SCIENCE & TECH: Elon Musk biographer Walter Isaacson says mogul ‘can burn fast and flame out’
Walter Isaacson, who has authored bestselling biographies of Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albert Einstein, speaks with On The Money about his new book on Elon Musk. Isaacson, 71, gives his take on fake news, the state of the journalism business and whether Musk’s leadership offers a blueprint for other CEOs to follow.
Walter: The night of the sneak attack attempt, Musk told me he was not allowing Starlink to be used to guide the Ukrainian subs to attack the Russian fleet in Crimea. I mistakenly thought he meant he turned it off that night, but he later said – and I realized – the decision to have it not be enabled was made earlier. But the Ukrainians didn’t know that. I corrected it to say he denied their request to enable it as opposed to saying that night he disabled it. That doesn’t change the main issue which is should this person have the power to enable or not enable an attack.
Lydia: How does Musk think about journalism at X? He’s grappling with a lot in terms of news distribution while also balancing fake news.
Walter: There’s always a balance between opening the aperture to more speech and guarding against misinformation. Sometimes we get the balance wrong. In the past, a lot of social media outlets were pushed to not allow people to question mask mandates or whether COVID came from a lab leak in China. So sometimes we clearly went too far.
[But] .. Musk may be going too far in allowing the amplification of voices that make the platform feel very noxious. He and [X CEO] Linda Yaccarino are going to have to calibrate that. I expect that they will adhere to his idea that there will be freedom of speech not freedom of reach. In other words if you’re saying something that seems problematic, it’s not going to be amplified. But that’s a difficult thing to do as we’ve seen with Facebook, with internet bulletin boards. And I’m not sure he has a perfect feel for that at the moment so I think it’s going to be a problem.
Lydia: Do you think he’s listening to the CEO Linda Yaccarino? Or is she merely a figurehead and he’s the one calling the shots?
Walter: Well he’s calling the shots but he’s listening to her.
Lydia: He came in guns blazing at Twitter, asking 80% of employees to leave and only those who committed to be “hard-core” to stay. Do you think other CEOs will look at this as a blueprint?
Walter: Yes, I think that there will be some CEOs who see him relentlessly pushing the envelope and cutting staff and say that’s the way to go. But it’s also a cautionary tale because at times it’s hurt the service at X. I’m not sure this is a how-to book that CEOs should try at their own company.
There are two types of cultures you can have in a tech company. One extreme is a nurturing culture where people care about work-life balance and “psychological safety” as they used to say at Twitter. That’s extreme. And then the other extreme is the hard-core hackathon culture where people are expected to work all night sometimes and expected to be all in. When Musk went to Twitter headquarters for the first time in October, he was appalled at the slow paced, genteel nature of the culture and said I want to make this place hardcore. It was probably one of the greatest shifts in corporate culture in a three-week period that we’ve ever seen.
Walter: One of Musk’s intentions is to turn X, formerly Twitter, into his vision for X.com 20 years ago which was not just a social media platform but also a payment platform. The original X.com became PayPal but now he wants to make it broader. In doing so he wants to make it so that just like on [Chinese payments and messaging app] WeChat, users will be able to buy songs and pay for journalism, pay for video and so that will turn what was Twitter into something that is more than just a social network but a platform for content creators.
Lydia: Given all the missteps, is it realistic to think he can accomplish that?
Walter: We’re seeing him do it now. As always he’s flying really close to the sun and can burn fast and flame out.
Lydia: What are the biggest differences between Steve Jobs and Musk that we don’t know? Who was more secretive? Who was tougher?
Walter: I’ve written about close to a dozen great innovators. Einstein is different from Leonardo da Vinci and Elon Musk is different from Steve Jobs. I try to let each of the major characters have their own narratives and to show the strengths and weaknesses of each. The strength of Musk is his ability to figure out manufacturing and engineering and to push people incredibly hard. Steve Jobs had those traits but also others – including a very spiritual sense of beauty and a love of design. Maybe someday I’ll write a whole book comparing and contrasting all the geniuses. But as a biographer you want each of the people you write about to have their own story.
Lydia: Deep down, what do you think are Musk’s biggest regrets?
Walter: I think he regrets a lot of things including the fact that when he is in dark moods he shoots himself in the foot, and stabs himself in the thigh by posting things that aren’t informed and by sometimes making impulsive decisions. And if you ask him “what’s your big regret?” He would say I’m addicted to drama, I’m addicted to the storm, and it means I stir things up so much I sometimes do things that harm my goal.
Lydia: You refer to his tweeting as a “palate cleanse,” which is an interesting way of framing something that often has massive implications.
Walter: There’s an addiction he has both to video games and to tweeting – it gives him a surge of excitement and sometimes I wish he had an impulse control button where it would hold it and wouldn’t send it out for a couple of hours so he could reconsider. I also wonder whether an Elon Musk that had impulse control circuit breakers would’ve been as successful in getting rockets to orbit or moving into the era of electric vehicles.
Lydia: Musk has previously said there is no evidence of alien life — did you get visibility into whether his views of unidentified aerial phenomena are more nuanced than that?
Walter: I think that he deeply believes human consciousness may be unique in the universe — that there is no evidence of any other beings that are conscious or that we’ve heard form. And if that’s the case, human consciousness is a flickering candle that is very valuable and that you’ve got to make sure that human consciousness endures. That means making us a space-faring civilization. It means sustaining the energy on this planet and it means making sure artificial intelligence is beneficial to humanity rather than harmful to humanity. That’s what drives him.
Lydia: One profile described you as “the scribe to the new emperor.” Have the media elite lost their power to Big Tech? Nowadays, anyone can consider themselves a journalist by posting on social media.
Walter: I think there’s a good thing that has happened the past 20 years, which is that journalism isn’t simply run by gatekeepers and the media elite. It’s more open – people get to post and blog and be on talk radio and have their own outlets. That generally is a good thing but it also leads sometimes to a lot of misinformation or problems. And I think in the future, especially with AI consuming this information and then processing it to give answers to people, there will be a premium placed on reliable and high value information. Perhaps that will also come when the business model involves more than mainly advertising dollars but payments by users for the journalist or the content. That will be an incentive to provide high value information people will be more willing to pay for.
Lydia: Musk is the richest person in the world and has accomplished more than most people could dream of. Is it possible he gets bored of Tesla?
Walter: No, I think that the concept of self-driving cars is huge for him. It changes not only the way we get around but whether we own cars or summon them when we need them. For him, it ties into the issue of artificial intelligence that can navigate in the real world — processing visual data and tying that to AI. That’s the next big frontier.