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Yearender2018: Elon Musk Lost the Plot This Year, But Will 2019 See 'Iron Man' Return?

By: Shantanu David


Last Updated: December 30, 2018, 14:30 IST

File photo of Elon Musk.

File photo of Elon Musk.

Once the golden boy of millennials, as well as techies and futurists of all age groups, in 2018 Musk seemed determined to propel his narrative into cautionary tale territory.

Assuredly one of the finest lines in modern English literature is by Terry Pratchett in Snuff, in which the author wrote, "It had been said by someone years before that to see Lady Sybil Ramkin's upholstered bosom rise and fall was to understand the history of empires."

Taking a leaf then out of the late master's book, let us paraphrase and declare, "To read Elon Musk's twitter timeline is to understand how thin the line is between genius and insanity as well as the fickle nature of celebrity."

Once the golden boy of millennials, as well as techies and futurists of all age groups, in 2018 Musk seems determined to propel his narrative into cautionary tale territory. And much like his plans for Tesla, this shift in public perception seemed self-driven. However, Musk himself later admitted that working 120 hours a week played havoc on his cognition and behavior and that he’s scaled it back to a more manageable 80 hours, so as to get back to normal.

And since then, well, his behaviour does seem to be curving back to the normal; or as normal as it gets in Elon Musk's world. He tried to engage with people more normally on social media, softballing out the odd joke or few.

When a Twitter account called World and Science posted a side-by-side size comparison of Earth and Mars, Musk, whose most ambitious project is the colonization of the red planet, thought it's time to drop some some truth bombs. Musk decided this post gave him the perfect opening to express something he had been musing on, namely, the renaming of Earth. He pointed out that since the Earth's surface is technically 71% water, perhaps we should rename it Water.

Even though he's technically correct, his reasoning is more stoner logic than critical thinking, something the Twitterverse was quick to point out, especially given the trouble Musk found himself in after smoking weed on camera while appearing on Joe Rogan's radio talk show.

Still, Musk rolled with the punches and it was generally considered some good, ol' fashioned joshing between the tech titan and his followers, with him being self-deprecatingly referring to his penchant for eccentricity.

He also enaged in a much followed discussion with Indian insustrialist Anand Mahindra on humanity's future on Mars. Musk and Mahindra have a history of exchanging ideas and news over Twitter, to the obvious delight of the social media platform, and their latest exchange was no different.

It began when Mahindra posted an article on NASA's Insight Probe having made a successful landing on Mars, while expressing a hope that poets, rather than property agents, get first crack at populating the red planet. Musk replied that there was room for all kinds of creator types on Mars (in more ways than one), as there was much to build on the barren planet and went on to predict a timescale for the colonization of Mars by Earth (and not the other way round, no matter what the movies tell you). The SpaceX founder estimated that it would take 7-10 years for the first colony of humans to gain a foothold on the new planet.

Since then, his Boring Company projects finally seem to be getting off, or into, the ground, with Musk showing off its first tunnel, situated in Los Angeles earlier this week, two years after the billionaire entrepreneur complained about Los Angeles traffic and vowed to "just start digging" as a remedy.

And that's the thing about Musk. Despite his obvious hubris and tendency to react negatively to even caution, never mind criticism, the man is undoubtedly a visionary and may just end up indelibly changing the world; even if he has to bend, or even break, a few rules to make his ideas come to life.

That Musk has a disdain for rules and restrictions is evident to anyone who has followed his life and style from his halcyon youth.

Right from ducking out of his native South Africa at the age of 17 (in order to avoid the country's mandatory military service) and heading to Canada to pursue his college studies, to dropping out of Stanford a few years later in order to cash in on the internet boom of the late ‘90s, Musk has always followed the beat of his own drum.

And till very recently, it’s usually paid off. Dropping out after attending only two days of class at Stanford in 1996, Musk started his first company, Zip2 Corporation, an upstart online city guide which was soon providing data to storied institutions like The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Musk sold that company in 1999, for close to $350 Million to Compaq (remember them?), having already moved on to his next venture. X.com was an online financial services company that soon evolved into PayPal, and was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk was barely over 30 but he was already worth close to a billion and people were starting to pay attention to this tech maven.

It was also in 2002 that Musk began indulging the nerdy kid inside him and started his third company, SpaceX, which still may end up being his legacy brand and the reason behind the Musk statues that might be erected on Mars one day.

