Elon Musk’s imaginary world – Vox
15 mins read

Elon Musk’s imaginary world – Vox


Who’s Elon Musk, actually?

I don’t have a great reply to that query. I’m undecided anybody does. Half the time I’m in awe of Musk and the opposite half I’m baffled by his Twitter antics. However as a cultural determine, Musk actually occupies his personal area.

He’s now the richest particular person on the planet (or the second richest particular person, relying on the day) and as his fame has grown, the road between the person and the parable has blurred. A few of that has to do with Musk’s reward for self-mythology, and a few of it has to do along with his very actual achievements.

No matter you consider Musk, there’s no denying his affect. I imply, this can be a man who strikes markets with a single tweet. So what are we to make of that? And what are we to make of him?

A brand new podcast collection by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore, referred to as The Night Rocket, tries to untangle all of this in a manner solely a historian may. It’s a deep dive into Musk, the man, but it surely’s additionally an exploration of a a lot bigger phenomenon that Musk personifies. For Lepore, Musk is the face of maximum capitalism, a capitalism rooted in science fiction tales and animated by fanciful plans to overcome area and save humanity. She calls this phenomenon “Muskism” and argues that it’s a recycled model of techno-utopianism that’s fascinating, harmful, and profoundly revealing.

I reached out to Lepore for the newest episode of Vox Conversations. We speak in regards to the peculiar attraction of Musk, why the fashion of capitalism he represents has develop into so intoxicating, and the way all of this suits into the broader historical past of know-how and capitalism.

Beneath is an excerpt from our dialog, edited for size and readability. As at all times, there’s far more within the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you hearken to podcasts.


Sean Illing

You’re not profiling a well-known particular person simply because they’re well-known. In a manner, your podcast isn’t even about Musk, the man. You see him because the face of one thing taking place in our society that’s essential and possibly not nicely understood. So what’s that factor and why is Musk the car for it?

Jill Lepore

Oh, that’s fascinating. So, I’m a political historian. I’m not a biographer of the good and the well-known and the wealthy. I actually am fantastically uninterested within the historical past of celeb or the presidency, truthfully. And I wasn’t actually a lot of a Musk follower. I used to be requested to do that undertaking by the BBC.

After which I had to consider a technique to say one thing that I believed might be helpful about Elon Musk, however that basically wasn’t a great-man biography or an anti-great biography. It’s not a takedown or something, both. As a political historian, I’m considering what Musk represents in our tradition and political preparations extra broadly.

And I believe we’d do nicely to speak about “Muskism” as a form of political financial system, and we don’t, for some purpose. There’s numerous scrambling round to consider a technique to speak in regards to the newest incarnation of capitalism, proper? Are we in late capitalism? Are we in superior capitalism? Are we in post-industrial capitalism? Are we in surveillance capitalism? Is that this platform capitalism? There’s one thing totally different, proper? That is bizarre stuff.

So I believe we must always simply give it some thought as excessive capitalism. And one other manner to consider excessive capitalism is Muskism, or I would describe it as being extra speculative than industrial. The merchandise are sometimes not truly widgets, however theoretical objects. Now that is usually much less so with Musk’s personal corporations, as a result of he does truly construct issues. But it surely’s most of all influenced by visions of the longer term that derive from science fiction. In reality, from very outdated science fiction. So Muskism is admittedly antiquarianism disguised as futurism.

Sean Illing

We’ll come again to the science fiction stuff later, but it surely’s attention-grabbing that you just use the phrase “excessive capitalism.” Do you see Muskism as simply one other iteration of capitalism or as one thing much more basic?

Jill Lepore

I believe it’s an excessive type of capitalism within the sense that it’s plutocratic. It’s one thing outdated once more. There’s numerous feudalism in Muskism. It’s like there are these lords and the remainder of us are the peasantry and our fates are of their palms as a result of they know finest. So I don’t assume it’s a brand new financial imaginative and prescient. I truly assume the concept there’s one thing deeply new and profoundly, disruptively revolutionary about Muskism is a part of the self-mystification of that worldview, proper?

Sean Illing

What does that imply?

Jill Lepore

It’s essential to those individuals to assume that they’re doing one thing wholly new and larger and higher and extra excessive. My entire first episode of The Night Rocket is in regards to the letter X. They love the letter X, proper? It’s the science fiction go-to fan letter. So every part is X to them. It’s excessive, it’s extraterrestrial, it’s extraordinary, it’s extravagant, it’s existential. All the things’s at all times existential, but it surely’s truly not. These are mere mortals like the remainder of us. They put their pants on one leg at a time after which they exit they usually attempt to acquire energy and subvert extraordinary individuals’s capability to regulate their very own lives. That’s numerous what capitalism is.

Sean Illing

Then why is it so essential to establish and critique Muskism as a definite factor?

Jill Lepore

I believe persons are fascinated by Musk. Individuals who love Musk and hate Musk are all fascinated by Musk. And it’s onerous to carry your consideration on what could be occurring structurally there as a result of Musk is so flashy.

I believe he wasn’t at all times so flashy. One of many arguments I make in The Night Rocket is that he himself was fairly reworked by his infatuation, the mutual infatuation between Musk and Hollywood when he type of grew to become Iron Man within the press, proper? There have been all these shiny journal covers of attractive, good-looking, younger Elon Musk. He’s the brand new Iron Man, the real-life Iron Man, the real-life Tony Stark. So there was a glitterati second for Musk wherein he grew to become form of the Kim Kardashian of CEOs, and every part he mentioned was fleeting and meaningless, however extraordinarily influential within the inventory market.

