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Why Elon Musk is hard not to like

Why Elon Musk is hard not to like

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying his entertainment value

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying his entertainment value

Tim Smith-Laing | July 18th 2018

To paraphrase Voltaire on God, if Elon Musk did not exist, one would have to invent him. I am, to be honest, not entirely confident that the man who has just re-entered the front pages for calling the diver behind the Thai cave rescue a “pedo” is not an invention. Can “Elon Musk” actually be a real name? I suspect not. It belongs to some kind of late-night drinking game played by Hollywood scriptwriters trying to create a name that could work equally well for a villain in a James Bond film, a model in “Zoolander 3”, and an aftershave in the universe of “Anchorman”. Ernst Ubermann? Fine for franchises one and two, but it doesn’t fly as a perfume name. Christophe Lynx? Great for aftershave and models, but too silly – even by the standards of Bond – for a proper villain. Leon Waft? Close, but no cigar. Elon Musk? Tick, tick, tick. 

Could an “Elon Musk” plot to take over the world? Yes. Could an “Elon Musk” wear a leather kilt and towelling sash at London Fashion Week? Certainly. Could a 17 year old douse himself in “Elon Musk” in hopes of a pheremonal boost come disco time? Indubitably. But better than this, I would not be surprised if these things were true of the real Elon Musk, a man seemingly determined to go above and beyond even the wildest notions of what a billionaire inventor might be like. I would not be surprised if he did plot to take over the world, or if he strutted his stuff in a genuine calf-leather mini-kilt. Perhaps least of all would I be surprised to see him marketing his own glandular essence in the Christmastime perfume ads. At the end of the day none of these is more extraordinary than things he has actually done, or plans to do. 

If he had just pocketed his earnings from the sale of PayPal back in 2002 and sloped off into the sunset, Musk would be your average tech billionaire. Instead he decided to invest them in growing crops on Mars, because that way we will all have somewhere to go when we finally perish by asteroid or super-volcano or our own overwhelming stupidity. Much as any sane man would, he tried to purchase a set of second-hand Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles from Russia and then, having been turned down, decided to build his own rockets. He aims to have his first ship on the way to Mars by 2022, in advance of the first pioneer party two years later. 

One significant problem with Mars is that there is no oxygen in the atmosphere. Which means that a hypothetical colony would need to rely on, say, electric cars, electric trains, electric planes or – even better – something like a giant version of the old pneumatic tubes that banks used to send takings to the vault. So Musk founded Tesla to make the first three, followed by Hyperloop for the last; the former he named after an inventor who claimed to have invented a lethal “death ray”, the latter after two words that sound cooler than “pneumatic” and “tube”. One day while sitting in traffic it seems to have occurred to Musk that tunnels would also be a handy thing to have on Mars and so he founded the Boring Company – named after everything that his life is not. 

All these things, not accidentally, have the benefit of making money on Earth before the Martian exodus. And, of course, they are. But they are also – and one suspects this is more important to Musk – just kinda cool. Simply because he fancied it, Musk produced 20,000 flamethrowers under the Boring Company name, all of which sold out almost immediately. He also used a rocket to put his own Tesla car in orbit. And so on. For this, I think, Elon Musk is genuinely hard not to like. He is above all else game, and in entertainment terms alone extremely good value for money. 

Compare him to the other great innovators of our era, and it is not much of a competition. There is Bill Gates, former richest man on Earth and renowned philanthrope, who revolutionised home computing and who is duller than a midwinter Wednesday in Lincolnshire. There is Jeff Bezos, current richest man on Earth, whose gift is being prepared to sell absolutely anything at a loss until the people who once sold such things all go bankrupt. Then there was Steve Jobs, much mourned by “disruptors” of all stripes, whose genius appears to have consisted in saying “Make it smaller, make it thinner, make it shinier” over and over again to his employees. On that basis, water is the greatest innovator of pebbles the world has ever known. 

Musk, meanwhile, is colourful. Which is why it is not all that surprising that he should bowl up at the mouth of a cave containing a trapped group of Thai schoolboys and propose to rescue them one by one with a tiny submarine. And why it is in many ways not all that surprising that his response to them being rescued by more prosaic means is to accuse their rescuer of being a paedophile. Why else, apparently, would anyone choose to live in Thailand? I do not know Elon, maybe ask the Thais.  

It is not his finest hour, but it is also considerably less outlandish than the kind of stuff that has, over the years, become his bread and butter. You cannot say that he does not put his money where his mouth is, or that his money and his mouth are not of a similar size. When he is king of Mars, though, he may want to invent rather laxer libel laws than we once had on the barren husk called Earth.