I am not interested in ad hominem attacks, being a part of an internet mob, or signaling group affliation by attacking the internet’s “main character” of the day. But a significant determinant of our (hopefully always evolving) world views are how we feel about individuals who are prominent in the discourse, endowed with political power, and influential in markets. Not necessarily because we want to align or distance our selves from them as markers on a political mapping, but because at the core of our sensibilities are what we believe to be the optimal constraints and opportunities that shape the wielding of power.
<invokes best middle-aged-dude-from-a-midwestern-city-with-a-mustache accent>
Which brings me to this friggin’ guy:
- Made prescient investment in PayPal. Could be luck, but it took some real insight to see the merits of PayPal over other transactions start-ups at the time, so he’s probably a very keen observer of nascent tech companies and talent.
- Tesla was run with a deep understanding that the cars would get the attention, but the money was to be made in battery innovation while circumventing the autodealers lobby and their fully-entrenched protections against market entrants. Clever.
- He’s excellent at getting attention, even if it isn’t always positive attention. Not sure he knows the difference. Not sure it matters.
- Obsessive workaholic, possibly to the point of some mild self-destructive tendencies. Decent chance he leverages prescription amphetamines when his body and mind can’t hold onto a task as long as his ego would prefer.
- Funnier than most people think he is. Not as funny as he thinks he is.*
- Highly likely (>98%) to be very, very smart. Likely (>75%) to be an excellent engineer. Highly likely (<98%) to be an excellent pitchman.
Since then I’ve listened to people call him dumb, malevolent, and childish. I mostly disregarded those as “social media ideas”, the kind of only lightly-considered opinions that are fun to have, grant you the light dopamine drip of both feeling superior to a famous billionaire while also implicitly reminding listeners that any deficiency in your own status is at least in part a product of the unfairness and stupidity of the world. It all struck me as kind of silly and deeply unconsidered. To this point – if we accept the premise that Elon Musk is a malevolent person, then we also have to accept that the market incentives combined with targeted government subsidies harnessed the powers of a smart, dedicated, malevolent person towards the creation and management of a company that measurably reduced the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Are there a 100 people on the planet who can be credited with a greater impact mitigating global climate change? Are the fiercest critics of Elon Musk also willing to stipulate that the (neoliberal? new liberal?) melding of markets and governance can manipulate horribly selfish people to dedicate their lives to producing massive public goods?
So yeah, my estimation was pretty strong. Then he he decided to buy Twitter. That, and his subsequent public statements, have forced my periodic reconsideration.
First, while owning Twitter could certainly be considered the stewardship of a valuable public good, it seems unlikely to be a good investment relative to the price paid. Maybe more importantly, it seems outside his comparative advantage as an investor. It’s not a moonshot and there is no engineering marvel behind the customer-facing product. It is big and already expensive, so even if it plays out incredibly well over the next ten years, it yields, what, a 15% annual return?
Second, if there’s going to be a political victory, it’s not going to happy via lobbying or creative circumvention. It will always come back to free speech, which means if a conflict happens it will be settled in the courts over many, many years. Patience and constitutional nuance do not strike me as in his comparative advantage.
It might not matter that he is getting a lot bad attenion, but it does seem like he is getting, and engaging with, too much attention. How much of his bandwidth is actually left for the other companies he ostensibly runs?
He’s saying a lot of weird stuff. Or maybe the weird fraction of his public persona is just getting a greater share of the attention. I can’t tell.
If he’s not building something or re-engineering something, he must be selling something. What is he selling? The only thing I can come up with is that he’s selling himself, just not to me. Who’s he selling himself to?
My updated beliefs, as of 11-6-2022:
- He’s probably a very keen observer of nascent tech companies and talent, but has become distracted from that comparative advantage by ego and age.
- Tesla was run with an eye towards engineering, subsidy, and sales opportunities, but that has left him overconfident in his ability to manufacture an engineering opportunity by dint of his own interest in something.
- He’s still excellent at getting attention, even if it is polarizing attention that will have negative effects on how large swaths of the population feel about him. He’s acting more like a politician than an executive.
- Obsessive, and not just about work.
- He’s still funnier than most people think he is, but his sense of humor is becoming meaner. Some people like cruelty and their admiration comes with consequences.
- Likely (>85%) to be very, very smart, but there is a growing probability (<15%) that what he is actually exceptional at is taking credit where brilliance has occurred. I’ve met a non-trivial number of people in my life who were good at “playing the part” of the genius, full of quirks and big statements and bad hair, whose real gift was standing in front of other people’s contributions. Of course, there is a certain sales and political genius in manufacturing the appearance of deep foresight.
Now that I’ve impugned (probabilistically, at leat) the capacities of a highly accomplished individual who has never done any personal harm to me or been (to my knowledge) ever accused of anything explicitly destructive, I should at least note why. I think it is important to make a regular practice of reconsidering our heroes and villains in the public sphere. It’s just good political hygiene. The sheer quantity of narratives we consume, particularly the infovores among us, is simply too much to continually process without constructing heuristic reductions of public figures: genius engineer, corrupt monster, generous savior, doddering fool, etc. And, to be clear, I think those heuristic models are probably necessary just to stay mentally afloat, but if we’re going to do that we need to update those models regularly.
I used to think Elon Musk was a tech genius whose confidence was earned and of limited consequence. Now I think he’s a tech very-smart-guy whose overconfidence has yielded an investment decision with potentiallly disasterous consequences for both his own wealth and the broader discourse in our country. Who knows what I’ll think of him next week or if I’ll even think of him at all? Maybe Elon will save an island of puppies while a genius he casually fired resurrects Tumblr into the pivotal social media of a new American golden age. We’ll have so much to reconsider!
*To be fair, neither am I.
I think Musk possesses one kind of intelligence. So, that makes me disagree with claims that he’s not smart at all. It’s also obvious that he is being pulled in too many directions at once and getting stressed out. I wish, honestly, for the good of society, that he was focused on the engineering companies and further from media.
It is not clear to me that twitter is going to turn out as badly as it seems. Elon seems to be intentionally stirring the pot just to keep site traffic up, in a few weeks I think the excitement will be over and network effects will lock Twitter in as an unassailable leader again.
Elon’s ideas are a lot smarter and less obvious than they seem, for example pairing the $8 with a paywall bypass could turn Twitter into a revenue source for media which would completely change the field. Media might not be interested, but enough money can overcome any objection.
PPP adjustment of check marks is also brilliant if he segments the algo by region then massively weighs towards preferences of checkmarks because it would give twitter a large % of bot revenues.
Botting is 1000x more effective than targeted advertising and it is far more prevalent and commercialized than people think. Eighty percent of Amazon reviews are botted and a quarter of the reddit front page is botted (half or more around elections). You want to insert yourself into that revenue while maintaining plausible deniability, its just too lucrative.
None of these ideas were on anyones radar until Elon thought of them. Its possible the media/political machine can crush Twitter but I think network effects will win out.
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I think Musk has figured out* that bad publicity is bad, but eventually becomes less bad over time and that eventually shifting the Overton window is worth the initial bad vibes. Look at, say, Edison and Ford, who were awful people in their time but are now mostly remembered for their positive contributions. History gets written by the victors, and people’s attention spans are short.
*Or maybe he’s always had that huckster’s self-confidence which just happens to be just the best fit in today’s tech-worshipping hypermedia world.