Elon Musk Unmasked: Shaping the Future (Part 4)
After building an empire, now Elon Musk wants us to believe he deserves it. He built a myth of his genius, and now he’s using the same to seed harmful ideologies into the public that justify how he hoards wealth to pursue the projects he should be central to humanity’s future, leaving behind a ton of suffering in their wake. But is Musk’s future really the one we want? This is episode 4 of Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us.
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ELON MUSK: Channeling Carl Sagan: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.” This is not true. This is false. Mars.
In that clip, Elon Musk is reciting a passage written by the renowned astronomer Carl Sagan. In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its cameras toward the solar system for one final series of images and captured a photograph that became know as the Pale Blue Dot. Taken 6 billion kilometers or 3.7 billion miles from Earth, it shows our planet as little more than a pale blue pixel shining in the darkness of space — and it was on that little speck of light that everything we know, not only as individuals, but as a species, has ever taken place. One would think it’s impossible not to look upon it and feel humbled, and question the pain and suffering and division that has driven so much of human history. But not for Elon Musk.
While he quoted some of what Sagan had written, he left out some key parts of it.
CARL SAGAN: Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. […] There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Kindness. Empathy. Compassion. These are qualities that Sagan prized, and which he thought the humbling experience of thinking about how small a speck we are in the vastness of the universe should elicit in us. We have one planet. We have one world. And we need not only to treat it properly, but to do the same to all those who inhabit it.
In Walter Isaacson’s 2023 biography of Musk, one of the central themes is how little empathy he’s able to draw for those around him. He claims to care about humanity, but only in the abstract. He treats actual human beings quite poorly, often lapsing into a state Isaacson calls “demon mode.” Here’s Isaacson speaking to the Wall Street Journal.
WALTER ISAACSON: Demon mode certainly has a lack of empathy and there are times when Musk very much has a lack of empathy. He says sometimes not having too much empathy can be beneficial.
Musk’s response to that deeply thoughtful passage by Sagan isn’t to demonstrate compassion or think about the effects of his own actions on the world around us, especially as he’s accrued an almost unimaginable degree of power and wealth. No — it’s an outright rejection of what Sagan is entreating us to do, because he’s not only obsessed with the idea of colonizing Mars, but can’t fathom the idea that he might be wrong. In a 2014 interview with Aeon he put it even more plainly: “Fuck Earth!” he said, laughing. “Who cares about Earth?”
As a species, we face massive collective challenges that require us to come together and act for the betterment of all, and we have a shockingly short period of time in which to do it. The effects of the climate crisis grow with each passing year of inaction, an unacceptably high number of people still lack the very basics they require to live, and the scourge of war is rearing its head once again. Yet we find ourselves in a position where a compassionless billionaire is not only using his immense resources to push us in the direction of his choosing, but using his access to media platforms and the halls of power to shape our collective priorities.
Just a couple years after writing about the Pale Blue Dot, Sagan passed away at the age of 62. In his final interview in 1996, he warned about the consequences of living in a highly technological society where so few actually understood the fundamentals of those technologies.
CARL SAGAN: There’s two kinds of dangers. One is what I just talked about, that we’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy, if the people don’t know anything about it? And the second reason that I’m worried about this is that science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.
Sagan’s concern is directed at politics and religion, but he’s left out the corporate world, its power to shape the direction of science and technology, and the possibility of a capitalist charlatan taking in the public for his or her personal gain. As we discussed in episode 2, the public sector ceded the future to the private sector, and the tech industry — and Elon Musk in particular — stepped in to fill that void. The industry thrives on the public having a poor historical knowledge of technology or understanding of what the industry is actually capable of. That’s how they’re able to constantly churn out deception after deception while still keeping the media and the public hooked.
But what are the consequences of handing so much power to Elon Musk — someone who got to the top because a combination of privilege and good fortune allowed him to capitalize on a rare economic boom then convince people it was actually because of his personal brilliance? They’re immense — and we need to start reckoning with them.
This is Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, assembled by me, Paris Marx. I’ve been hosting this show for three-and-a half years and writing about Musk for many more. I’ve even been called the left’s leading Muskologist, for all that’s worth.
Over the past three episodes, we’ve dug into Musk’s childhood under apartheid, his science fiction influences, and his tendency to change his story to suit himself. We explored the effort he put into building his profile, and how integral the media was in boosting a character he was creating to present himself as the genius innovator the public came to know him to be. In the last episode, we dug specifically into what that meant for Tesla and Musk’s other transport ideas — and how his efforts have distracted us from important actions we should be taking.
In this final episode of the series, it’s time to explore the wider impacts of the power Musk has acquired and how he’s using it to get the public to buy into harmful ideas and ideologies that serve people like himself while making us believe they’re actually addressing some of the most pressing issues we face as a species. Musk continues to expand his empire and tells his supporters he’s not following his personal whims, but is acting for the betterment of humanity. We need to be able to question not just his claims, but the deeper assumptions driving them.
We’ve discussed how Musk is driven by ideas that gripped him early in his life that he pulled from science fiction and which he absorbed from the world around him. But just because he feels he’s found the secret to humanity’s future doesn’t mean he’s right. What are his driving motivations, and where do his ideas for the future come from? If they’re realized, will they really deliver the widespread benefits he claims, and perhaps even more importantly, should we be trying to realize them at all? Those are key questions to consider as we explore the deeper impacts he’s having on our society.
This series was made possible by our supporters over on Patreon, and if you learn something from it, I’d ask you to consider joining them at patreon.com/techwontsaveus.
So, with that said, let’s finish unmasking Elon Musk.
