Paul van Gerven

16 January

Elon Musk isn’t the demigod he was made out to be. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Unlike fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk hasn’t scored a cameo in a Star Trek production yet. He did get a nod in a 2017 Star Trek: Discovery episode, in which he gets name-checked alongside the Wright Brothers and Zefram Cochrane, the first human to travel faster than light. The character doing the praising, however (spoiler alert!), turns out to come from a mirror universe, in which humans run a fascist and xenophobic interstellar empire.

Musk is no fascist, but I appreciate the ambiguity of the compliment. It reflects my own feelings about him over the past decade or so. He’s a man with two faces. He does cool stuff and deserves credit for leading the way in electric mobility, but he’s also an attention-craving egomaniac. It’s hard to dislike someone who enables exciting engineering stuff – spaceships, satellite networks and neural interfaces – but it’s hard to like someone who calls a diver that helped rescue boys trapped in a flooded cave a pedophile.

I should have stuck with my natural unambiguous dislike of tech tycoons on pedestals, an instinct that I developed when the world started worshiping Steve Jobs. It would have been one satisfying “I told you so” now that Musk’s god-like status has come crashing down. Watching him run Twitter has been like watching a chimp trying to drive a car: one crash worse than the other.

My missed opportunity for schadenfreude aside, Musk’s downfall provides a valuable lesson for all of us: that innovation isn’t a one-man show. However tempting it may be to believe in the genius disruptor who gets fabulously rich by changing the world, the reality is far less romantic. Perhaps in the age of Thomas Edison, inventors could still make a decisive difference, but now, the creation of technology is a collective effort.

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Take Tesla. Electric motors and batteries were pioneered two centuries ago and since have been improved by countless scientists and engineers. It was Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning who figured that the technology had sufficiently evolved and that electric cars actually make a lot of sense from an efficiency standpoint. Designing, developing, manufacturing and marketing the car involved another bazillion contributions from employees and suppliers. And Musk may hate big government and taxes, but Tesla pocketed billions in subsidies and bailouts, sales were propped up by government incentives for green cars and for years, Tesla’s bottom line has been artificially inflated by the sale of government-issued emission credits.

Musk’s part in Tesla’s success may be sizable but in the grand scheme of things not all that impressive. In light of recent events, in fact, one wonders whether his biggest life achievement was not launching rockets or the electric car but building a brand as a visionary genius. He’s always been a little erratic, but no one can argue there was a method to his madness in the Twitter saga.

Unlike investors, Musk’s cult following still won’t have any of it. I wonder how long they can keep the faith, though. Without his aura, Musk is going to have a tough time doing what he’s been doing.

Main image credit: EU News