Revenge of the nerd – who is Elon Musk?

Revenge of the nerd – who is Elon Musk?
Elon Musk. (Photo: Justin Lane / EPA-EFE)

Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter in October 2022 has brought him more attention, and harsher criticism, than ever before. Rebecca Davis tries to figure out the man behind all the noise.

Elon Musk, the South African-born richest man who ever lived, has joked on several occasions about being an alien. Members of his inner circle, notably his ex-wife Tallulah Riley, have also made the same joking suggestion. Which leads us, inevitably, to the question: is this really a joke?

As evidence for the possibility that Elon Musk might be a bona fide extraterrestrial, we have the following: His strange manner. The fact that he always seems slightly uncomfortable in his skin. His ability to work for almost three decades at a pace and intensity that would see most humans admitted to hospital by now. And, most compellingly: the reality that he has marshalled developments in the space, technology and energy industries that seemed utterly improbable from a private individual working to Musk’s timeframes until he pulled them off.

Tesla, the electric car company he has led to unprecedented success in a country obsessed with petrol, oil and diesel, is the only American automotive start-up not to go bust since the launch of Chrysler in the 1920s. SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, is the first private company ever to put a rocket into orbit. On Wednesday this week, Musk announced that Neuralink, his neurotechnology company, hoped within the next six months to test a brain chip in humans that could restore movement to paralysed people.

If an alien civilisation were frustrated by the pace at which humanity was working on practical solutions to its problems, wouldn’t Musk be the perfect entity to send down to Earth for a period to jumpstart innovation in various areas? 

But the evidence for Musk being decidedly human has been mounting since roughly 2018, and building at a furious pace in recent months with his acquisition of Twitter. At time of writing, in December 2022, it seems fair to say: if Musk is an alien, he is an alien that has now gone rogue in fairly spectacular fashion.

Recent BBC series sheds some light on early years

“He was definitely not a boring child,” Musk’s father Errol Musk tells the cameras in a BBC docuseries released in October, The Elon Musk Show.

This is, any way you slice it, a pretty weird thing to say about your son. But as has long been established, the relationship between Musk senior and junior is – to say the least – a teensy bit strained. In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Musk said that his father had done something “so terrible, you can’t believe it”. He wouldn’t elaborate.

You might assume that Musk had been referring there to the fact that his father has had two children with his own stepdaughter, 42 years his junior: something that came out around the time of the Vanity Fair interview. Another possibility, however, is that the dark crime Musk was alluding to was his father’s killing of three intruders in a home invasion in 1998, for which he was not prosecuted by the NPA on the grounds that he acted in self-defence.

In the BBC series, Errol Musk recounts the story in a chillingly composed fashion, occasionally chuckling. He is moved to particular merriment by his own conclusion: “I was in the military in South Africa. So my advice is: don’t tangle with guys who were in the military in South Africa!”

If there is a family member that Elon Musk seems to resemble, it is not his father but his maternal grandfather, Joshua Haldeman – who is revealed by the BBC to have been a leading figure in a 1930s North American movement called The Technocracy. Its members’ principal belief was that scientists and engineers, rather than politicians, should run the world. They also changed their names to numbers: Musk’s first child with electronic music artist Grimes, named X AE A-XII, would feel right at home.

Musk clearly shares the conviction that engineers are capable of solving humanity’s stickiest problems. Since purchasing Twitter, he has approached the social network as if its challenges are predominantly located in engineering or programming – apparently deaf to the notion that free speech, in particular, is a more nuanced issue than can be resolved by a particularly sharp piece of coding. 

His parents remember him as a child who read compulsively, with a particular love for science fiction and books about bombastic, pioneering white dudes from history: Napoleon, Alexander the Great. In the BBC series, his mother Maye Musk – a former Miss SA finalist – says she was convinced from the age of three that Elon was a genius. His South African classmates, however, seem to remember things differently.

In the 2015 Ashlee Vance biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Vance wrote that Musk’s classmates at Pretoria Boys’ High recalled him as “unspectacular”, noting that he was not one of the four or five brightest boys in the class. To quote one former peer: “There were just no signs that he was going to be a billionaire.”