In last week’s episode, we dug into deep into Tesla, but before Musk even got involved in it, he started another company that’s become central to the myth that’s been built up around him. SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., was founded in 2002. The story goes that Musk was frustrated the United States wasn’t doing bold space missions like going to the Moon any longer and wanted to push them into action. His initial plan was to buy a rocket off the Russians and use it to fly a greenhouse to Mars showing plants growing on another planet. It was a stunt in keeping with Musk’s interest in capturing the public’s attention, which he used to build up his own reputation too. Ultimately, the Russians weren’t playing ball, so Musk started calculating how much it would cost to build his own rockets, leading to the start of SpaceX.
Now, there’s a lot that could be said about the company — far more than can fit in a single episode — but there are some key things we should understand about it. It’s clear that Musk’s interest in Mars was there from the beginning, but he didn’t always show the same bravado and dogged assertion of his colonization plans as he’s been doing over the past decade. In the early 2000s, he was still building his reputation and he hadn’t yet turned himself into such a force that he could deliver a proclamation and simply believe that people would fall for it without any degree of skepticism. For example, here’s Musk speaking at Stanford in 2003.
ELON MUSK: Our approach is really to make this a solid sound business and so I’ve predicated that the strategic plan on a known market, something that we know for a fact exists, which is the need to put small to medium-sized satellites into orbit and so that’s what we’re going after initially and then with that as a kind of a revenue base we will move into the human transportation market. So the long term aims of the company are definitely human transportation. I think the smart strategy is to first go for cargo delivery, essentially satellite delivery. And our eventual great path is to build the successor to Saturn V, build a super heavy lift vehicle that could you know be used for setting up a moon base or doing a Mars mission. That would be the Holy Grail objective.
There are a few things that stand out about Musk’s presentation: he’s far more focused on tangible aspects of the business than the future goals, he has a clear idea of how the business side would work, and the Mars mission is positioned as a slightly unattainable goal, but something he’d hope to realize. As we saw with Tesla last week, as his profile grew he became less tied down by the reality and realized making grand claims — like how he would colonize Mars and get people there in short order — became key to exciting investors and the public, with little risk of backlash when he didn’t deliver. But language that he would begin to repeat ad nauseam was starting to emerge, like this statement from a luncheon at the National Space Society’s 24th Annual International Space Development Conference in 2005.
ELON MUSK: As long as it costs us hundreds of millions of dollars to put a few people in space — not even you know far away space, just three or four miles above the surface of the earth — we’re never going to get anywhere, we’re not going to become a space-faring civilization. I think probably, I mean, what I really think is the overriding goal and what I suspect most people in the room think is certainly an extremely important goal is becoming a space-faring civilization, ultimately becoming a multi-planetary species, and if we’re not on that path then we really need to get on that path.
There you see the term “multiplanetary species” already emerging — something that would become central to the myth Musk was selling the public and the future he promise he would deliver. It didn’t take long for Musk to start much more clearly pledging that he would get people to Mars — and, according to him, it wouldn’t even take very long.
MICHAEL MALONE: We made a bet, you believe that man would walk — you would put a man on the moon by 20… ELON MUSK: Not on the moon. MICHAEL MALONE: I’m sorry, on Mars, by 20… ELON MUSK: 2020 maybe. MICHAEL MALONE: I think it was 2020 or 2025. You gonna make it? ELON MUSK: We’ll try.
That was Musk speaking to author and columnist Michael Malone in 2005. I guess he technically still has a couple years to follow through on that prediction, but it doesn’t look likely he’s going to win the bet. I’m sure Malone won’t be collecting though. He’s far too enamored with the myth of Musk — or at least was at the time. These ambitions timelines at SpaceX, like at Tesla, weren’t uncommon though, as he continued doing in this notorious interview with Alan Murray at the Wall Street Journal in 2011.
ALAN MURRAY: How long is it going to take? When are you going to put your first man into space? ELON MUSK: Well I think we’ll probably put our first man in space in about three years. ALAN MURRAY: And when are you going to put your first man on the planet? Man or woman. ELON MUSK: Well we’re going all the way to Mars, I think. ALAN MURRAY: Time frame? ELON MUSK: Best case 10 years, worst case 15 to 20 years.
SpaceX’s first manned launch actually happened nine years later, not three. And even Musk’s most generous timeline for a Mars landing seems incredibly ambitious, especially given NASA’s Artemis III mission to put astronauts back on the Moon for the first time since 1972 won’t happen until at least 2025, with further missions to begin transporting the pieces to build a small moon facility happening through the 2030s. But those statements do show something very important: that Musk has been able to influence the direction of US space policy by deploying his capital and a compelling narrative to push the government to commit to getting humans beyond the International Space Station once again. It’s important to understand why that happened, and how it provided a major boost to SpaceX.
People often talk about the public support SpaceX has received and without which it simply would not exist. Usually, those conversations amount to public subsidies and contracts from the likes of NASA or various branches of the US military, which have been central to the business plan from the very beginning, as Musk acknowledged when speaking to CNN in 2004.
ELON MUSK: Well actually, I view all of the government agencies with an interest in space as customers. So, I view NASA as a customer, certainly. The Air Force, Naval Research Lab, National Crisis Organization. NASA certainly is somebody we would like to be a customer of ours.
Musk talks about how he self-funded SpaceX, which is partly true, but the government was there from the early days. In Liftoff, Eric Berger writes that the Department of Defense and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, both provided millions for launches before SpaceX had proven it could deliver them. In 2006, it also secured a NASA contract for $278 million — with many more to follow. Berger explains that when the company was in dire straits, NASA funding was “the one pot of money that could buy SpaceX financial stability.” Once again, the government saved Elon Musk from himself.
There’s no doubt that public funding was essential to SpaceX, but it’s worth also considering the broader structural environment created by the government that allowed SpaceX to take such a central role in the US space program in the first place.