In different phrases, he’s a determine that’s onerous to concentrate to in a sustained or structural manner due to the character of his public presence, which could be very Twitter-driven, a really flashy, staged, PR-event-driven presence. So the following launch of the following SpaceX rocket, we get a glimpse of Elon Musk. He makes all of the headlines in each paper. And there’s two issues to be mentioned about him after which he disappears once more.

So how do you maintain on to that, proper? It’s like making an attempt to carry on when somebody pours a glass of water in your palms and it’s simply pouring by means of your fingers. There was a quantity of water within the glass and now it’s evaporated. How are we supposed to seek out that means in that?

I believed it could be helpful to type of pull again once more, as a political historian who thinks so much in regards to the relationship between politics and know-how, and attempt to assume systematically about the place Musk’s concepts come from. The self-mystification of him is that each thought simply pops out of his head. He’s a visionary. And I don’t imply to say that he isn’t an interesting particular person with plenty of concepts, however I’m saying that the majority of his concepts are recycled.

Sean Illing

Earlier than entering into the origins of a few of these concepts, I wish to linger on Musk’s fame a bit longer. Why do you assume he’s develop into such a transcendent cultural determine? It may’ve gone one other manner. Is it about him and the way he’s packaged and bought himself, or is there one thing about us, one thing on the demand aspect, that made him the proper face of all this?

Jill Lepore

I believe it’s each. I do assume it was a public relations technique of Tesla early on. When Musk assumed management of the corporate, they determined that as a substitute of promoting, which Tesla actually doesn’t do, they’d promote the product by selling the concept of Elon Musk. After which the concept of Elon Musk needs to be a really explicit life story, not in contrast to the marketing campaign biographies of political figures, proper? Andrew Jackson ushers within the age of the frequent man; he rose from poverty to the White Home. James Garfield, from the log cabin to the White Home. Invoice Clinton, the boy from Hope, proper? So it actually depends on a well-recognized political packaging.

The packaging of Elon Musk was that he was a boy marvel. He had a imaginative and prescient to vary the world as a baby, that this was influenced by studying The Hitchhiker’s Information to the Galaxy when he was a younger teen.

It’s a political biography in that sense, but it surely’s one thing greater than that, as a result of it has actual cult-y high quality to it. He’s a messiah determine, and that’s actually how Tesla presents him. And he embraces that function. I’ve by no means met Elon Musk. I can’t discuss him personally, however I believe he enjoys the general public battlefield. He enjoys mocking individuals on-line. He may be very humorous. Folks love his humor. He has a form of laddishness.

I imply, the man runs by means of marriages and girls and has youngsters with numerous totally different individuals, and that’s interesting. He has a large social media presence and I believe there’s a starvation for following somebody who’s irreverent and humorous and highly effective. I believe his followership actually exploded when Trump was banned from Twitter. He’s not Trump. I imply, it’s a completely false comparability to make, however I believe he appeals to individuals on-line in an identical manner, proper?

Sean Illing

Yeah, they’re clearly very totally different, however one connective thread, and that is one thing you form of argue within the podcast, is that the recognition of Elon’s concepts, whether or not we’re speaking about colonizing area or cryptocurrency or no matter, is a symptom of a broken society, a society that’s misplaced religion in its establishments.

Jill Lepore

I’m undecided I ever put it that manner within the podcast, however let me take the query at its face. Musk is a really achieved engineer. He’s not a straw man determine. He’s an actual particular person with actual concepts who leads two main corporations which have each undertaken extraordinary engineering feats. Tesla actually does get an enormous quantity of credit score for the revival of the electrical car, an almost destroyed business, proper? SpaceX is doing extraordinary issues. And if it weren’t for my sense of the type of malign understory there, I’d be tremendous thrilled and enthusiastic about it. It’s fairly extraordinary.

However is the attraction a perform of a broken society? Properly, I assume the instance that I might give is: whether or not or not human beings on this planet ought to construct colonies on Mars or on the moon is definitely a query that all of us have a stake in. And the presumption that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the 2 wealthiest individuals on the planet, get to determine the extraterrestrial destiny of humankind is a bizarrely regressive notion.

You might or could not have accredited of the Apollo mission to go to the moon within the Nineteen Sixties, however you had a say in that. It was a authorities program the place individuals engaged in political protest over it. Lots of people objected to the Apollo program, on the grounds that it was a misuse of public funds at a time when these funds might be higher deployed implementing the Civil Rights Act and the equality necessities of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I imply, the day earlier than the launch in 1969 of the Apollo 13, civil rights activists had been on the House Heart protesting.

There’s an entire lengthy custom of democratic deliberation over our missions in area, however we’ve forgotten that custom. Even the press will cowl William Shatner going to area in a Blue Origin rocket and discuss Jeff Bezos’s childhood desires coming true and it’s like, isn’t that great?

After which perhaps there’s a goofy satirical model of that the place there’s a joke about it on Saturday Night time Reside or one thing, however there’s no sustained examination. I imply, to be truthful, there’s loads of quarters of the web the place certainly there may be sustained examination, however on the entire, are we having an enormous public debate about whether or not a non-public citizen ought to construct a base on the moon simply because he has the cash to do it? We haven’t had that dialog.


To listen to the remainder of the dialog, click on right here, and be sure you subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you hearken to podcasts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *