If he wasn’t known for running EV car maker Tesla, Elon Musk would still be known for SpaceX, his spacecraft and satellite company with Martian ambitions. Or for Neuralink, a company working on developing implantable brain–computer interfaces. Or for X.AI, the latest entry in the artificial intelligence arms race. Or, of course, for buying social media network Twitter, then promptly deconstructing everything about it, from the staff, to the name (now simply “X”), to much of its established functionality.
He’s also known for “Demon Mode” rages, for embracing online conspiracy theories, for reinstating some of the worst previously banned Twitter offenders, and most recently, for threatening to sue the ADL for harming Twitter’s advertising business (the anti-hate organization calls the lawsuit threat “frivolous.”)
If that’s not enough for a detail-packed biography from Walter Isaacson, I don’t know what is. The latest, from the author of books on Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, is simply called “Elon Musk,” and spends more than 600 pages on Musk’s life, from childhood to the latest Twitter controversies.
He sat down with Gizmodo for an extended talk about the new book the day after its September 12 release. The following is an edited and condensed version of that talk. A shorter video Q&A is above.
Dan Ackerman: Why are we so fascinated with Elon Musk? There are a lot of rich people out there trying to put their stamp on the world. What about him in particular, makes him a personality that we can’t stay away from?
Walter Isaacson: I’ve always liked to talk about disruptive innovators, whether it be Steve Jobs or Jennifer Doudna, who’s great at bringing us into the era of genetic editing. When I started this book, [Musk] was bringing us into the era of electric vehicles, and other companies had almost gotten out of that business, and he’s been able to do more than probably any other person to move us towards that era of electric vehicles. Secondly, he was the only person able to get astronauts into orbit from the United States, or to be able to shoot off rockets into orbit and land them and reuse them. So he seemed like a pretty innovative guy. A year into working on this book, he decided to buy Twitter, so that made it more of a weird roller coaster.
DA: As a biographer, you say a lot by who you choose to profile, whether it’s Ben Franklin or Steve Jobs or Leonardo da Vinci. Where does Elon fit into that continuum?
WI: We talk about smart people, but smart people are a dime a dozen. Who thinks different? Who can be creative? Who questions every requirement? Well, you get Einstein, who’s greatest “think differently” ever is to figure out that the speed of light is constant, but time is relative. You know, that’s really a leap that nobody else would have taken at the time. Obviously, Steve Jobs brings us into a whole bunch of new industries, including friendly personal computers, the cell phone industry, the music industry, disrupts a lot of things. And likewise with Musk, it’s not necessarily that he’s smart. I mean, Bill Gates has more processing power, I would say, but it’s an ability to be disruptive that I find interesting because it’s a key to creativity. It’s really the essence I explored in Leonardo da Vinci because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate of that.
DA: You mentioned “think different” which makes me think of Apple and the overlap between someone like Elon Musk and someone like Steve Jobs, especially in their personality traits. Both might be said to lack some level of personal empathy and both can create this reality distortion field around them. Do you think Musk appreciates being compared to Steve Jobs?
WI: He doesn’t really talk about Jobs that much. I think both of them have a reality distortion field. Both of them drive people crazy, drive them insane. But also drive them to do things they didn’t think they’d be able to do.
It’s certainly not the most tabloid-worthy part of the book, but one of the most interesting parts of the book to me is that Musk cared as much about the manufacturing process as he did about the product. He said designing a product is hard, but what’s really hard is to make the machine that makes the machine…if you look at Elon Musk’s desk in Hawthorne, California, in Fremont, Texas, at the Austin Gigafactory, it’s right on the assembly line. Because he says if you’re designing a product, you have to see at each moment, how it’s being made and where the bottlenecks are.
DA: Another fascinating thing that came out from the book that people have been talking about is Elon Musk’s involvement with Starlink and Ukraine…Do you buy his argument about his motivation, wanting to prevent a huge escalation that might lead into World War Three?