ELON MUSK: I do think it’s very important the president set the priority and determine the goal you know that we as nation will aspire to. George Bush has his pluses and minuses, but at least one plus is that he has helped to steer the space program in a direction that more or less makes sense. The only thing I would sort of argue with is that I don’t think we should be going back to the moon. I think we should be focused on Mars.
That’s Musk speaking to PBS Wired Science in 2007. The reason he was praising George W. Bush was that in 2004, Bush launched a new vision for the US space program with plans to build a new launch vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle that would be able to not just return to the moon, but take humans to other parts of the solar system. Here’s how he described it.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Today I announce a new plans to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started. We will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project. In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty will be retired from service. Our second goal is to develop and test a new space craft, the crew exploration vehicle by 2008 and to conduct the first manned mission no late than 2014. The crew exploration vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this space craft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This would be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module. Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions beyond.
You can see how this would play into Musk’s goals of going to Mars, though he and the Mars Society wanted a more direct focus on the red planet. Bush’s vision also contained the goal of encouraging more commercial activity in low earth orbit and transportation to the space station, which was great news for SpaceX. But it didn’t stop there. Even more crucial were the decisions of Bush’s successor, Barack Obama.
MARY-JANE RUBENSTEIN: The US government has, since the beginning of the space program, worked with private industry to get its work done in space, so that cooperation between the private and the public sector is not new. What is new is that we have seen an increasing turning over of even the priorities of what we’re up to in outer space to the private sector. A good deal of the budget, the federal budget that used to go to NASA is now going into these government contracts that then head over to corporations like SpaceX and to Blue Origin.
That’s Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Astrotopia and Professor of Religion and Science in Society at Wesleyan University. Rubenstein identifies two key moments in the new wave of space privatization we’ve seen over the past decade or so. The first is in 2010 when the Obama administration canceled Constellation, the program to create a successor to the Space Shuttle, and announced explicit plans to place more emphasis on the private sector.
BARACK OBAMA: And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable. Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.
Obama even name dropped the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, having toured its launch facilities with Musk before making his speech at the Kennedy Space Center. He was firmly reorienting NASA’s mission to have it place a greater reliance on private space companies. Instead of having NASA create the specifications for rockets, then contracting with private companies like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and IBM to help build them, he agreed with people like Musk that more of those decisions should be made by companies like SpaceX, with NASA just buying rides at the end of the day. But that’s only the first step Rubenstein identified. The second — probably less acknowledged in some of these conversations — may be even more important.
MARY-JANE RUBENSTEIN: How do you make money in outer space? Outer space is really super expensive, it’s so hard to get there, like, you can’t have like a bake sale on Mars. And the big watershed moment here was in 2015, with the signing of what’s called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which states just unilaterally, the US just declares that anybody who the word is “recovers” a resource in outer space is entitled to own that resource, sell that resource, buy that resource, and transport that resource. So this really was the moment at which private investors were able to say like, okay, fantastic, right? As long as we know that we can own, buy, and sell the stuff that we get that we take from outer space, then we’re in.
While the Act states the United States isn’t claiming sovereignty over anything in outer space, it’s reasonable to argue that by giving its corporations the power to exploit resources it’s basically doing just that, which is in violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The only problem is that most other countries that can actually reach space are on board too, hoping to get in on the growing space sector instead of considering the drawbacks that could come from a race by a small number of space companies to monopolize the key aspects of space activity. The pressure has only grown with the Artemis Accords launched under Donald Trump, which seek to create a legal framework for moon mining. He also established the Space Force to further defend US interests in orbit as the prospect of commercialization grows.
So, there has been this renewed drive to privatize and commercialize space activities for the past twenty years, driven by the goal of getting humans back onto celestial bodies like the Moon and Mars, driven in large part by the conviction of Elon Musk and other rich people backing groups like the Mars Society. That’s resulted in a major shift to NASA operations and billions of dollars flooding into private space companies, with SpaceX being a major beneficiary. According to US government records, more than $15 billion in public money has flooded into SpaceX since 2003, fueling its growth and its increasingly dominant position not just in the US, but the global space industry as it controls rocket launch infrastructure and a growing share of global communications satellites. But do the claims that justify its position and the underlying vision Musk promotes actually make sense? Here’s Mary-Jane Rubenstein again.
MARY-JANE RUBENSTEIN: The bulk of the work that’s been done since the lunar landing has been going into the creation of the International Space Station, and then all the research that’s been done on the International Space Station. There was certainly Hubble, there is now the James Webb Space Telescope. Things have been happening in space. What hasn’t happened? Certainly, he’s absolutely right. We haven’t had these big flashy men on moon moments. And it’s here that I want to ask everybody to take a little breath and just ask like, what it is we want to do in outer space. There is, in the space industry, this kind of unconscious assumption that you can just say, we’ve been stagnant, we haven’t gone far a head, we gotta go ahead, without justifying why you want to go ahead. And if you look at all of the web pages about NASA’s Artemis mission, where they tell you how it’s going to happen, this step in the next step, another step, you don’t get at any point a justification for why we’re doing it. Why? Why go to the moon? Well, in order to go to Mars. Okay, why go to Mars? Well, because if you don’t go to Mars, you can’t go elsewhere. Okay, but why do any of this? And then the answer is, if you get an answer, it’s like, well, the human spirit is always longing to explore the whatever. But we can explore the whatever through the James Webb Space Telescope, we don’t have to put human beings on these planets and stick flags in them. If what we’re really trying to do is just learn stuff, we can learn stuff through rovers, we can learn stuff through space telescopes, right? We don’t have to colonize these places. So then the question becomes, is what you’re really concerned about putting human beings on other planets? Musk would say, like, yes, absolutely. I’m concerned with saving the species, because if humans are gonna die on Earth, I want to send them elsewhere. But at that point, one wants to ask, first of all, why do we want to do that? Second of all, is it a good idea? And third of all, who ought to be leading these priorities? I’m a little concerned with the kind of thinking that assumes that just because SpaceX is the company that can do these things, it ought to.
