A hitchhiker’s guide to Elon Musk
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The A-Z of understanding the universe of the richest man

May 05, 2022 01:05 pm | Updated 08:41 pm IST

Elon Musk arrives at the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S.A., on May 2, 2022.

Elon Musk arrives at the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S.A., on May 2, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Elon Musk joins a long line of wealthy tycoons who have bought media outlets. Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, has business interests that include electric vehicles and space transportation, with companies valued much higher than Twitter. But it perhaps says something about Twitter, the Internet “town square” as he describes it, that his bid has caused such a flutter globally. Reading his mind and life story for what his acquisition may mean for the social media giant and the so-called town square has become a widespread exercise. Here’s the ABC of possible clues:   

A for Asimov: On several occasions, Mr. Musk has discussed the influence of science fiction, particularly the parent genre of American science fiction called ‘hard sci-fi’, whose literary canon is shaped by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. In contrast to other science fiction genres that are often critical of the many technological consequences of science and extractive corporates rendering Earth a wasteland from profiteering, hard sci-fi is generally more optimistic about the liberating role of science and technology and its potential for human improvement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during the official opening of the new Tesla electric car manufacturing plant near Gruenheide, Germany on March 22, 2022.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during the official opening of the new Tesla electric car manufacturing plant near Gruenheide, Germany on March 22, 2022. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Bill Gates: Mr. Gates and Mr. Musk are tech-billionaires who want to change the world but have divergent ideas on how to go about it. Mr. Gates aspires to cure malaria and fix global warming and keep Earth habitable for future generations. In vouching for space colonisation, Mr. Musk is regarded to be less optimistic about humanity’s prospects on Earth. They also don’t agree on cryptocurrency, and Mr. Musk fat-shamed Mr. Gates on Twitter once.

Cryptocurrency: An enthusiastic investor in cryptocurrency, Mr. Musk has investments in Bitcoin, Ethereum and, his personal favourite, Dogecoin.

David Bowie: As a publicity stunt in 2018, Mr. Musk launched a car he once drove, the electric Tesla Roadster, aboard a test flight of his company SpaceX’s rocket, Falcon. Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was programmed to play on loop.

A man photographs a Hertz Tesla electric vehicle. File.

A man photographs a Hertz Tesla electric vehicle. File. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Electric Vehicles: Tesla, the company that Musk bought into and became its largest shareholder and Chief Executive Officer, revolutionised the auto industry. The battery-operated vehicles are now among the most-shipped electric vehicles, and have made Tesla the most valuable automobile company by market valuation.

Free speech: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said last month. But he also tweeted: “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Mr. Musk has committed to sweeping Twitter clean of spam bots, but it remains to be seen whether the regulation of hate speech and trolls will be dialled down.

“Gamestonk!!”: Mr. Musk’s one-word tweet in January 2021 was seen to be in support of a group of Redditt users who spiked the share price of GameStop, a middling company that ran a chain of video-game stores. The stock price reached unreasonable valuations, and the episode was viewed as a rabble of speculators taking on established hedge funds. Mr. Musk’s endorsement of the speculators was viewed as his deep connect to the Internet meme culture and social media pizazz.

A screen displays the logo and trading information for GameStop on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

A screen displays the logo and trading information for GameStop on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Hyperloop: An ultra-high-speed ground transportation system for passenger and cargo proposed by Mr. Musk. Sealed and partially evacuated tubes containing pressurised vehicles, called pods, that can zip theoretically at 1000 kmph have been touted as the future of transport.

Internet: Elon Musk is extremely media-savvy. Along with his billions of dollars and millions of Twitter followers, he taps into crowdsourcing, the Web’s most potent feature, both for ideas and fund-raising. He’s steeped in online trends and somehow finds ways to pop into controversies and celebrity gossip that seemingly have no connection to him.

Johnny Depp: Mr. Musk has been called upon as a witness to the ongoing defamation case involving the estranged Hollywood couple, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. He has reportedly refused to testify.

King: Technoking of Tesla is Mr. Musk’s official title at the company as per regulatory filings. He’s said that titles such as CEO and CFO are “made up” titles and chose to be called “technoking” as a “joke”.

Lawsuits: With his penchant for bluster, Mr. Musk and his companies face myriad lawsuits, and he more recently faces one from Twitter shareholders for not disclosing his stake in the company in time.

[The] Moon is a Harsh Mistress: A classic of science fiction by Robert Heinlein that Mr. Musk has earlier cited as one of his inspirations. The 1966 novel deals with politics between Earth and people inhabiting the Moon, and changes in social structure due to technology. It popularised the term TANSTAAFL, ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch’, that’s at the core of economic libertarian philosophy which Mr. Musk subscribes too.

Neuralink: It is a Silicon Valley start-up backed by Mr. Musk that has developed a neuroprosthetic device known as a brain-computer interface.

Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. January 19, 2020.

Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. January 19, 2020. | Photo Credit: Reuters

OpenAI: An Artificial Intelligence research company that aspires to develop “friendly AI”. Mr. Musk was among its founding members but resigned from the board in 2018. He has said that he believes that when computers become super-intelligent, they are likely to pose an “existential threat” to humankind.

PayPal: The financial technology company that made Mr. Musk well known though he was already a millionaire from the sale of his company Zip2, which he cofounded with his brother Kimbal.

Queen’s University: The university in Ontario, Canada Mr. Musk attended before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. and graduating with degrees in physics and economics.

RIP Harambe: The rap number Mr. Musk recorded and released on SoundCloud. Harambe was a captive gorilla raised in an American zoo who was shot when a child got into the enclosure. He now lives on as an Internet meme.

South Africa: Elon  Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa. His mother is Canadian, though raised in South Africa, and his father White South African. Canada, thanks to his mother’s passport, proved to be his ticket to the U.S. where he made his fortune.

Elon Musk looks at his mobile phone in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Elon Musk looks at his mobile phone in Cape Canaveral, Florida. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Technocracy Movement: A social movement in the 1930s in the U.S. and Canada that pushed for a technocratic society over democratic representation. The ‘technocrats’ campaigned for a new universal currency, based on a unit of heat, to be known as the erg and were of the view that scientists and engineers could run society better than politicians. Joshua Haldeman, Mr. Musk’s maternal grandfather, was a leading member of the movement. In a podcast, Harvard historian Jill Lepore has explored the potential formative influence on Mr. Musk.  

Ukraine: In response to a call for help from Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, Mr. Musk offered his satellite internet service, Starlink, to help with the disruption of telecommunications services in the country. Starlink is a constellation of satellites and connecting stations offered by SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s aerospace company.

Valuation: Forbes has estimated Mr. Musk’s net worth in excess of $250 billion, making him the wealthiest person in the world.

Watch | What is Starlink?

Wives: Writer Justine Musk was Elon’s first wife, marrying the tech leader in 2000. He then married actress Talulah Riley. His current partner is Canadian musician Grimes.

X and Y: The two most interestingly named of Musk’s seven children. ‘X’ was originally ‘X Æ A-12’ but the name fell foul of California’s birth registration laws that insists only the 26 English alphabets be used in a name. Y is X’s sister.

Zeroth Law: Or that which comes from sci-fi guru Isaac Asimov’s fictional laws of robotics that describe the principles governing relationships between artificially developed sentient beings and humans. Mr. Musk has described Zeroth Law as being “foundational” to the creation of SpaceX.

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