The sharp colours and contrasts of comic books offer up a plethora of super geniuses. From Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, using their wealth and knowledge to produce unbelievable pieces of technology, to Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom, typical examples of the genius supervillain trope, they litter the medium. Except in the most extreme cases, it is never as easy to describe people as good or evil in the real world. We live not in the black and white morality of fiction, but rather in a grey and ambiguous moral landscape.
To many though, Elon Musk is the closest thing we have to a genius hero like Reed Richards. Growing up in the suburbs of Pretoria, Musk demonstrated his capacity for imagination and application early on. At the age of twelve he taught himself how to code and subsequently sold a video game for $500. Indeed, it looked like Musk would become a games developer. After he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelors in both Physics and Economics, he worked at Rocket Science Games.
That first post-university employer seems to presage his later career, and titles he contributed to, such as Rocket Jockey and Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine, also added to this with their sci-fi bent. However, he did not last long in the industry and instead headed to Palo Alto, in Silicon Valley. He made his first fortune after selling off Zip2, a start-up he opened with his brother Kimbal, to Compaq in 1999.
After Zip2, Musk really made a name for himself. He started x.com in 1999, an online financial services company, that merged with PayPal soon after. When eBay acquired the online payment services, for $1.5bn, Musk was the largest shareholder and made $165m in the deal.
From here Musk took off, figuratively and literally. Dreams of space exploration were present from early on. In South Africa, Musk devoured Asimov’s Foundation series, and Blaster, the game he wrote at 12, took place in space. Trying to buy a rocket in order to send a greenhouse to Mars, he met with only frustration. Realising it would be cheaper to build a rocket himself, SpaceX was born.
The list of companies that Musk has started or backed, Tesla, Hyperloop, The Boring Company, SolarCity, OpenAI, Neuralink, all appear to be pieces in building a future that an imaginative and sci-fi devouring kid would want to live in. Journeys to other planets, electric cars that stop the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, a network of tunnels that can transport people around the world at unimaginable speed, and AI programs and computers directly interfacing with the human brain are the stuff of science fiction. They are also the stuff Elon Musk is trying to bring into the world.
So, is he a visionary? Many see him as arrogant instead. They accuse him of disregarding the rules, seeing himself as too smart, as too rich, and as too forward thinking for them to apply to him. His dismissal of critics, such as in a recent call with Tesla investors or when he claimed journalists focusing on a death involving a driverless car was holding back adoption, and therefore causing more people to die unnecessarily, many say showcases this arrogance.
As a business leader, Musk is facing criticism too. Tesla is haemorrhaging money as it struggles with production problems of its Model 3 car. SpaceX operates on razor-thin profit margins, and The Boring Company is only soon to finish its first tunnel, while Musk only devotes 2-3% of his time to this more recent endeavour. Many say he might be a deluded individual, hyped up on too many sci-fi novels, and that he cannot sustain his ideas after the initial hype. Bored when he runs into issues with a project, he gets distracted and starts another one, such as a new candy company, while neglecting his current commitments.
On the other side, there’s the army of internet fanboys slavishly praise everything Musk does. Selling flamethrowers to consumers might not be the most responsible thing in the world, but it’s only good fun when Musk does it.
Nobody has encapsulated or embraced the celebrity CEO archetype as Musk has since Steve Jobs. While the Apple boss used his image to help sell the latest innovations and technologies coming out of Cupertino to consumers, Musk has invigorated interest in ideas that he believes will help humanity reach the next stage in its development. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO does not work on the shop floor, tinkering with batteries or improving rocket engines. Instead, he leads a team of talented engineers prepared to realise his vision. The public imagination is ignited by Musk’s media appearances and frequent pronouncements. Love him or hate him, he has focused attention on the possibilities of space flight and ending reliance on fossil fuels. A belief that humanity can still achieve great things has been kindled by Musk. He’s still only forty-six, but when his life and legacy, even if he achieves his dream of dying on Mars (just not on impact), are examined then perhaps that will be his greatest accomplishment.
(Image by SpaceX – http://www.spacex.com/media, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64749202)
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