In short, it’s not true that space was stagnant after the moon landing; the priorities simply changed. Getting a man on the moon was about an optics competition between the United States and the Soviet Union; it wasn’t the best way to actually learn about our solar system and the wider universe. But for someone like Musk, that scientific work isn’t as important as the human presence in space, and that’s what he’s pushed back to the center of the US space program — regardless of whether it actually makes any real sense. In Musk’s eyes, there is a reason to push for humans to colonize another planet, and it’s driven by a niche and anti-human ideology that’s gaining a lot of followers among the wealthy tech elite who want greater influence over society’s priorities.
In 2022, Grimes spoke to Vanity Fair and kept referring to “the mission.” Eventually, the journalist realized it was a proper noun and actually meant something deep to Grimes. When asked, she explained The Mission was “sustainable energy, multiplanetary species, the preservation of consciousness” — basically, a succinct description of Musk’s personal philosophy. Since beginning to date Musk in 2018, Grimes has fully adopted his worldview as her own, often to quite a sad degree, especially when you consider how poorly he’s treated her by secretly having twins with Neuralink executive Shivon Zilis and reportedly keeping one of their children from her, according to a lawsuit filed by Grimes in September 2023. In Isaacson’s biography, he notes how Grimes can see when Musk is headed into his “demon mode” and tries to stay away from him when he enters that state.
But Musk’s mission doesn’t end with those three vague concepts. There’s a much deeper philosophy behind them that justifies his vision for humanity and his lack of empathy for the humans who will be sacrificed to realize it. It’s important that we explore the layers of it, beginning with longtermism. I spoke to Émile P. Torres, a philosopher, historian, and author of Human Extinction to find out more about what underpins Musk’s ideology. Note that “EA” in this clip refers to effective altruism.
ÉMILE P. TORRES: Longtermism arises when you combine EA with certain facts from modern cosmology. And these facts are that the earth will remain habitable for roughly another billion years. The universe, if we spread beyond Earth, will remain habitable for way longer than that — trillions and trillions of years, at least 10 to the 40, so that’s a one followed by 48 zeros. Consequently, most people who could exist will exist in the very far future. So you know, there are 8 billion people around today. There have been an estimated 117 billion human beings who have existed throughout geological history so far. But if you pivot then to looking at the future, estimates are that there could it be at least 10 to the 58 — so again, a one followed by 58 zeros — future people. So now combine that with this moral imperative to do the most good possible. Think, okay, well, if I want to positively impact the greatest number of people, and if they are 8 billion people around today, 1.3 in multidimensional poverty. But if they are 10 to the 58 in the very far future, even if there’s a small probability that I’ll affect positively a small percentage of those future people, that number is still way greater than a high probability of helping 1.3 billion people today. This is why longtermists are obsessed with calculating not just how many biological people could exist over the next let’s say billion years, but how many digital people could exist in the very far future if we colonize space, because the reasoning is, you can cram more digital people per volumetric unit of space than you can biological people. And so, you know, the more people that are in the future, the better the universe becomes, and the greater our obligation to focus entirely, or mostly, on those far future people ensuring that their lives are good and that they exist in the first place. That’s what longtermism is.
So, let’s take a pause here, because it might be a lot to digest if you’ve never come across longtermism before. The basic idea is that all human life, current and future, is of equal value, and since so many people could exist in the future — especially if we become a multiplanetary species — then there’s much more value to be had by acting in the interest of those theoretical future people than acting to improve the lot of people living today. There’s obviously a strong argument to be made for considering how our actions affect future generations, but to say a person who might theoretically live a million years from now is of equal consideration as some alive today is a bit more farfetched. It certainly helps that the people holding this ideology aren’t starving, homeless, or living in war zones, but are often some of the wealthiest and most privileged people on the entire planet. And if you don’t believe Musk actually holds these ideas, don’t take it from me. Believe the man himself. Last year, he endorsed a book by philosopher William MacAskill promoting longtermism by posted it was “a close match for my philosophy.” A few months earlier, he shared a 2003 paper called “Astronomical Waste” by Nick Bostrom, considered the father of longtermism, which he called “likely the most important paper ever written.” Here’s how Torres described the paper.
ÉMILE P. TORRES: Bostrom makes the case that there could be enormous numbers of future people, especially if we colonize space and create literally planet-sized computers on which to run virtual reality worlds that contain just enormous numbers of digital people living apparently happy lives. And so, you know, then Bostrom concludes that a top priority for us should be to colonize space as soon as possible.
But there’s something bigger to consider in Bostrom’s work and how it inspires people like Elon Musk. Science fiction author Annalee Newitz told me Bostrom’s tales actually resemble stories of the type that captivated Musk in his youth and build on the techno-determinist ideas he already held.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think that Nick Bostrom is credited as being a philosopher, but that in fact, he is just a very bad science fiction writer. He tells this very brief story in Superintelligence about how a misaligned AI gets out of control. It’s been told to manufacture paper clips as efficiently as possible and it turns everything on earth into paper clips. And this scenario gets brought up all the time. I don’t even know that half the people bringing it up know where it comes from. In that regard, Bostrom has contributed this other myth, I would say that influences Elon Musk, where we have to assume that AI will become some kind of apocalyptic malevolent force that destroys civilization. It’s sort of like planning for this incredible outlier event that’s extremely unlikely and kind of fantastical, and making all of our development and thinking around this incredibly broad technology focused on this one possible outcome. What if it made us into paperclips? It’s foolish. I think what’s appealing about the paperclip scenario to people like Musk is that, again, it allows him and other leaders to set themselves up as the saviors of humanity, right? We’re going to be the ones in charge of technological development, we will prevent you for becoming paper clips, we won’t necessarily prevent you from becoming enslaved minds inside of a giant virtual hell, because that’s productive.