WI: I know it sounds naive, but this guy is apocalyptic. And I remember talking to him that night, and many other times. It’s like, “Oh, my God, if this happens, they’ll go nuclear.” He said, I’ve talked to the Russian ambassador and they’ve said they have this doctrine, Russian law, that if you attack the homeland, we have the right to retaliate nuclear.
He says to me, I did Starlink so people could watch Netflix movies and chill and play video games. Why am I in this war? And I’m like, why are you in this war?
DA: That sounds high-minded, whether you agree with him or not. But then there’s this other side that we’ve seen, I call it kind of his “heel turn,” embracing of a lot of radical right wing figures on Twitter, his embrace of the “ban the ADL” movement on Twitter. Part of it feels performative to me, does it feel that way to you?
WI: There’s not an easy answer there because he’s a very mercurial person. And if you’re with him in the middle of the day you’re talking to him, and he’s in his engineering rational mode, he’s actually quite a centrist. But if you’ve got him in a dark mood, which Grimes calls “Demon Mode,” he gets really dark, and he has populist, more fringe theories that he engages with on Twitter which allows it to be amplified more, which is in my mind, not a pretty sight.
DA: To what degree do you think he regrets getting involved with Twitter at all now, besides even the money. Is it a distraction from all of the other things that he feels he has been put here on Earth to do?
WI: As you’ll read in the book, there are moments where he’s like, how did I get into this? He’s yelling at his lawyers, Alex Spiro and others: “You can win this case in Delaware and get me out of this thing!” And there are other times [he says] this is bullshit, this is a total waste of time even having this conversation that he and I were having about what he was going to do with Twitter. And then later that evening in text messages, “I’m going to use it to create what X.com should have been and it’s going to be an accelerant.” So he would be giddily enthusiastic and darkly upset as he went through it.
DA: What’s your take on how he’s managed Twitter so far?
WI: After he gets Twitter and he comes in, it’s a psychologically safe place. It looks beautiful. Everybody’s caring about the comfort of people and nurturing them. He’s like, “No, we have to be all-in, we have to be all hardcore.” And he fires what turns out to be about 80% of the people. I assume that when I wake up every morning, it ain’t gonna be there. I look every morning and it’s still there.
Some people say, oh, now he’s now destroyed it. It doesn’t exist anymore. It is not what it was when people like you and me had sweet conversations and we were all anointed with blue checks, and it was a clubhouse for people like us. It’s become a much more contentious place and has a lot more people spending time on it and especially uploading video. There was a video [podcaster] Lex Fridman and I did last week and he uploaded on Twitter – 58 million views. And so that’s something the platform does now that it hadn’t done before. And he’s allowed people to monetize it. In other words, you can charge people, you can get advertising splits from it. So he’s done a lot of things to make it different. He’s added more things in six months then Parag and Jack Dorsey did in three years, but he’s also screwed it up.
DA: Artificial intelligence. That’s the hot topic of the day. It’s also one of his biggest obsessions. Has he convinced you of his POV that AI poses an existential threat, and we have to very carefully control and regulate it? Not everyone feels that way. He clearly does.
WI: Does he really believe it could be a danger? He has his apocalyptic moods. They don’t last all 24 hours of the day, but there are moods that say, if there’s a [Ukrainian] sneak attack, like Pearl Harbor, on the Russian fleet, they’ll go nuclear. And if AI is allowed to run amok and not be connected to human agency, the alignment issue, as it’s called, that will be a big problem.
DA: One hundred years from now, someone else is writing a historical biography of Elon Musk. Is he seen as a net force for good in the world?
WI: I think that he will certainly go down 100 years from now as having great historical significance. I think all of social media will be remembered as having, at best, a non-beneficial, and at worst, a very harmful influence. But that includes many forms from Facebook on through. We did not make people take responsibility for what they did, or platforms take responsibility, but that’s a controversial take. I don’t put it in the book, it’s just my own take that somehow if you watch the Oppenheimer movie, you see that when we get that technology, we kick in and say, alright, how are we going to try to make sure this genie doesn’t keep getting out of the bottle? I don’t think we’ve done that well with social media and I think Musk is not going to look well in history about what he’s doing with the platform now known as X.