know if he always fully believed it, but I know he believed he believed it. I know that they sound strange, but sometimes, as Shakespeare teaches us, we become the mask we wear. And he had internalized and externalized this so much that he was driven by a fierce urgency that we've got to get rockets that can get us to Mars within the next few decades, or that we have to sustain solar and battery and electric vehicle energy on this planet. And I am totally convinced that he is driven by his belief in those missions, and then he backfills and figures out, well, how can I make money on the way.

But if you're driven mainly by financial or selfish reasons, you're not going to start a rocket company. That's not a good idea for making money. You're not going to start an EV company when every other car company is getting out of the business. You're not going to worry about robots, and you're not going to buy Twitter, so I don't think he was motivated by money. He was motivated by this almost man child epic sense of him as a hero in a comic book or a video game.

Twitter one is interesting because I felt like the way you wrote that almost reversed the poles there in which he decides to buy Twitter, impulsively decides, gets stuck with it, and then he almost seems to be back filling the mission where he says, like, actually...

I ask him at one point, how does this fit into your mission? Makes no sense. I mean, I'm thinking it's idiotic to buy Twitter because he doesn't have a fingertip feel for social emotional networks, and he admits, he said, yes, maybe it's a lark, maybe it doesn't really fit in. And then later he says, well, maybe it will help democracy so that civilization will survive long enough that we'll be able to become multi-planetary.

And that's where I just didn't believe him, and I'm not even sure he believed himself. That's just a bull crap explanation. But he had to try to justify it to himself. But my own opinion is he kind of stumbled into that impulsively and had mixed feelings about it, and if he had to do it all over again, I'm not sure he would.

The other reason Musk gives for buying Twitter—one he seems to get a lot of play for in some corners of the world—is that he is fighting against wokeness, or more specifically, what Musk calls anti-woke-mind virus. When he talks about, anti-woke mind virus, he uses that phrase. And that really touches on things that have become, you know, third rails in society in terms of how they're discussed. I'm curious how you kind of engaged with that idea with him. I mean, he's someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa. So obviously like his views on race and other societal issues are going to be colored by that. Like, what does he mean when he says something like that?

The way I engage with it, and you see it in the book, is I question it. I say, why do you, why are you following this particular conspiracy?

And I'll even talk about Occam's razor, which is the simplest explanation, maybe the best one, instead of thinking there's a vast conspiracy of drug makers and. COVID vaccines, or people trying to lockdown so they control government, or any of these things that he goes to. I'm not that way. I'm not conspiratorial.

Uh,  and I find that anti-political correctness and wokeness sentiment… it's a little hard for me to explain because my head's not there. You know, I think sometimes what we call being woke is being polite and sensitive to other people's feelings.  And I'll ask him about that. I say, Hey, did you understand, you've got a daughter who transitioned.

And he'll say things when he's in a more rational mood of, well, I don't mind people using pronouns, but you know, it gouges my eyes out when I see it too much. I'm going, why? What's the problem?

But it's when he's in his dark moods, this eats away at him. And the book, I describe his political evolution from being an Obama supporter to being  supporting Bobby Kennedy, then Ron DeSantis, you know, people who are worried about wokeness or worried about conspiracy theories. And I never try to excuse it in the book. I don't excuse what I call the rabbit hole, going down these rabbit holes of conspiracy. Uh,  I do try to explain it, from his childhood, from his father, whatever. And until you read the book. I think critics can have a difficulty saying, is he explaining it or is he excusing it?  And the simple mantra I always use is–let me tell you a story.

So, I'll explain something. And then I'll tell a story about  a particularly horrible tweet he did, like: “Prosecute Fauci are my pronouns.” I mean, just in a few words, he’s able to attack transgender pronouns and Anthony Fauci. And...  I talk about his father having said all these sort of things and him being in a hotbox room in Twitter, and he's going dark and giddy and one of the people in the room starts joking about Fauci and pronouns.

But if you read that anecdote or that story, you're not going to say, Walter excused it.  You're not going to say he tried to sugarcoat it. You're going to see the rawness that's there sometimes in Elon Musk

You've talked about how you think Twitter will just be a blip of his legacy, but he certainly can and is getting mired in it. And there's this quote in the book. It's him saying, I probably spent too much time on Twitter. It's a good place to dig your own grave. You get your shoulder into it and you keep on digging.

Do you feel that he could be undoing some of that magic– that vision that you captured when it comes to space or electric cars?

Yeah, I personally feel that the time he spends on Twitter and the mindshare he devotes to it is not as important, it's not as high value as him doing something else. And I don't think he's particularly good at the social interactions and human emotions that come in Twitter. And he admits he's just addicted to it.

I don't think it's going to be an important part of his legacy. It's not going to be a great part of his legacy. I think it makes the book more interesting for this guy to go down this rabbit hole. But also, near the end of the book, to say, you know, this isn't the best use of my time, even talking about Twitter, he said, we probably could be talking about more important things.

It's also…it's made him disliked in a way that I feel like he wasn't disliked before. I mean, if you look at the category of things that people dislike him for– Twitter and things he's said on Twitter and done with Twitter–occupy a large percentage of those things.

Absolutely. When you look at the controversy he's caused, and for that matter, the enmity and hatred that he's engendered, about 95 percent of that comes either from what he says on Twitter, or what he does on Twitter, or what he does to Twitter.

Musk is polarizing, arguably, one of the two most polarizing figures of our time. I'll let you guess the other. His fans can be slavishly adoring. His critics can be blind with rage. But if there was one common thread among the more critical takes on Isaacson's biography, it was a demand for more judgment or at least analysis from Isaacson. What was the ultimate meaning in all these stories he'd gathered, these hours at Musk's side? Were we supposed to believe that he was some kind of tortured genius?

I'm here to be as straightforward as I can, with the reader in mind, to tell you stories that I think are very revealing, somewhat exciting, somewhat appalling, but always informative. And in face of the criticism that, well, maybe I didn't render too much judgment, I tried pretty hard to pull back a bit. You can kind of tell what I think by the way I'm telling this story, but I'm not going to hammer that into you. You should wrestle with each of these things and figure out how it fits with your own vision of life.

From the new podcast On Musk with Walter Isaacson, a production of Kaleidoscope and iHeart, available wherever podcasts are.

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