I found this to be a pretty compelling point, especially considering Musk’s predilection to buy into science fiction stories and place them at the center of his worldview. Remember in the first episode of the series when he talked about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Foundation as key motivations for his actions and the pursuits of his companies. Musk is not affected by poverty, hunger, or homelessness, and an ideology like longtermism allows him to tell himself that hoarding wealth and pursuing space colonization as a primary goal of humanity doesn’t ignore the plight of billions, but is actually a moral pursuit to protect the human race and all those future humans who could exist in the far future.
It also melds with some transhumanist ideas he holds quite dear. For years, Musk has been musing about the possibility that we live in a simulation and he often talks about his own brain as though it’s a computer. You can see this very clearly in Isaacson’s biography, where he quotes Musk time and again talking about his “default settings” and having to zone out so he can engage in “batch processing” of information. Those ideas also bleed into some of his other corporate pursuits like Neuralink, which seeks to connect the brain to a computer to extend human thought — or we might say consciousness — and be used to restore the functioning of body parts for people with various disabilities. This is a very clear transhumanist desire, to begin to merge man and machine. His new AI company X.AI is also part of that mission, as he seeks to improve the capacity of computers and get them closer to human-level intelligence, which he thinks it’s possible for a computer to replicate — arguably an ideological statement of its own. But that also leads to some very concerning ideas about population, which he’s becoming much more open about voicing.
ELON MUSK: I think a lot of people think that there’s too many people on the planet, but there’s in fact too few. And the possibly the single greatest risk to human civilization is the rapidly diminishing birth rate. And the facts are out there for anyone to look at.
ELON MUSK: Man, so many of the friends I know have like zero or one kid. That’s why I’m always banging the baby drum. I’m like man, civilization’s gonna you know collapse. Where do you think people come from, like some magical fucking people factory? The more religious, the less educated, and the poorer, the higher the birth rate yeah. So if there’s lower religious… low on the religion, high on education, and high on income that has the lowest birth rate.
ELON MUSK: Well it’s just, in the past we could rely upon, you know, simple limbic system rewards in order to procreate. But once you have birth control and abortions and what not, now you can still satisfy the limbic instinct but not procreate. So we haven’t yet evolved to deal with that because this is all fairly recent in the last 50 years or so before birth control.
Forgive the series of Musk ramblings, but those are excerpts from three interviews he’s given in recent years with Kara Swisher, the Tesla Owners Club in Silicon Valley, and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. They provide a good overview of Musk’s ideas on population, and the increasingly wild places they’re leading him politically. Musk firmly believes that lower birth rates and population decline are some of the biggest threats facing the human species, even as experts remind people that birth rates have only declined in some parts of the world and the global population is poised to increase from 8 billion people to over 11 billion in the coming decades. So, if his concerns don’t actually fit the global picture, what is he really worried about? Over time, he’s slowly become more open about it.
In the 2015 biography written by Ashlee Vance, Musk is quoted as saying, “if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad,” bringing up some of the associations in the clip you heard earlier about lower birth rates being correlated with wealth and some other factors. Musk’s talk of “smart” people needing to have more kids is not a benign statement though; it holds a lot of baggage. In assuming that smart people have smart children, Musk is assuming that intelligence is passed through generations instead of being something that’s developed based on someone’s social conditions and access to education and other opportunities. He also seems to quite firmly believe that intelligence is linked to wealth, conveniently meaning he would be one of the smartest people in the world and thus justifying his position at the top.
But Musk’s talk of “smart” people and their procreation habits is also linked to the concept of IQ, which can seem like an uncontroversial topic, but has a fraught history that is itself linked to Silicon Valley. It can be easy to forget today that eugenics was at the center of Stanford University from its founding and has reared its head at various moments through history. Ellwood Cubberley was recruited to Stanford in 1898 and didn’t retire until 1933. He believed that education should be treated like agriculture, with special attention paid to students’ heredity so they could be bred for peak performance and that there should be metrics to track them like in a factory. In 1910, he recruited Lewis Terman who ultimately developed the Stanford-Binet IQ test not just to quantify intelligence, but to present non-white races as less intelligent. Cubberley promoted it as an educational tool, but it would later go on to be used by the state to decide who should be sterilized. In the 1960s and 70s, William Shockley, who co-invented the transistor, also took a position at Stanford, where he became a leading eugenicist in his own right. He warned of “evolution in reverse” as people with low IQs had more children than those with higher IQs and specifically warned that “those with the least intelligence were having the most children.”
I hope you can see how there are clear links between the type of language Musk is using today and what eugenicists in the twentieth century used to argue in favor of racial superiority. Here’s Julia Black, a journalist at The Information, talking about how eugenics fits into this worldview.
JULIA BLACK: Among the people I’ve written about, and that includes Elon Musk, they’re fairly open about this thinking that certain individuals are inherently genetically superior. And you know, some of them, not Elon, but some people close to him have gone so far as to defend the term eugenics and say, eugenics is not inherently a bad term, that’s just all it means is improving the genetic makeup of the population. And we don’t see what’s wrong with that.
It’s incredibly worrying to see these ideas taking hold in such a powerful and influential segment of the population. Black broke the story about Musk having twins with Zilis, and has done a much deeper dive on that group of tech folks who are advocating a similar position to Elon Musk on the need to have more children. Here’s how she described it to me.
