At last, the world has discovered a way to overshadow Apple’s annual iPhone launch extravaganza. All you have to do is publish the biography of the man often likened to Steve Jobs, written by the Apple founder’s own biographer, Walter Isaacson.
Elon Musk’s blockbuster – and obviously controversial – biography has done just that.
The iPhone 15 launch on Tuesday night made headlines, but not nearly as much as usual. This year there’s the contentious switch from Apple’s Lightning adapter to the more common USB-C, as mandated by the European Union.
Apple, as usual, spun this as its own innovation – and not the latest crackdown by the EU on Silicon Valley and Big Tech.
If you don’t want to read the 688-page biography, then technology journalist Kara Swisher has summed it up – ironically in a tweet: “Sad & smart son slowly morphs into mentally abusive father he abhors except with rockets, cars & more money. Often right, sometimes wrong, petty jerk always. Might be crazy in good way, but also a bad way. Pile o’ babies. Not Steve Jobs. You’re welcome.”
That pretty much sums it up, although minus the details Isaacson accumulated in the two years he shadowed Musk.
This fly-on-the-wall perspective reinforces much of what we already know about Musk: He’s impulsive, convinced of his genius and ability, has Asperger’s, did foolish things (like moving the Twitter data centre) despite being warned against it, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him.
Isaacson writes that Musk “preferred a scrappy, hard-driven environment where rabid warriors felt psychological danger rather than comfort”.
Such anecdotes abound.
When Twitter’s board responded to Musk’s request for a 10% discount with an offer of 4% and a commitment not to sue any of its then executives, Musk responded: “We are never going to give them a legal release. We will hunt every single one of them til the day they die.”
Of then CEO, Parag Agrawal, whom Musk met after he bought about 10% of Twitter’s shares, he concluded: “What Twitter needs is a fire-breathing dragon and Parag is not that.”
After Twitter’s content moderation fell apart when Musk fired half of the staff, several began warning about the rise of misinformation and hate speech. He told then head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, to ban them.
When Roth pointed out that Twitter’s terms and conditions had not been broken, Musk replied: “I’m changing Twitter policy right now. Blackmail is prohibited as of right now. Ban. Ban them.”
His girlfriend, Grimes, a Canadian singer with whom he has three oddly named children, told Isaacson: “I just don’t think he knows how to savour success and smell the flowers.”
Musk agreed with her. “Adversity shaped me. My pain threshold became very high,” he told his biographer.
The book has already sparked huge controversy in the conflict which Musk says he’s trying to stay out of – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – but tweeted that he’s fighting Vladimir Putin in single combat and sent his base stations for Starlink satellites to Kyiv at the beginning of the war.
Isaacson has already had to retract one of the most contentious comments, that Musk deliberately turned off Starlink coverage near Crimea when Ukrainian forces were trying to sink Russian warships with drones – which he described as a “mini Pearl Harbor”.
“How am I in this war?” Musk told Isaacson. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”
But Ukrainian officials accused Musk of “committing evil and encouraging evil”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that, “as a result”, these ships fired Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities and “civilians, children are being killed”.
He added: “This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego. However, the question remains: Why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder?”
Isaacson quickly tweeted that, “the Ukrainians THOUGHT coverage was enabled all the way to Crimea, but it was not. They asked Musk to enable it for their drone sub attack on the Russian fleet. Musk did not enable it, because he thought, probably correctly, that it would cause a major war.”
Like so many others, I used to really admire Musk and how he overcame his childhood’s pretty shitty problems to become the kind of innovator he is. But – just like Isaacson’s last tech giant subject, Steve Jobs – Musk isn’t a very nice human being.
He may have changed the world, but he’s a belligerent bully who has internalised the toxic masculinity of his father, Errol, and the 1980s.
Isaacson says his father “bedevils Elon” while Errol told the biographer that he wanted to instil “physical and emotional toughness”.
Lots of people are bullied and have awful parents. It doesn’t excuse becoming a bully when you grow up.
As Kara Swisher, the second-ever technology journalist, summed it up: “Sad & smart son slowly morphs into mentally abusive father he abhors except with rockets, cars & more money.” DM