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Why so many people think Elon Musk is a hero — or a villain

Why so many people think Elon Musk is a hero — or a villain


Elon is happening again

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The overwhelming newsflow that comes along with Elon Musk and his companies is perhaps most apparent to me when I come back from a vacation. And it’s weird to come back to a group of people who just all scream at each other constantly! Like, the Tesla bulls and Musk fans vs. the Tesla bears and Musk haters — they’re always doing Righteous Combat online and your girl just wants to look at some cat photos, you know?

There are essentially two distinct narratives when it comes to Musk generally and they are, in their simplest terms: (1) Elon Musk is a hero and (2) Elon Musk is a villain. To be clear, I subscribe to the far-less-interesting narrative that Elon Musk is, like, a guy, but with more money than usual.

Any time you try to take a big-picture look at Musk and his companies, you’re inevitably going to leave stuff out

One consistent thing, though, is that any time you try to take a big-picture look at Musk and his companies, you’re inevitably going to leave stuff out. “Musk is a hero,” “Musk is a villain,” and “Musk is, idk, rich” are narratives that all work with the same basic sets of facts. To support any of them, you choose to emphasize certain facts and de-emphasize others. You can accuse literally anyone writing about Musk in a big-picture way of cherry-picking and be absolutely right.

I’ve wondered for a while why the narrative divide between “genius” and “villain” is so large and in trying to get back up to speed after two weeks off, I think I’ve hit on it. These are probably the two simplest ways to sort the dude out, and because the newsflow is so intense, it doesn’t really matter which one you pick because there will always be something happening that supports the narrative. For instance: if you think Musk is a hero, well, so does Neil deGrasse Tyson, a known Science Guy. If you think Musk is a villain, well, you have your share of lawsuits to pick and choose from.

I mean, just check out what happened in the last two weeks and see if you can assemble any kind of coherent narrative without leaving something out or resorting to hand-wavy explanations about Musk being (1) persecuted by haters or (2) protected by weak regulators:

  • SpaceX: SpaceX: NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine ordered reviews of SpaceX and Boeing. Apparently this was planned before the whiskey-and-weed bull session on The Joe Rogan Experience. “I will tell you, he is as committed to safety as anybody, and he understands that that was not appropriate behavior, and you won’t be seeing that again,” Bridenstine told Marina Koren of The Atlantic.
  • SpaceX: Musk has renamed the BFR to Starship. Well, kinda. The spaceship and upper stage are Starship; the rocket booster used to leave Earth will be known as the Super Heavy.
  • SpaceX: The Crew Dragon, for shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station, will get its first test launch on January 7th. People will not be on board.
  • SpaceX: Looks like SpaceX has raised $250 million in loans, which is $500 million less  than the loan it initially sought, Bloomberg reports. Buried in the last paragraph of the story is this lil’ nugget regarding SpaceX’s financial situation:

Disclosures to potential lenders showed the company had positive earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of around $270 million for the twelve months through September, people with knowledge of the matter have said earlier. But that’s because it included amounts that customers had prepaid and because it excluded costs related to non-core research and development. Without those adjustments, earnings for the period were negative, the people said.

  • Tesla: Musk also tweeted that he’s interested in working with Daimler / Mercedes on an electric version of the Sprinter van. An electric version of the Sprinter is already in the works — suggesting that Musk’s insight about it being a “great van” isn’t off base. Tesla and Daimler have collaborated before: “Tesla supplied the electric powertrains for the first generation electric Smart cars and electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class,” and Daimler has suggested it’s open to working with Musk again, notes Electrek. So this might just be Musk having ideas on Twitter before he checks them out — or it might be the opening for a discussion about future collaboration.
  • Tesla: Musk told Axios that Tesla was “single-digit weeks” away from death during the Model 3 ramp-up. The admission is striking, since Musk was publicly adamantly confident about Tesla’s prospects at the time. Lora Kolodny of CNBC has suggested Tesla might benefit from being more open about these moments, since it’s unlikely Musk’s fans and Tesla shareholders will abandon him.
  • Tesla: More senior departures, this time a senior securities lawyer — the kind that might perhaps oversee Musk’s Twitter use — and the head of physical security, gone after less than a year.
  • Tesla: The Model 3s may not perform so well in winter! Specifically, the windows and charging plug sometimes get stuck. A new software update is coming to fix these issues.
  • Tesla: Mexican authorities have problems with the Teslaquila trademark. Musk tweeted that he intended to “fight Big Tequila.” As it happens, I was just in Tequila — it is a place in Mexico just outside Guadalajara — and it is quite small. (Also, Guadalajara has a bunch of absolutely bangin’ José Clemente Orozco murals if you are into that kind of thing!)
  • Tesla: New Easter eggs for the S, 3, and X cars.
  • Boring Company: Musk made a Monty Python joke about a real-life job opening.
  • Boring Company: After a lawsuit, the Boring Company has abandoned its plan to dig under Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.
  • If you’re still reading, please enjoy this cat photo.

Is that all of it? I hope that’s all of it. All of this together makes clear how difficult it is to keep up with all the news that comes out of these companies — and how difficult it is to keep up with Musk himself.

Okay, but why isn’t my “a dude, but rich” narrative more popular? Well, a couple reasons. It implies a specific worldview regarding rich people. Here it is: money has a magnifying effect on some aspects of one’s life and personality — because people are less likely to say no to you, because you have the resources to pursue your weirdo dreams, and because you spend less time with people who aren’t wealthy and forget what their lives are like. That’s actually a pretty dense thing to use as shorthand, and it doesn’t simplify much.

These simple narratives give your brain a rest

Good and evil, though, that’s a simple primal narrative, and as a bonus, you can engage in righteous combat against anyone who doesn’t agree with you. These simple narratives give your brain a rest, and serve as a way to organize the frankly bonkers pace of news from Musk’s companies on a weekly — and sometimes daily — basis. Our brains are lazy, as a general rule, because thinking is work. This is why we form habits and do the same things over and over!  Picking a simple narrative that reduces cognitive load is literally how you manage to get shit done on a daily basis. Also, complexity often makes for boring sentences.

The more news that comes out about Musk and his companies, I figure, the likelier it is that anyone who is paying attention will sort into one camp or another to decrease their cognitive load. Which means that if, let’s say, Tesla abruptly files for bankruptcy, or we wake up tomorrow and Neuralink has allowed someone to regain use of their legs — well, it won’t make a dent in the preconceived narratives people already use to help make sense of all the news that’s coming in.

My narrative — a dude, but rich — doesn’t let me presort news, so I have to do the work of figuring out what’s going on fresh every single time a story breaks. Whenever I see news breaking about Musk, SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, or Boring Company, the same sentence runs through my brain: It is happening again.

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