JULIA BLACK: Pronatalism as a basic term just means for having babies, like you’re all for populating the earth with babies. The thing is, there’s a tech contingent of this movement, that’s pretty particular. And it leans quite conservative politically, as do most pronatalists, but also combine these ideas that are more traditionally associated with religion and that type of conservatism, with kind of really out there ideas about how tech can change the future of reproduction, how things like genetic testing, pre-implantation can help us find and identify the best babies really, you know, there’s all sorts of movement in Silicon Valley around surrogacy and just, you know, finding new ways to enable top notch couples with top notch DNA as they see it, to have as many kids as possible, as efficiently as possible, and with the maximum results in terms of what they see as genetic superiority.
The rich folks of Silicon Valley have accepted they won’t be able to live forever, so now they want to use eugenic means to ensure their offspring have yet another advantage over everyone else by trying to choose the right embryos to implant via IVF — maybe even using a surrogate — to create a brood of superior children. At this point, I want to ask you think back to what we were talking about with longtermism, and the very clear transhumanist approaches contained within it, from using technology to enhance the human species to eventually merging with computers. These genetic enhancements are a further extension of that — using technology to create what they hope will be super children. Here’s Émile Torres again.
ÉMILE P. TORRES: Transhumanism was developed by eugenicists. Basically, its goal is eugenics on steroids, because eugenics is about perfecting the humans stock, so creating sort of the best version of humanity possible. Transhumanism is about transcending humanity itself. So the the reasoning is like, why stop there? Why stop at just perfecting humanity? What if there’s like an even more perfect species that we can become?
Musk’s embrace of these ideas around population are not new. Black spoke to a source who told her that back in the early 2000s Musk was already talking about the fact that Genghis Khan’s DNA was reportedly common within the human species because he’d fathered so many children on his military campaigns. Musk currently has 11 children, though he’s not always known to be a very present father and one of his children — his trans daughter Jenna — disowned him last year. Musk later called her a communist who thinks “anyone rich is evil” and blamed neo-Marxist colleges for turning his child against him, instead of considering if maybe he’d done anything to make her dislike him.
The interview with Tucker Carlson also suggests these ideas about population are meshed with a political conservatism that Musk is becoming more comfortable voicing publicly. After Musk moved to Texas in 2021, governor Greg Abbott passed incredibly restrictive abortion legislation. Musk refused to comment on it, but Abbott said, “Elon consistently tells me he likes the social policies in the state of Texas.” Earlier this year, he also praised Hungary’s national-conservative government’s approach to family policy, which has been celebrated by the extreme right. However, despite claiming to care about families, Musk never advocates for policies like parental leave, free healthcare and daycare, and other means of supporting most families who don’t have the kind of wealth he has — he just tells “smart” people to have more children. In fact, after taking over Twitter, Musk actually cut fertility benefits for employees.
His takeover of Twitter also corresponded with a much more open embrace of right-wing politics and conspiracy theories. Remember in the first episode, we discussed Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, how it influenced him, and the difficult relationship he had with his father. In Isaacson’s biography, he reveals that as Musk was embracing conspiracy theories, so was his father. In an email written on Father’s Day 2022, Errol went on what Isaacson called a “rambling screed,” criticizing Joe Biden, praising Vladimir Putin, claiming Donald Trump won the election, and claiming South African leaders were engaging in anti-white racism. “With no Whites here, the Blacks will go back to the trees,” wrote Elon’s father. It wouldn’t be long until Musk was sharing conspiracy theories about Paul Pelosi, George Soros, and an increasingly common one on the far-right: white genocide, with specific reference to South Africa.
JOHN ELIGON: There was an extreme, sort of a left wing politician, Julius Malema, who leads the Economic Freedom Fighters. It’s a young, very sort of left wing, you know, pro-socialism type party, and they sang a song that was that was a historic song from the apartheid era struggle in which one of the lines is “Kill the boar, kill the farmer,” and the Boer refers to basically White South Africans, or essentially White South Africans of Dutch descent. And Elon Musk tweeted that they’re advocating for the genocide of white people in South Africa. Then he went on to put more tweets where he said people are being killed on farms and white people are being killed on farms every day in South Africa. And those are just patently untrue statements. So he is then using this platform to project again, this misinformation, this sort of thing that can really be dangerous to people, right? Then you have white nationalists in the right wing in the US, and then England and then all over the globe, then picking up on his tweets and amplifying this misinformation that he’s putting out there.
That’s John Eligon, the Johnannesburg bureau chief of the New York Times, who you might remember from episode 1 of the series. Embracing the white genocide conspiracy theory is probably the most telling move he’s made yet, and puts all of his eugenic-inspired comments about population into context. The global population is not falling, as Musk would have us believe, because he’s not actually concerned about the overall population. He’s more concerned about rich people having more kids, and I think it’s fair to say he’s more concerned about white people having more kids too. The apartheid ideals die hard, and he’s also brought them, along with his lack of empathy, to the workplace.
ANONYMOUS WORKER: I’ve seen black associates be told certain things if they’re not working hard enough like this plantation isn’t going to run itself. I’ve heard stuff like that which is beyond me uh that I can’t even like stand there and listen to that because there’s not much you can do. One of the questions I like to ask myself is why do they hate us so much? Why do they hate black people so much to the point where they’re willing to literally go to court and cover it up? I cannot provide an answer on that.
That was an anonymous Tesla worker speaking to More Perfect Union in 2021 about the racism they experienced working at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory. Black workers at Tesla have described a culture of harassment at the facility where they’re subject to slurs from coworkers, denied promotions, and given menial tasks that don’t reflect their skill level. Tesla has already been ordered to pay millions of dollars to a Black worker who sued the company over workplace discrimination, and in September 2023, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Tesla for the same reason. In 2017, when the level of abuse reached a level where Musk was forced to respond, he didn’t take action against the workers in question, but sent an email telling employees it was important to “be thick-skinned” and that “if you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself.”
