On Elon Musk
The media is waging a global war on the world's richest man; much too late and for all of the wrong reasons
Elon Musk is supposedly a genius. I’ve never subscribed to this theory. He’s a good businessman, possibly one of the best in existence today. But the most important characteristic for a good businessperson is not intelligence, it’s ruthlessness. Bill Gates isn’t a genius1, Steve Jobs wasn’t an innovator2 and Jeff Bezos was mostly at the right place at the right time3. But one thing they all have in common is that they are absolutely ruthless when they have to be. A I’m no psychoanalyst, but I think it’s a relatively safe bet to assume that all of these people are psychopaths to some extend. Most billionaires have a certain superficial charm, a huge ego and a very obvious lack of empathy for others or remorse for their own actions. That is what makes them so good at what they do. They are good at manipulating others — in many cases even the public at large, see Steve Jobs — and they get things done because they don’t feel sorry for the people they have to impact negatively to do so.
The majority of the press ignored Elon Musk for a very long time. He only became interesting to mainstream journalists when his company Tesla initiated what became known as the electric vehicle revolution. Because he seemingly single-handedly established the market for electric cars, many publications lauded him as a genius. A lot of hagiographic articles were written about him in the last twenty years. He succeeded Steve Jobs as the new darling of the Silicon Valley tech press, which loves stories about genius innovators who become billionaires — the ultimate expression of the American Dream.
Electric Vehicles Aren’t Innovative, You’ve Just Been Told They Are
The problem I’ve always had with this obvious hero worship is twofold. Firstly, Elon Musk is hardly an innovator. At least not in a technological sense. Introducing a market for electric vehicles might have been a business innovation, but there was no technological innovation here, no matter how much Silicon Valley wanted to pretend there was or how often you’ve been told this. The German Navy has used battery-powered submarines since World War I. Krupp Germaniawerft in Kiel finished its first battery powered submarine, Forelle, in 1903. When Tesla got started in 2003, this technology was already a full hundred years old. It had been introduced into the automobile market more than three decades earlier. Volkswagen, wo wasn’t exactly an innovator in this field either, launched its first mass-marked electric vehicle, a modified T2 Transporter, in 1972. The reason that electromobility didn’t prevail in the market wasn’t the technology of the vehicles itself, but challenges in infrastructure on a national level — problems with power generation and transportation. Problems outside of the purview of the companies making these vehicles; which is why they initially gave up trying to market them.
These challenges haven’t been solved, even today. What Elon Musk did wasn’t innovating on the technology so much as convince people that these external challenges can be solved. Just as Steve Jobs didn’t invent pocket-sized computer technology, but convinced people that they wanted to spend a lot of money on it. Before the iPhone, the problem that prevented PDA technology from reaching mass acceptance wasn’t inherent in the technology. People simply didn’t want to spent hundreds of dollars to solve trivial tasks on a glorified calculator. Jobs made the PDA a fashion statement and convinced people to spent a lot of money not only once, but every few years. That might be business genius, but not the technological innovation the Silicon Valley press was celebrating him for. Basically, we’ve all been conned by so-called experts into believing that certain products are new technology and people like Musk are geniuses, when none of that is born out in an objective analysis of the facts.
The PayPal Mafia
The second problem I’ve had with Musk is the stuff he did before the mainstream press became aware of him. The stuff he did to earn his first few millions. When Musk merged his banking startup x.com with the financial services software company Confinity to create PayPal, he didn’t invent anything either. He recognised an obvious need in the market that the established players were neglecting: Trade over the internet had taken off, but the speed and ease of use in paying for these purchases was lagging behind massively. Anybody who remembers buying products on the internet in the early 2000s probably also remembers recognising this problem. At the time, transferring money from one bank to another took between two and five days. If you had a credit card, you might be able to use that to buy things online, but there were definite risks and usability problems connected with it — if the company you were buying from even supported this kind of thing. We all knew this was a problem at the time. Musk wasn’t a genius for recognising this. He was simply in a position to do something about it by merging his company with another one.
In getting PayPal off the ground, Musk was the first to solve this problem for a large part of the market. This is a legitimate business achievement and he made a fortune based on this for good reason. The issue with all of this becomes clear when you look at the type of business Musk created with PayPal.
