Elon Musk will arguably go down as the most influential person of our times. Unlike others who have taken the position of the richest person of the world such as Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, Musk has spawned off several ventures with the aim to profit from solving real world problems – Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, Boring Company and now xAI. Whilst he didn’t build Twitter, he now owns it and has renamed it X since, arguably the most influential of all his ventures. But how that influence has reached worrying proportions today is the subject of this engaging long read in The New Yorker. The author Ronan Farrow takes us through several instances through Musk’s life where he has increasingly challenged authorities with the latter having very little defence. The article begins with Musk’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war. He had volunteered to offer SpaceX’s Starlink communications service to Ukrainian troops on the ground only to pull it off demanding payment for the same:
“One day, Ukrainian forces advancing into contested areas in the south found themselves suddenly unable to communicate. “We were very close to the front line,” Mykola, the signal-corps soldier, told me. “We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working.” The consequences were immediate.
“Communications became dead, units were isolated. When you’re on offense, especially for commanders, you need a constant stream of information from battalions. Commanders had to drive to the battlefield to be in radio range, risking themselves,” Mykola said. “It was chaos.” Ukrainian expats who had raised funds for the Starlink units began receiving frantic calls. The tech executive recalls a Ukrainian military official telling him, “We need Elon now.” “How now?” he replied. “Like fucking now,”the official said. “People are dying.”
Another Ukrainian involved told me that he was “awoken by a dozen calls saying they’d lost connectivity and had to retreat.” The Financial Times reported that outages affected units in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. American and Ukrainian officials told me they believed that SpaceX had cut the connectivity via geofencing, cordoning off areas of access.”
His influence on the war went beyond Starlink, including alleged discussions with Putin and a proposed peace plan, seemingly favouring Russia.
“To the dismay of Pentagon officials, Musk volunteered that he had spoken with Putin personally. Another individual told me that Musk had made the same assertion in the weeks before he tweeted his proRussia peace plan, and had said that his consultations with the Kremlin were regular. (Musk later denied having spoken with Putin about Ukraine.) On the phone, Musk said that he was looking at his laptop and could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of Starlink activity. “This was, like, three minutes before he said, ‘Well,I had this great conversation with Putin,’ ”the senior defense official told me…Living in the world we live in, in which Elon runs this company and it is a private business under his control, we are living off his good graces,” a Pentagon official told me. “That sucks.””
It’s not just Russia, his business interests in China pose a geopolitical challenge as well:
“A facility in Shanghai produces half of all Tesla cars, and Musk depends on the good will of officials in China, which has lent support to Russia in the conflict. Musk recently acknowledged to the Financial Times that Beijing disapproves of his decision to provide Internet service to Ukraine and has sought assurances that he would not deploy similar technology in China. In the same interview, he responded to questions about China’s efforts to assert control over Taiwan by floating another peace plan. Taiwan, he suggested, could become a jointly controlled administrative zone, an outcome that Taiwanese leaders see as ending the country’s independence.”
Whilst richest people in history such as JP Morgan and Rockefeller had funded wars, their influence was limited to that.
“There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations in such a granular way, or for the degree of dependency that the U.S. now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space. SpaceX is currently the sole means by which NASA transports crew from U.S. soil into space, a situation that will persist for at least another year. The government’s plan to move the auto industry toward electric cars requires increasing access to charging stations along America’s highways. But this rests on the actions of another Musk enterprise, Tesla. The automaker has seeded so much of the country with its proprietary charging stations that the Biden Administration relaxed an early push for a universal charging standard disliked by Musk. His stations are eligible for billions of dollars in subsidies, so long as Tesla makes them compatible with the other charging standard.”
The article goes on to give several specific instances where Musk has had run-ins with the authorities who have been left helpless against his power (not just money but influence through technology – based monopoly).
“The new space race has the potential to shape the global balance of power. Satellites enable the navigation of drones and missiles and generate imagery used for intelligence, and they are mostly under the control of private companies. “The U.S. government is in massive catch-up to build a more resilient space architecture,” Kahl, the former Pentagon Under-Secretary, told me. “And that only works if you can leverage the explosion of commercial space.” Several officials told me that they were alarmed by NASA’s reliance on SpaceX for essential services. “There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,”
Bridenstine said. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.””
The article quotes Sam Altman the CEO of OpenAI, which perhaps best sums up Musk’s attitude to solving the world’s problems: “Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it.”
A fascinating read including several references to Musk’s inspiration from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Walter Issacson’s biography on the man is in the works and we can’t wait for it.
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