For years, Musk has been praised as the visionary delivering electric cars and rockets to the world, but the reality is that there are thousands of employees below him who actually do the work of making Musk’s corporate dreams a reality — and the honest truth is that he doesn’t treat them particularly well. The world seemed to take notice of that when Musk took over Twitter and proceeded to do mass firings in the weeks that followed, even going after ex-employees on the platform and weeding out those who dared criticize him in internal chats. But, as we’ve discussed through the course of this series, Musk has been a terrible boss since the days of Zip2. It’s never changed, but for a long time the media was happy to look the other way and indulge his genius myth instead.
WALTER ISAACSON: One night in South Texas at the launchpad of SpaceX. It’s a Friday night at 10 pm and everything’s going smoothly. There’s no launches being scheduled and he looks and there’s only two people working at the launch pad, and all of a sudden I see demon mode coming in, almost like storm clouds from the Gulf of Mexico, and I’m thinking well it’s Friday night at 10 pm and yet he just reams out this guy named Andy who was in charge of the launch pad site and he orders a surge. He orders a hundred people to come in from different parts of SpaceX from Florida, California, so they can all work for 24 hours a day getting this thing done even though there was no need to.
That’s Walter Isaacson, Musk’s biographer, telling the Wall Street Journal how quickly Musk can turn on employees who are just doing their best to fulfill his mission, but nothing is ever good enough for him. This is a recurring theme in Isaacson’s book: whenever Musk gets in a certain mood, he orders what Isaacson calls a surge where he forces employees to work incredibly long hours under intense pressure to finish a job, often for no reason other than to give Musk the satisfaction of seeing people toiling under his command. And what do they get for it all? Musk relies on his employees also buying into his broader mission so they’ll accept the conditions he forces on them. Reports suggest his employees earn less than the industry standard, and injuries at Tesla have been found to be well above the industry average. Musk is also another tech union-buster, having vehemently opposed efforts to unionize Tesla facilities.
RICHARD ORTIZ: When I was at NUMMI doing the same job I was doing there technically — a auto worker building a car on a line — we were making a lot more money, between 30 and 35 an hour and at Tesla we’re getting 20 an hour on second shift, that’s with the premium. The hours we had to work were just 12 hours every day, no questions asked, 12 hours, six days a week. I’ve seen guys that were so afraid of missing that they were throwing up in buckets because they were sick, but they wanted they didn’t want to lose their job. With Tesla you weren’t sure you’re going to be there next week, next month. The turnover is so fast you know you couldn’t plan nothing. They’re using them up and spitting them out.
That’s Richard Ortiz, an autoworker who was fired for trying to form a union at Tesla, speaking to More Perfect Union. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2021 that Tesla had to rehire Ortiz and pay him back pay because he was fired illegally. In 2023, a court upheld that decision. Musk’s companies have been accused of racism, sexism, and ageism, and a lot of that goes back to the culture lacking in empathy and respect that Musk cultivated, where the expectation is that you must always be prepared to work long hours and put up with whatever shit he throws at you because you’re supposedly changing the world. Here’s how Insider columnist Linette Lopez put it when I asked her about Musk’s workplaces.
LINETTE LOPEZ: I did not hear very much from minorities. I heard from women that they felt that they were being given the worst tasks, told to clean, just given the most menial labor, and that they would constantly hear, like vulgar talk, stuff like that. And Elon doesn’t really care about stuff like that. I don’t know when he really believes society is. It isn’t something in which there are weak people and there are strong people and we need to like all bring everybody together. That’s not how he sees the world. I think he sees the world as, I have the means and I have the ability to do what I want. And so I should.
The approach that Lopez describes has serious implications for workers — there’s no doubt about that — but it doesn’t end there. Musk’s companies have a tendency to flagrantly violate regulations that exist to protect the environment and local communities, and he justifies it by pointing to the grand visions of sustainable energy and a multiplanetary species he’s supposedly trying to realize. To achieve his goals, other people must suffer, and if they try to push back Musk will whine about the burdensome red tape he’s subjected to. I spoke to Eric Roesch, an expert in environmental compliance and risk assessment to learn more. He started by talking about the site in Boca Chica, Texas, where the Starship launch happened earlier this year, blowing up the launch pad and sending large chunks of concrete flying into a protected wildlife area.
ERIC ROESCH: In Texas, the impact has been profound. It’s because the launch site for SpaceX is butted up against public lands that are used by other people and lands that have been reserved for things like wildlife conservation. Very early on in the Starship program, I believe he called it like, and I quote like a wasteland and so it was fine if we blew it up. It’s obviously inappropriate because the area is a wildlife refuge, but also like it’s someone’s home and someone’s ancestral land, and there’s national landmarks there and just to call it a wasteland is very Muskian but he does it and kind of gets away with it.
It would be easy to see that as a one off. SpaceX happened to be located at one site and cared more about its goals that anything that surrounds it. But that isn’t the case. Roesch gave many more examples to show how this is a pattern of Musk’s companies, like the two he outlines in this clip.
ERIC ROESCH: At the McGregor facility, they’ve been test firing these these massive Raptor engines for years. And if you actually look at the agreement they had with the city and the county for noise, like they’ve been wildly out of compliance. When the testing ramps up, their house will be shaking just like all hours of the night. And then you go down to Bastrop, which is a kind of semi-rural community in in the General Austin area where the where the Boring Company they’ve infuriated the neighbors. They’ve got machines running at all hours of the night. They’ve been cited multiple times by the TCU, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for just blatantly obvious violations of the Clean Water Act and Texas Water code. Wherever this company goes they do their thing, but they tend to leave a trail of very upset people who don’t want these externalities shoved in their face.
As Musk pursues his grand visions, there are a growing mass of people who are either chewed up and spit out by his companies or who have to accept the drawbacks of his facilities operating in the vicinity of their homes because he cares so little for rules designed to protect him. He claims that’s because regulations are standing in the way of the wonderful future he’s trying to build, but really, when you’re a billionaire like him, you just don’t want anyone to tell you “no.” That’s a problem when you’ve been allowed to accumulate as much power as Elon Musk.