Before PayPal, banking was highly regulated, which is of definite benefit for the consumer. In the early days of internet fraud, your bank was largely responsible for securing your assets. Let’s say someone hacked your Windows PC and put a malware on it to steal your online banking credentials. If they managed to actually transfer money from your account, your bank was responsible for this and was, by law, required to reimburse you. Banks would allocate many millions (and later billions) of dollars each year for this purpose. These regulations was very solid in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and, particularly, in Germany, where I live. When financial startups like Paypal (and Paypal in particular was a trailblazer in this) revolutionised the way in which we send money to each other, they worked hard at softening (and in many cases abolishing) these regulations. These fresh, new and agile companies saw themselves inconvenienced in their business by having to reimburse customers for security problems inherent in their amazing technological innovations. As a result, consumers who get defrauded on the internet these days have to prove to their bank that the bank is at fault if they don’t want to be settled with the damages — which is basically impossible to do in most cases. Other banking regulations have also been dismantled under lobbying from PayPal and adjacent companies and this has largely let to banks getting away scot-free when all kinds of fraud and security issues happen on their watch.
In Germany, the Wirecard scandal is a good example of how weakening financial regulations to accommodate startups and a newer, quicker, looser way of doing business has hurt the public and the market as a whole. But a much more serious impact of Musk’s influence is the large-scale shift of responsibility for the results of security vulnerabilities and fraud from financial institutions to the consumer.
With this background to his previous successes, I’ve always found it very problematic that the press, for more than a decade, has worshipped the man as a tech genius and business guru. Maybe the fact that the people connected to these early successes called themselves the PayPal Mafia should have been a dead giveaway to the journalists writing about these topics that these guys didn’t have the best interests of consumers or society at large at heart and that there were definite psychopathic tendencies on display here.
The Press Turned On Musk at Exactly the Wrong Moment
Musk finally fell from grace in the eyes of the press when he started to publicly object to the pandemic measures of the Trump government. He didn’t agree with a lot of the unscientific guidance espoused by government organisations at the time and simply seemed to want to get shit done at his companies SpaceX and Tesla, with little regard for the wellbeing of his employees. Which, considering his aforementioned history, should have surprised exactly no one. While many everyday Twitter users seemed to applaud Musk’s views on lockdowns, the press turned on him. Suddenly, journalists started to discover that working at an Elon Musk company in a blue collar role has never been particularly wholesome. Interestingly, the press only started to care about this once Elon pissed off the powers that be. Even though there had been many reports about these things for years — and even the occasional news story — nobody cared about the workers, because everyone loved Musk at the time.
After the tide turned in the press, the flood gates really opened when Musk announced he wanted to buy Twitter last year. When he actually followed through, Elon Musk suddenly became the devil incarnate and Twitter was doomed to failure because of him. The Silicon Valley tech press started a crusade against the man, without even trying to explain why they’d hyped him for years before changing their minds. And the mainstream press followed suit unquestioningly, even when Musk became probably the first billionaire whistleblower in history with the Twitter Files. This should have made him an immediate ally of the press, or at the very least, earned their grudging respect. But no, instead of reporting the biggest tech story of 2022, journalists almost universally decided to shoot Musk down.
And it’s been getting worse ever since. The rampant Musk hate has the press reaching to such absurd lengths as calling for more and more censorship of Twitter, or 𝕏 as it is called now, instead of championing Musk’s fight against the worst accesses of the censorship-industrial complex that has the government abuse media corporations as propaganda arms. Yes, journalists are actively calling for censorship, even though censorship of any kind should be anathema to any serious journalist under any circumstances. And they don’t seem to care when they are getting fed lies to amplify them to the public, because it allegedly helps a supposedly good cause.
The Bottom Line
For years, the press venerated Musk for achievements that were largely imaginary and ignored the bad things his companies did to the market at the expense of the wellbeing of its own workers, of consumer protections and the public good. But when he started to threaten powerful interests, the press suddenly turned on him for even more largely imaginary reasons. The press is supposed to work in the interest of the common people and keep the ambitions of the rich and powerful in check. It’s doing the exact opposite here and it’s having a tragic effect on society at large and, among other things, its own ability to function in the future.
I’d be the first to criticise Elon Musk. In fact, I have been doing exactly that, on the record, for decades now. But I’ve been doing it to fight for the interests of my audience. Legacy media organisations, and even some very misguided alternative media sources, are doing it in the service of the rich and powerful. If they realise what they are doing or not doesn’t really matter. It’s harming all of us nonetheless, because their arguments are being used to negate the rights of private citizens and funnel power to governments and their NGO cronies. It is stupefyingly absurd that this whole situation forces me to, essentially, side with someone like Elon Musk against my own profession. And it’s even more absurd that my profession caused this frustrating situation in the first place!
Bill Gates mercilessly exploited other people and once his substandard product was in a favourable position in the market, went to great lengths to eliminate all competition. As any OS/2, Linux or BSD user will attest to, Windows did most certainly not become the monopoly operating system it is today by being a better product than the competition.
Not only when he grew his book business into the world’s biggest online retailer by virtue of having survived the dot-com bubble by being in a niche business. He happened to be at the right place in the right time again, when Amazon pivoted to Sun’s 1980’s strategy of the network being the computer when it created what we today know as “the cloud”.