A look inside Elon Musk’s strange world – and what he thinks of himself

Elon Musk (pictured) gave biographer Walter Isaacson two years of access
Elon Musk (pictured) gave biographer Walter Isaacson two years of access - AFP

The danger with writing about a person as mercurial as Elon Musk is that by the time your book comes out, they will have done something outrageous that you couldn’t include. For instance, Walter Isaacson’s approved biography of the tech billionaire is published today, yet only last week, Musk accused the Anti-Defamation League, the American non-governmental organisation that identifies and criticises anti-Semitism, of causing a fall in Twitter’s advertising revenue. Most people, by contrast, attribute that financial nosedive to Musk’s erratic tinkering with his new toy since he took it over last year.

Musk’s grandiose mission, often stated, is to save humanity by colonising Mars. So why did he want to bother with Twitter, the digital equivalent of herding cats? In Isaacson’s deeply researched biography, based on two years of shadowing Musk and many interviews with the Tesla CEO and his associates, a few reasons are offered. Musk himself tells Isaacson that that the world’s “online public square” was crucial to the survival of democracy, and thus in turn crucial to the Martian future, but Twitter had been infected by a “woke mind virus” – which it fell to him to root out.

Musk was also obsessed with turning Twitter into the equivalent of the Chinese “everything app” WeChat, making it a financial as well as a social hub. This is also what Musk wanted to do when he co-founded PayPal in the early 2000s and pushed unsuccessfully for it to be branded as X.com (a domain he already owned, and now Twitter’s official name).Perhaps the most persuasive reason for Musk’s pursuit of Twitter, however, is the one offered by Isaacson: a deeply unhappy boy with an abusive father, regularly bullied at school in South Africa, had grown up and seen a chance to “own the playground”.

Isaacson, best known for his 2011 biography of another controversial tech entrepreneur, Apple’s Steve Jobs, will win no prizes for his prose. Of Musk’s first wife, Justine Wilson, he writes that “with flowing hair and a mysterious smile, she managed to be radiant and sultry at the same time”. A later wife, the English actress Talulah Riley, has “flowing hair” as well.

But we learn a lot about Musk’s impressive brood of 11 children – he’s doing his bit to combat the fertility crisis – including a hitherto unannounced third baby with singer Grimes, catchily christened Tau Techno Mechanicus. (Tau is twice pi.) Isaacson’s accounts of rolling crises over rocket engines and car designs are vivid and pacy, and his analysis of his subject’s personality is a persuasive mixture of alarm and deep admiration.

Musk and then-wife Talulah Riley in 2013
Musk and then-wife Talulah Riley in 2013 - WireImage

Like Jobs, Musk is often unpleasant, but he has done impressive things. Those who dislike his personality or politics, which began as vanilla techno-libertarianism but have of late veered towards the conspiratorial right, also try to play down his achievements. It may be true that his tunnelling operation, The Boring Company, is a joke, while nothing much has come from his robotics operation, Optimus, or his brain-computer interface wheeze, Neuralink. At the same time, Musk made electric cars cool with Tesla Motors, and rejuvenated the space industry with SpaceX, building the first rocket that can return to Earth and land on its launchpad to be re-used. Those are not minor accomplishments. “Sometimes,” Isaacson observes, “great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training.”

Yet serious issues can arise when un-potty-trained man-children intervene in geopolitics. According to Isaacson, last year, when Ukrainian forces were planning a drone-submarine attack on Russian warships at anchor in Crimea, Musk deactivated the Starlink satellites on which the drones depended for their internet capability, on the grounds that he feared the attack might escalate the conflict to a nuclear war. The drones sank harmlessly, off-target. “If the Ukrainian attacks had succeeded in sinking the Russian fleet,” he tells Isaacson, “it would have been like a mini Pearl Harbor and led to a major escalation.”

In response to discussion of this story last week, Musk claimed on Twitter that, rather than deactivating the Starlink satellites, he had simply refused an “emergency request” from Ukraine to turn them on in that region. Isaacson hastily agreed, leading to confusion over which version of the story is true. Either way, it might seem sub-optimal for a private citizen with links, via SpaceX, to the US Defense Department – which officially supports Ukraine – to have the power to decide how a war on the other side of the world should be prosecuted. Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and campaigner for Russian democracy, remarked that this showed “how dangerous it is to have fickle, misinformed oligarchs with leverage over US national security”.

Musk says that Sam Bankman-Fried (pictured) made his 'bulls--t detector' go off
Musk says that Sam Bankman-Fried (pictured) made his 'bulls--t detector' go off - Bloomberg

That’s the trouble with super-rich tech bros in general: enjoying remarkable success in one field, and marvelling at their own high IQs, they decide that they must also be better than everyone else at everything. At least you can say that, on the evidence of Isaacson’s book, Musk retains some worldly scepticism. He instantly fingers Sam Bankman-Fried, the alleged crypto fraudster currently complaining about the food in prison while awaiting trial in New York, as a huckster. “My bullshit detector went off like a red alert on a Geiger counter,” Musk recalls of their first conversation.

Musk also has a sense of his own limitations, matter-of-factly describing his own Asperger’s syndrome – not officially diagnosed but presumed by him and his associates – and constantly sighing to Isaacson about his own propensity to shoot himself in the foot: “I should wear Kevlar boots.” Yet the most useful fact we learn here about Musk’s personality is that he’s a dark and relentless ironist. He often says things for effect, and no one around him can quite tell whether or not he’s joking.

This, at least, makes sense of his public pronouncements on Twitter, whether it’s branding emergency rescuers “paedos” or amplifying Covid scepticism – for instance, by tweeting “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”, referring to Antony Fauci, US chief medical advisor. In the technical parlance of online anthropology, Musk is a “s---poster”: someone who revels in comic nihilism and winding up the pious. But what happens when a s---poster considers the whole world to be his playground? That’s all very well, but a s---poster shouldn’t have the whole world for his playground.


Elon Musk is published by Simon & Schuster at £28. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books