There’s a lot of material in Walter Isaacson’s new book about Elon Musk, which I’ve yet to finish because last week was my birthday, and I don’t celebrate life by finishing 688-page books about highly intelligent but unstable egomaniacs. But I have read and listened to some of the people who have read it, whose reporting I generally trust. Casey Newton cataloged 9 wild details, mostly relating to the botched Twitter acquisition. (I wish Isaacson had spent more time exploring Musk’s relationship with race, from his South African childhood to the multiple allegations of racial harassment at Tesla’s factory in Fremont.) Meanwhile, Constance Grady at Vox did an admirable job of zooming out to critique Isaacson’s focus on the individual, rather than global or systemic, impacts of Musk’s growing power and personal flaws.
Musk, after all, has quickly become an important geopolitical player, in large part due to his ownership of SpaceX, which operates about half of all satellites orbiting Earth. In an excerpt from his book, published in The Washington Post, Isaacson reports how the Ukrainian military has come to rely on Musk’s satellite network for its operations—and also how Musk, when asked to extend the range of the network to an area where Ukrainian drone subs were attempting to strike back at the Russian navy, refused. The subs “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly,” Isaacson writes. Of course, Musk’s growing influence in national security raises serious concerns about everything from his alleged drug use to his ability to influence (and be influenced on) battlefields. But Musk’s interventions in Ukraine are just one example of the risks we’re exposed to when a private company dominates a traditionally public sector like defense.
I’m not a reflexive critic of Elon Musk. I’m a Tesla owner, a reluctant Twitter/X user, and I’ve played around with Starlink, though I’m not a paying customer. I’m very much a part of Musk’s business universe. I’ve had friends employed at SpaceX, and appreciate what Musk is trying to do in space, and on Mars, even if I prefer the view (and atmosphere) from Earth. Basically, I respect parts of Musk’s hustle. He saw a gap in the aerospace market left by NASA and the government, and he’s exploited it well, brought costs down for rocket launches, improved space suits, and succeeded at satellite internet service where many others—remember Iridium?—have failed. Good for him, and, sometimes, good for us.