Musk’s own explanation to Vance of his high school underperformance is that he resented having to devote time and energy to subjects he was not interested in, and particularly Afrikaans. But there is no doubt that Musk’s South African schooling was critical to the adult he would become, in one way above all others.

Nerdish revenge fantasies

Every superhero or super-villain – and the jury is still out on which category fits Musk – needs an origin story, and Musk has presented a classic: a miserable childhood at the hands of his sadistic father, exacerbated by the bullying he endured in high school. As his profile expands, so too does the scale of this personal mythology. In 2015, his biographer recorded that class bullies beat him into hospital for a week; by 2022, his mother was telling the BBC that the same incident landed him in hospital for a month.

Regardless of the details, Musk’s South African upbringing appears to have filled him with what is possibly the animating drive of his life: a nerdish desire for revenge. As a child, he is described as a know-it-all with a fixation on correcting other kids – behaviour which rendered him understandably socially unappealing. Now, at the age of 51, he has taken control of the ultimate platform in world history for know-it-alls with a fixation on correcting other kids: Twitter.

He is the nerd who has been repeatedly told that his plans wouldn’t work: that he couldn’t mass-produce an electric car, that he couldn’t make a rocket. He has had the last laugh on pretty much everything so far, but that appears not to have quietened his insecurities. His ex-wife Riley told the BBC that the perception that Musk is emotionless – perhaps stemming from the fact that his Asperger’s means his responses sometimes seem out of whack – could not be further from the truth: “He is the most emotional person I know,” she said.

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Indeed, you only have to watch the BBC series, or other Musk footage, to see that in a truly staggering proportion of interview clips Musk appears to be on the verge of tears: eyes moistening, lip quivering. This is particularly the case when he is presented with criticism that he feels to be unjust. At moments like those, the little boy being subjected to “brutal mind games” – in the words of his biographer – by his father, or being pummelled by bullies, seems very close to the surface.

It is this element to Musk that makes his much-shared 2018 interview with alt-right podcast bro Joe Rogan so cringeworthy to watch. It is embarrassingly clear that Musk is revelling in the company of an “alpha male”. Taking a swig of whiskey, having his second-ever puff of marijuana: Musk is one of the cool kids at last, as Rogan showers him with compliments and tells Musk he trusts him much, much more than the government.

Twitter: Elon Musk’s downfall?

It was around the time of the Rogan podcast, in 2018, that Musk’s activities appeared to go off the tracks. You may think Musk’s stated aim of making humanity a “multiplanetary species” is absurd, or politically problematic. You may view his electric cars as “utterly derivative, overhyped toys for show-offs”, to cite one of the critics quoted in his biography. But there was simultaneously no disputing that what he was achieving was pretty jaw-dropping.

Unlike the other white male billionaires buzzing around the public consciousness, Musk actually articulated a coherent and meaningful purpose. He was very clearly not in it simply to make more and more money, because unlike his uber-rich peers, he kept ploughing his own resources back into his ventures, often assuming insane quantities of personal risk. He had a vision, and despite his quirks – and despite the stories of his often appalling staff treatment – he was by no means charmless. He was interesting in a way Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg were not.

2018, however, was the year in which a Messiah complex in Musk, mixed to potent effect with his absolutist engineering beliefs, became impossible to ignore. Deciding it was up to him to orchestrate the rescue of 12 Thai boys stuck in a cave, he delivered a mini-submarine to the site and, when it was rejected as useless for the context, responded by labelling British cave-diver Vernon Unsworth a “paedo guy”. (Musk would later claim in court that “paedo guy” was everyday South African slang, which came as news to most of us.)

2018 was also the year in which a Tesla whistle-blower leaked information to Business Insider about waste and environmental issues inside the car company. Musk responded by tracking down the whistle-blower and effectively ruining his life, as the BBC series shows. He also personally went after the journalist who broke the story on Twitter, causing his fanboys to launch a vicious harassment campaign against her.