[POWER AND POLITICS]
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, the company quickly descended into chaos. There were mass firings, poorly considered changes to the functioning of the website like the overhaul of blue checks, an inability (or lack of desire) to address the proliferating hate speech, and all the while Musk was regularly appearing in the mentions of the most notorious right-wing influencers on the platform to assure them he was listening to their concerns. But part of the reason it was such a mess was that Musk had drank his own Kool-Aid; he believed he was the genius he convinced the media to present him as to the public, and as a result he’s continually launched himself into poorly considered ventures, thinking his success was due to his brains instead of his luck and privilege.
In his biography, Isaacson writes that Jeff Bezos was told by former Tesla and SpaceX employees that “Musk rarely knew as much as he claimed and that his interventions were usually unhelpful or outright problematic.” Isaacson presents this as something he can’t prove, then continues telling his 600-page story filled with anecdotes of Musk doing just that. If you talk to people who cover Musk regularly, that’s one of the things many of them will tell you: the high-ranking employees at Tesla and SpaceX — people like Franz von Holzhausen and Gwynne Shotwell — have figured out how to handle Musk and try to ensure that when he makes ridiculous pronouncements, they can avoid implementing his worst decisions for the betterment of the company. He sees himself as the genius engineer, but like when he told Twitter employees he wanted to review their code to decide who would stay, he actually often shows himself to not nearly be as knowledgable as he lets on. Part of the reason Twitter has been such a shitshow is that Twitter employees didn’t know how to handle Musk like their counterparts at Tesla and SpaceX, and it’s clear Linda Yaccarino isn’t even trying.
But buying into that myth and allowing Musk to accumulate so much power has come with consequences. Thanks to his risk tolerance and plenty of public funding, Musk controls key infrastructures. The Supercharger network that was once just for Tesla is now being adopted by most other automakers, placing the company in a powerful position. Unlike gas stations, which are assembled into a few major chains that are separate from the automakers, the Superchargers are fully owned and controlled by Tesla. Further, SpaceX has a de facto monopoly, according to the Wall Street Journal, on rocket launch capabilities in the United States, and its Starlink network controls more than 50% of all active satellites in orbit — with more being launched on a regular schedule. Starlink, in particular, is further enhancing Musk’s power by letting him choose who has access to the communications network and for which purpose. He was lauded for activating Starlink in Ukraine after the Russian invasion, but was then pilloried when he turned it off around Crimea to disrupt a Ukrainian attack on Russian ships because, after speaking with Russian officials, he thought it would start a nuclear war. But should someone like Elon Musk really have the kind of geopolitical influence usually limited to governments? The United States has been hesitant to rein him in, and even had to give into his demands they pay more for Ukraine’s Starlink service. Reports suggest other countries have reached out to US officials over their concerns about Musk’s growing influence, but won’t say so publicly because they’re worried about pissing him off.
The United States has ceded so much power to the private sector, and now it finds itself at the whims of a mercurial billionaire who considers himself to be far more intelligent than he really is. Even worse, despite his flagrant violation of environmental, safety, and labor regulations, he rarely gets so much as a slap on the wrist by agencies that don’t want to get in a fight with one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. We’ve been failed on many fronts by people who should’ve woken up to the reality of Musk much sooner than they did: media who were happy to boost him in exchange for access, politicians who heaped subsidies and praise on his companies to try to win his next project, and regulators who feared disrupting his rule-breaking startups. If they had acted sooner to reveal Musk for who he really is, we may not have found ourselves in this position.
The past year has served as a mask off moment, where Musk became much more open about his right-wing politics and uncaring nature. Many who spent years praising him acted as though he’d changed — but that’s only partly true. As we’ve discussed through the course of this series, those tendencies were always there. But the more power he accrued, the more untouchable he felt, and the more he became convinced that he shouldn’t have to pay much tax and that no one should stand in the way of his goals.
As this episode and this series wind down to a close, I want to leave you with this thought from Mary-Jane Rubenstein.
MARY-JANE RUBENSTEIN: Space only helps earth if you do it mindfully. Space only helps earth if the people who are setting the priorities of the space industry actually want to help earth. This dude doesn’t care about Earth. He said it a million times: he has no interest in it.
For the past two decades, Elon Musk has been able to shape our conception of what our collective future should look like, but those visions were part of a deceptive effort to get us to buy into the myth of Musk’s genius and his future plans that promise widespread benefits, but were really only about further boosting himself. Just because Musk is one of the richest men in the world doesn’t guarantee he can’t be brought back down to Earth. His empire is on shakier ground than it’s been in years, with Tesla struggling in the face of competition, SpaceX facing regulatory scrutiny over the Starship launch, and Twitter turning into the mess that is X. Musk’s companies are highly dependent on his personal myth, and if it’s effectively punctured, they may struggle to recover.
We can do far better than Elon Musk and strive for a world that actually addresses the fundamental crises facing us instead of pretending technology and the billionaires that control it will save us. But the first step is seeing through the mask of the charlatan, and hopefully this series has helped you do just that.
Elon Musk Unmasked is a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, hosted by me, Paris Marx. Tech Won’t Save Us is produced by Eric Wickham and our transcripts are from Brigitte Pawliw-Fry. This series was made possible through support from our listeners at patreon.com/techwontsaveus. Consider joining them to ensure we can keep providing a critical perspective on the tech industry that you’re unlikely to get anywhere else. You can also get access to our Discord server and some stickers. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be uploading the uncut interviews with some of the guests I spoke to for this series, exclusive for Patreon supporters. So make sure to go to patreon.com/techwontsaveus to support the show, and thanks for listening to Elon Musk Unmasked.