Just over eight months ago, the billionaire Elon Musk executed one of the more daring PR stunts in recent memory: he literally shot a car into space.
For Musk, this no doubt marked a high water mark in good publicity. Here, as a symbol of American ingenuity, was Musk himself sending the most powerful rocket ever designed by his company, SpaceX, into orbit, with its payload also being a product that Musk manufactured. What’s more, that payload was sent to be launched into Mars’ orbit, meaning that one of the first things any potential future travelers to Mars would see would be Musk’s own car, literally frozen immutably in the depths of space. Given that Musk had cast himself up to that point very obviously as the face of American innovation, no memorial could seemingly be more fitting or timeless.
And then…the car missed. Instead of settling into Mars’ orbit, it flew off into space to God knows where, a tiny insignificant red speck floating forever in the vast, anonymous darkness of the universe.
The symbolism of this small, but important failure would come to mark Musk’s career from that point forward. Six months later, Musk would make one of the biggest and most devastating mistakes of his career, by tweeting out that he was going to take Tesla private at a stock price of $420 (an inflated number meant to be a marijuana reference that would amuse Musk’s then-girlfriend, Grimes). From that point on, unlike the car Musk shot into space, the man himself would crash to earth, losing billions in stock value after the funding for Musk’s proposed privatization of Tesla evaporated, and ultimately culminating with the Securities and Exchange Commission suing Musk, and eventually settling with him for a $20 million fee.
In the process, Musk went from being the face of American innovation, to a figure more like Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes in drag: the very image of Silicon Valley’s dream-driven and substance free investment approach to business. Musk even became an ignominious meme for a while, after his bizarre interview with the comedian Joe Rogan, which produced less-than-flattering pictures of Musk lighting up a blunt and puffing on it like some dorm room would-be Messiah. So pervasive were the signs of Musk’s instability that even former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon piled on, declaring Musk a symbol of everything wrong with tech companies.
“This is the level of maturity you have with these people,” Bannon snarked. “They are all man-childs. How can they have this unlimited power? It’s outrageous.”
Musk’s response to this was to thank Bannon for the “best PR I’ve had in a while,” and then apparently to lean into Bannon’s insult by posting almost endearingly weird tweets about “creating a mecha,” requesting the internet’s “dankest memes,” boasting about his love of anime, and claiming to own a “chibi” action figure of the Marvel comics character Wolverine. I, myself, couldn’t help finding at least one of these tweets mocking social media companies more than a little entertaining, if not also out of character for a major CEO.
Now, despite my jaundiced take on Musk’s endeavors up to this point, I bring all this up not to be mean spirited. It is, rather, instructive, and hopefully for Musk himself as well as the rest of us. Whatever you may think of the inherent promise of Musk’s ideas, the fact remains that what we have witnessed in the past eight months has shown how one man’s extraordinary capacity to market his vision was able to entrance many, many people who should have known better, and the Hindenburg-esque results when that vision ran headfirst into a wall of bad execution.
When Musk launched a car into space, the world put him on a pedestal, only to realize too late that he has feet of clay. Not that Musk has destroyed his capacity to do business forever. Since these moments of hitting rock bottom, Musk has apparently managed to claw his way back to turning a profit for Tesla, for example, and perhaps this experience has made that possible by making him a wiser car company CEO. Even if he has learned in that way, though, I think everyone understands that even if Musk recovers as a CEO, the world will now never forget that he is mortal.
And therein lies the most important thing for the fall of Elon Musk to teach us: that the would-be wizards of the tech sector are still people, no matter the amount of techno-utopian (and sometimes dystopian) fantasies they can spin. True, Musk collapsed under his own weight and cost investors $20 billion, but at least he never destroyed the rights and privileges of citizens of a free society in some misguided attempt to use technology to reshape man. There are companies that are trying to do that, and who are at least as mismanaged as Tesla was during Musk’s agony. How long will it be before we permit ourselves to see the dangers that such mere mortals pose when they use the power of technology and the arrogance of wealth to grant themselves not just the image of Godhood, but the power to play at Godhood, too?