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Elon Musk and the Life of a “Superhero”

Elon Musk on how the life of a business and scientific superhero is ringed with danger.

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary regularly looks to Elon Musk for inspiration because of his status as a hyperreal superhero in the world of technology and his special place in the global celebrity economy. Wired dropped a bombshell last week when it offered a view of Elon Musk’s company, Tesla, from the inside, documenting how working under the authority of hyperreal human superheroes can be the source of extreme anguish and obvious injustice.

Like all superheroes, Musk lives in a world of danger, so that the very idea danger becomes the basis of the leader’s mindset and actions. Wired describes how Musk thought of so many of the brilliant engineers in his workforce. He typically deemed that “they weren’t smart enough to be working on these problems; that they were endangering the company.” And his employees and their managers came to fear that “a chance encounter, an unexpected question answered incorrectly, might endanger a career.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Endanger:

Create potentially fatal instability through a lack of conformity with the volatile will or vision of the leader 

Contextual note

Musk’s life story illustrates the same feel-good and fundamentally kitsch scenario about ambition and the acquisition of wealth and power that Mark Cuban has been pushing. But with some interesting variations.

Musk, like Cuban, worked his way up from nothing (literally, $2,000 in his pocket when he arrived in Canada from South Africa). Like Cuban, Musk acquired his wealth through the acquisition of startups he was a part of. Both were young business heroes at the optimal time in history for anyone with the ambition of becoming an iconic financial guru (Cuban) or universal superhero (Musk).

Mark Cuban became an actual billionaire thanks to the dot.com boom in 1999, making his initial fortune by selling a company he created to Yahoo for more than $5 billion just before the 2000 crash. Elon Musk’s path to becoming a billionaire was more complex, stretching from the late 1990s, like Cuban, to 2012. But because he had an authentic scientific mind and actually designed and built things, rather than just selling them, he had the profile to attain superhero status.

We don’t know much about the first car Musk owned (unlike Cuban), but we do know that in 1999 he offered himself a $1 million McLaren F1 sports car, which he subsequently crashed. By then Musk had apparently been weaned of his period of initial frugality, though to this day he is an obsessive worker, both intellectually and physically, rather than a wealthy sybarite.

Musk requires of those who work for him the austerity of a monk, ready to sacrifice their ever-extendible working hours to realize the work of their god, who, in this case, isn’t necessarily omnipotent and is even given to gambling: “The Model 3 was a bet-the-company decision, he said. Everybody needed to work hard and smarter.”

The article reminds us of the rules in a hyperreal world: “In Silicon Valley, people are allowed to be strange. In fact, they are often celebrated for it.” After all, who wants a superhero to be normal?

Historical note

Contrary to what many people believe, Musk didn’t create Tesla. He arrived as an early investor in 2004 with the money he earned from selling his shares in PayPal in 2002. “Soon he would become chief executive and turn Tesla as much into a cause as a company,” writes Charles Duhigg for Wired. That’s what hyperreal superheroes do: They deploy their exceptional powers, not to dominate or acquire riches for themselves, but to respond to the needs of a noble cause. Musk was already rich. Now, according to one employee, he needed “to save the world.” It was only later that he thought to do so he might need to move it to Mars.

Superman was famously engaged in a cause: “The never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” It was undoubtedly with Superman in mind that Musk quipped in 2015, “The rumor that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.” But what is Musk’s cause? He framed it this way: To “expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy toward a solar electric economy,” which has the merit of being more concrete that battling for “the American way.”

The one constant is Musk’s combination of hubris and narcissism. He has always been a joker, as evidenced by his initiative earlier this year to sell recreational flamethrowers. But his irony has always been heavy-handed as well. In 2006, he announced, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.” Someone who is “hell-bent” would more likely be calling on Lucifer as his witness, but Elon Musk the comedian thought this might be a great metaphysical joke. On the other hand, playing the role of the rebellious angel, with his own unearthly domain, does seem to please him.

There may even be some Biblical irony here. The story of Lucifer evolved from Ezekiel 28, where the prince of Tyre provided the model for the story of Lucifer, the fallen angel accused of making his heart “like the heart of a god.” Musk is the prince of a car some consider as worthy of the gods, making Musk, at least in one sense, the prince of four “tyres” (British spelling of American “tire”). The Atlantic article, identifying John Milton’s Lucifer as an “honorary ‘American” hero, describes him as “conflicted, brooding, alienated, narcissistic self-mythologizer.” That seems to sum up the Wired article as well.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.