SpaceX has been an audacious project from its inception, an interstellar venture grounded in earthly capitalism. What began as the relatively modest idea of manufacturing spacecraft for commercial space travel to the inter-planetary colonizer it aims to become of late, SpaceX might end up being the influential company on, and beyond, Earth. Or it might just end up going out with a bang. However, with the company's Falcon 9 being certified to launch NASA's flagship scientific spacecraft and its upcoming launch, SpaceX seems to be on solid ground.

SpaceX is one among many of Musk’s current endeavors, with the tech billionaire handling a portfolio of projects which often sound more science fiction than anything else. There’s the Boring Company (which aims to change the way how we travel within cities), Hyperloop (which aims to change the way we travel to other cities), and, of course, Tesla (which aims to change how we travel, period). There are several other projects, of course, including an open source neural network to combat the perils of AI, an electric-powered commercial jet and presumably an actual Iron Man suit.

Strangely enough, Musk’s meteoric rise from just another tech billionaire to eccentric genius/humanity’s savior in many ways mirrored that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved character. Not for nothing had Musk been declared the ‘real Iron Man’ by news media and publications around the world.

The thing is, when exposed over a long period of time, iron rusts.

And that’s what seems to be happening with Musk, who has been exposed to social media, and even worse, the people on them, for far too long.

Indeed, Musk hasn't been at his best over the past few months, what with Tesla's legal hassles, which ended up costing him and the electric automobile company $20 million each, as well as requiring him to step down as chairman of its board by November 13, giving way to Robyn Denholm as the new chairperson. Then there was his erratic tweeting, with Musk, on separate occasions, professing his love for anime, claiming the microblogging site locked his account, asking his followers to send him their 'dankest memes', and declaring himself the 'Nothing of Tesla'. Oh, and he also said that an earlier tweet, the one that led to all his legal troubles and cost him $20 million dollars, was 'worth it'.

And this was just the stuff he tweeted. His offline behavior was also bizarre, from smoking pot on Joe Rogan’s broadcast radio show (boy, did company stocks take a beating then) to his stance against the media, and any journalists who questioned the viability, not to mention profitability, of some of his larger than life schemes.

As The Atlantic reported, It doesn’t matter that the thing that set off Musk was so banal. In an earnings call earlier this month, Musk repeatedly interrupted analysts and insulted them for their questions. “Excuse me,” he said at one point, cutting off a query about capital expenditures. “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?” From there, things got very weird, very quickly. In a response to a question about Tesla Model 3 reservations, Musk said, “We’re going to go to YouTube. Sorry. These questions are so dry. They’re killing me!”

This is a bit ironic, considering Musk began his quasi-career by supplying information to media publications via Zip2 Corp. 22 years and many billions of dollars later, Musk floated the idea of starting his own news organization to take on pesky journalists who dared to question his means and motives, writing in May, 2018: “Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication. Thinking of calling it Pravda.” Pravda, incidentally, was a Soviet-era newspaper published by the state. Talk about big brother acting like a little kid.

Personally, I think that Musk confused legacy with celebrity, which is partly our (the media) fault. We lionized the man so much that he started trying to actually wear the Iron Man suit. He had to be everywhere, all the time.

This was best exemplified when the entire world had its eyes on a cave system in Thailand, where a football team of young boys and their coach were trapped and in danger of drowning. Enter Musk and his barrage of tweets on how he was developing a mini-submarine to help in the rescue. Never mind that the situation was already being monitored and handled by trained military and legit rescue operation personnel, Musk somehow tried to make the story about himself. On being told that his craft was unsuitable, Musk lashed out by calling his critic a pedophile. To employ an aphorism, that’s just messed up.

One may conjecture that the pot smoking on a live video and radio feed was again part of this need to be in the news, to be millennial-friendly, to be ‘trending’. The thing is, Musk isn't just another insta-celebrity. You’re a dreamer and a doer, a visionary and a businessman; he was supposed to save our planet, and help us get to other ones.

And while things seemed to be crashing down around him in 2018, if his promised return to the original script goes as planned, we could all perhaps look forward to the future.

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    I really hope so, we all do, because 2018 was a pretty terrible intermission. Now, 2019 onwards, can we please get back to the show, man? I’m sure it’ll be metal.

    (Views expressed by the author are personal)

    first published:December 21, 2018, 13:03 IST
    last updated:December 30, 2018, 14:30 IST