Musk has apparently been increasingly aggrieved by his treatment by the press, which he feels to be disproportionately negative given his efforts to, as his followers would say, save humanity. There is some truth to this. The American business media tend to go wild over stories of fires involving Tesla vehicles, for instance, which obscures the fact that these fires occur with negligible frequency compared with petrol cars.      

His purchase of Twitter has to be seen in this light. Since he took control of the platform in late October, he has repeatedly suggested that Twitter be considered a more reliable source of news and analysis than the mainstream media. It is probably not fanciful to suggest that Musk has bought Twitter, at enormous personal cost, in order to enact revenge on the media. Now it is time for him to control the narrative.

This is perhaps the logical conclusion of what has been a gradual spiralling of Musk’s persona and conduct over the past four years. In the BBC series, one of his employees at Musk’s first company, Zip2, tells the cameras: “Fame is not something that agrees with him.” 

Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Twitter debacle is the likelihood that it will significantly distract Musk from his core interests in energy reform and space travel – and, indeed, financially endanger his other ventures. Those projects might not be to everyone’s tastes, but they are daring, intriguing, and genuinely move the needle in ways no individual has managed before. 

The longer that Musk is tied up by Twitter, the worse for us all – and him, not least. As the New York Times memorably put it this week: “Elon Musk is finding out that free speech isn’t rocket science.” It’s much, much messier. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hugh Tyrrell says:

    Excellent piece on an unusual man.

  • Guy Dormehl says:

    As a follower of Musk’s endeavours and intrigued by what he is doing but also bewildered by some of his behaviour, this is a very good and fair article – one of the best I’ve read!
    The jury is still out on the twitter nonsense – I personally think it was a silly purchase by Elon. But I wouldn’t bet against him sorting it out (I hate social media but fascinated to see what Elon does with it) By sorting it out I mean getting it a vibrant discussion media with the harmful and nasty content removed.

  • Jane Erasmus says:

    Great article!

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Everybody loves a winner. Claiming his success to South African schooling is one of them. Schooling can be a hindrance to one’s greater success. Elon is an American, overconfident in his abilities, not arrogant and most importantly not part of the herd. He is not your regular Billionaire. If he listened to EXPECTS he wouldn’t be where he is today. None of us know why he bought Twitter, it’s just speculation by so-called experts. Twitter will reach the sky.

  • T Mac says:

    Musk eschews his South African-ess. Perhaps it’s time we did the same.

  • Apocalypto Soldier says:

    Musk cares more about money and his image than anything else.

    Someone who genuinely cares about advancing humanity and freedom of speech wouldn’t be trying to destroy the lives of whistleblowers, journalists, and rescue divers for any form of criticism.
    Nor would such a person give the whistleblowers something to blow the whistle over in the first place.

    Forcing the founders of Tesla out and then billing himself as the founder also points to his concern with image.

    And someone who wasn’t in it for the money wouldn’t become the richest man on earth, especially not while endangering workers, fighting unionization, and allowing other companies to pollute more by selling them carbon credits.

    Different estimates put the cost of feeding the roughly 42 million people worldwide who are on the brink of starving to death for an entire year at between $6 and $7 billion. Surely someone who cares about advancing humanity could spare %4 of his net worth to feed that many people for a year.

    • Matsobane Monama says:

      Soldier i agree with you but Elon is like many other business people. Only one motive Money, more than they need, its called Greed. If they can’t share it with their employees forget about the rest. You, me and many others are dismissed as idealists. Life is not like that so they say. Amazon has just retrenched 10 000 workers after the devastation of covid 19, what’s going to become of them n their families. In America it’s hitting home hard but as usual it’s hidden. The documetary ‘ White poverty in America” is horrific to watch, middle class Americans fallen on hard times.
      They don’t want the world to see the horrors of Capitalism. HEALTH: pharmaceutical companies, Extremely effective medicines to treat curable disease but they are out of reach for poor people all over the world. EXORBITANT PRICES. Food is discarded into the sea.

  • Lee Richardson says:

    You give him way too much credit. What about the fact that he lied about all his academic credentials or bought his way into Tesla and fired the founders?

  • Pierre Joubert says:

    Why no mention of Starlink

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