Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance. New York: Ecco (HarperCollins), 2015.
Summary: A biography of the brilliant and flawed tech entrepreneur involved with SpaceX, Tesla, and his visions for the future of humanity.
He created software that anticipated modern mapping apps. He helped launch Paypal, and then was forced out, accruing the fortune that funded the beginnings of SpaceX and Tesla. He has proposed high speed travel via the “hyperloop” between cities, a proposal serious enough that my city is vying to be one of those linked by this new technology. He is the visionary who believes that we must colonize Mars for the human species to survive. Yet he has sounded the alarm against Artificial Intelligence and an apocalypse of intelligent machines (anybody want to be a robot pet?).
This biography traces the life of this tech entrepreneur from his precocious childhood in South Africa that subjected him to bullying, his sale of a video game called Blaster at age 12, his move to Canada, education at Penn State (degrees in physics and business). His first start-up venture, with brother Kimball was Zip2, a kind of online city guide that included mapping functions, eventually sold to Compaq. He used funds from this to start X.com, which through mergers eventually morphed into PayPal. He was ousted from the company but came away with $180 million.
Musk used this to fund two ventures. SpaceX was his vision to privatize space travel, developing a model commercial space transport. Tesla was originally formed not by Musk but by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning to manufacture all-electric cars. Musk came in as an investor and spent most of that fortune on the two companies, both of which nearly went belly up. Much of the book is about the technological and financial challenges Musk faced, but also, in the case of Tesla, conflicts with the first founders. It’s a story of Musk’s relentless drive to succeed, that drove others (or drove them out). Along the way, we learn of Musk’s peculiar kind of brilliance that masters the highly technological details of rocketry, car manufacturing, and eventually, solar power.
While Musk can certainly turn on the charm, whether in wooing his second wife or wooing prospective Tesla buyers, it is clear that this is not a nice person, and all of this is justified by the relentless pursuit of visionary goals. The book is laced with the f-bomb, Musk’s favorite curse word. He divorced his first wife Justine, and divorced, remarried, and divorced again second wife Talulah Riley. The challenge seems to have been finding time for them in his high pressure life, and not just as attractive accessories to his public persona.
The book concludes with Musk’s visionary perspective with its focus on Mars space travel, but also of a commercially viable private space industry, a totally different approach to the automobile and widely-accessible solar power. One is left wondering if it is possible to be brilliant, visionary, successful–and good. Some would say, three out of four isn’t bad, and point to the people around Musk who share his vision and goals, and consider pursuing them with him a life well-lived. I suspect Musk would say that his personal morality is less in question than the flourishing of the human species, perhaps as a multi-planetary race. It’s an “ends justifies means” argument. The question remains, “what kind of people will make up the human community in Musk’s fantastic future?” It’s a question I wonder if he’s thought about. Have we?