Elon Musk clearly knows his talents. He’s a billionaire who commands a small archipelago of companies, and he’s probably the first person you think of when you think of electric cars. But his real gift is both more prosaic and more important than any particular executive or managerial skill: Elon Musk knows how to get attention.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO was certainly putting that gift on display yesterday morning, when he made a striking and confusing claim about his recently launched infrastructure venture on Twitter:
Almost immediately — as transportation, tech, and infrastructure journalists frantically called the many government press offices implied in the tweet — headlines like “Musk Touts Approval of New York-Washington ‘Hyperloop’” also blared the claim uncritically. At first, it was unclear what exactly Musk meant yesterday morning, since reporters quickly discovered that the many government entities from which the Boring Company could’ve received “verbal govt approval” at the local, state, and federal levels didn’t know what he was talking about. By way of clarification, a spokesperson for the company told The Guardian that his boss was referring to “promising conversations” with government officials, though even then only the White House would cop to having participated in these conversations, and only in the vaguest terms.
Eventually, the truth — or something resembling it — came to light: The entire story appears to boil down to someone in the ill-informed but infrastructure-obsessed Trump administration telling Musk or an associate they thought an underground New York to D.C. hyperloop was a cool idea. The fact that what Musk claimed was a vast exaggeration at best meant that it quickly garnered tens of thousands of retweets, egged on by Musk kibitzing about extending the hypothetical line to Boston and eventually building another in Texas. One woman on Twitter claimed to be crying.
The entire incident would be more surprising if it wasn’t simply what Musk does. Yesterday’s tweets are pure Musk shtick: lightly self-congratulatory, outlandish, opaque, and not really true, at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s also emblematic of how Musk has helped to puff up his own legend. This isn’t even the first time he’s pulled something like this in the past week. On Saturday, he trotted out an old favorite of his, the overwhelming danger of artificial intelligence, while being interviewed by Nevada governor Brian Sandoval at a meeting of the National Governors Association. Musk made an appeal for the regulation of artificial intelligence, which he’s repeatedly said is a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” It’s a claim actual roboticists look askance at, to put it politely, but that generally doesn’t stop Musk.
That’s not to say that Musk doesn’t truly believe in the danger of a coming robot apocalypse — or in the importance of his “verbal govt approval” — just that these claims follow a pattern. This week is just the latest in Musk’s history of unusual claims and behavior. Last summer, when Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicles were involved in several crashes, Musk said reporters skeptical of automated cars bore responsibility for traffic deaths. Profiled by Vogue in 2015, he casually suggested SpaceX would cut the time it took to get to Mars in half. He jokingly encouraged comparisons to Iron Man when he was spotted visiting the Pentagon for what was probably a meeting about a satellite, and briefly joined Trump’s tech council to eventually engage in the empty gesture of quitting. Apropos of nothing, he’ll just tweet about how much he loves floors, then decline to elaborate. He’s always happy to play the publicly quixotic billionaire, at turns cheeky and bristling.
It’s not necessarily surprising that people pay close attention to Musk: He’s one of Silicon Valley’s best-known figureheads. But it’s interesting that Musk garners nearly as much coverage, if not more, than famous tech figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, all of whom are worth vastly more than Musk, and have somewhat more concrete accomplishments on which their legends might be built.
Without diminishing Musk’s obvious success, it’s worth noting that PayPal, which Musk co-founded and first made his name and fortune with, largely took off after he was ousted as CEO and the company was bought by eBay. SpaceX, the company that Musk hopes will allow him to die on Mars, largely owes its survival to contracts from NASA and other government and military agencies. Tesla is a stock-market darling, but even Musk admits that it’s overvalued. (And that’s not even covering its various sales and labor problems.)
But Musk doesn’t need to be batting 1.000 to get attention — especially not if he has a good understanding of how the media works. The tech press is both complicit in and trapped by the Musk shtick: “Eccentric Billionaire Has Strange Idea and/or Statement” is a story that’s hard to pass up, but it also means that when Musk says something as patently untrue as his “verbal govt approval” tweet, reporters have to contend with his coyness, even though he was almost certainly being deliberately vague in order to get written up and covered by cable news. There are decent ways to do this reporting, like pointing out that Musk may not be dealing in good faith, or not publishing headlines that seem to affirm — or at least uncritically spread — his dubious claims. But for the time being, as long as he wants press, Musk will get it, because he’s Elon Musk.
And because people want to read about Musk. Musk is in the business of trying to sell people a very specific and largely unrealized vision of the future, one that’s far more exciting, at least as he describes it, than those offered by the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world. And he’s smartly realized that there is a public appetite for research-intensive, futuristic moon shots (sometimes literally), even if politicians and civil servants are wary of making those kinds of commitments. Musk, of course, has no such caution. But because his future doesn’t pay the bills or produce much in the way of tangible results as quickly as a giant logistics network or an advertising duopoly, he has to generate public excitement about the possibility of electric cars, vaporware hyperloops, and commercial trips to Mars. Those are large-scale, infrastructural projects that necessarily involve government support and regulatory hurdles. But that means the excitement Musk needs has to be ginned up with little concrete progress to help it along, which is why he has his shtick. When he can’t effectively lobby the government, he tries to appeal directly to the public. And because Musk is a salesman at heart, there’s inevitably some sort of ask. Here’s what it was yesterday:
Besides, when he says something really egregiously bizarre, he’ll just do what he did today and walk it back: