Technology

Elon Musk, the Twitter deal and his quest to save ‘all life on Earth’

(Daniel Hertzberg for The Washington Post)

Fresh out of college, Elon Musk built his first business around an early Web search technology to help struggling newspapers launch themselves into the digital world. Frenetic and combative, Musk struck the newspaper executives he was pitching as brilliant but weird.

“He slept under his desk and he didn’t smell very good,” said a former news executive who negotiated with Musk and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the world’s richest man. “He didn’t have any inherent interest in newspapers. He told me he wanted to do this so he could make money and then do what he really wanted to do, which was design spaceships.”

Musk made that money, then pumped much of it into the company that would become PayPal. His interest in facilitating online payments also turned out to be passing. What Musk really wanted was the big payday that would let him focus on his lifelong ambition: to save humanity through space exploration, electric vehicles and solar energy.

His next ventures — SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, Neuralink — finally propelled Musk toward the goal he’d set when he was 14 to be at the cutting edge of making human life “exciting and inspiring.”

Now Musk is pivoting once more, taking on one of the most prominent and problematic symbols of the Internet age, Twitter. As was true at the start of each of his primary ventures over the past quarter century, he has been at once bold, brash and somewhat blurry about his purpose.

He has cast Twitter as a “de facto public town square,” essential to a functioning democracy. But it carries a legacy of intangible problems — misinformation, censorship, harassment, some starring Musk himself — far from the concrete realm of rockets and engines.

Early Friday, amid doubts that he could muster the cash, he tweeted that the $44 billion deal was “temporarily on hold.” The tweet said he was seeking “details” to support Twitter’s claims that fake accounts known as bots make up less than 5 percent of users. (Musk has made getting rid of fake accounts a centerpiece of his takeover bid.)

Two hours later, Musk tweeted four words: “Still committed to acquisition.”

Did his predawn tweet indicate he was looking for a way out of the deal? Or was he simply seeking to drive down the purchase price? Twitter stock futures fell sharply after his doubtful tweet; prices jumped after his reassuring one, but closed down Friday almost 10 percent. (Meanwhile, Tesla, the cornerstone of Musk’s vast fortune, rose slightly on Friday. But the share price has lost 30 percent of its value since April 4, when Musk revealed his first moves toward acquiring Twitter and began selling off Tesla shares to help fund the purchase.)

Musk has done this sort of thing before. In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined him $20 million to settle the government’s claim that he misled investors by tweeting that he had the funding to turn Tesla into a private company. (The SEC also reportedly is investigating Musk’s tardy disclosure of taking a big stake in Twitter.) Musk did not admit wrongdoing, and has grumbled about the SEC ever since.

Those who know Musk, 50, say he is both fickle and crafty. At every stage of his supremely public career, he has positioned himself as an entertaining, if off-putting, celebrity. He is at once an open book — an omnipresent star inventor, pontificating about free speech in tweets and podcasts, hosting “Saturday Night Live” — and an elusive enigma, given to riddles, insults and slogans about how he might remake society — or, in this case, a social media platform with 229 million daily users.

Beneath the puckish public persona, Musk has displayed a fierce temper and what some associates and employees call a dark tendency to dismiss or harass people unlike himself. He has tossed off casually insulting tweets about women and other comments that have unleashed torrents of abuse from his nearly 93 million Twitter followers.

According to some Tesla workers and California regulators who sued the company, he has overseen a factory rife with racial slurs and a “pervasive culture of sexual harassment … a daily barrage of sexist language and behavior … [and] frequent groping on the factory floor.” Tesla has denied some of the allegations and seeks to handle others in private arbitration rather than in court. The company said it takes any violations seriously.

Last fall, a jury awarded a Black Tesla worker $137 million in damages after finding in favor of his allegation that Tesla tolerated racist harassment, including “daily racist epithets” at the factory. After the verdict, a Tesla executive said the company was “still not perfect, but we have come a long way.” The award was later reduced. Musk himself has rarely addressed such allegations, but sometimes notes that he fled his native South Africa in part because of its repressive apartheid regime.

He is an engine of contradictions. His worries over the future of civilization appear to have deepened through the years: He quit President Donald Trump’s councils on manufacturing and job creation to protest Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords. He has contributed to Democrats and Republicans alike, yet often has aligned himself with the right online, recently tweeting a meme showing “my fellow liberal” turning into a “woke progressive.”

He appears to delight in keeping the world guessing about how he might use his fortune and prominence, diving into random interests with gusto — sumo wrestling, electronic music, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (he once waited six hours in a queue to shake Obama’s hand).

He rails against government regulation, yet his most prominent ventures have relied heavily on taxpayers’ dollars, in the form of federal loans for Tesla, tax credits for electric vehicles, and government contracts for SpaceX.

He has revolutionized two complex industries — car manufacturing and rocketry — but often tweets like a 12-year-old. Asked by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey which of his 17,000 tweets ranks as quintessential Musk, he chose one from 2020: “I put the art in fart.

He has absolute confidence in his ability to innovate (“I can see the truth of things and others seem less able to do so,” he told NPR in 2007) yet has described himself as fearful and anxious. “When I was a child, there’s one thing I said: ‘I never want to be alone,’ ” Musk told Rolling Stone in 2017. “I don’t want to be alone.”

Some view Musk as one more “thrillionaire,” an ultrawealthy Internet entrepreneur who — like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Virgin magnate Richard Branson and Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos — directs his money toward fulfilling childhood dreams of space exploration, life extension or other fascinations born of adolescent hours spent soaking in science and science fiction.

Musk’s serial endeavors show other continuities. Whether figuring out how to trim a car’s weight so it can accelerate shockingly quickly while carrying heavy batteries or how to blast rockets into space and retrieve them for economical reuse, Musk bristles with confidence that he can solve humanity’s central problems, primarily climate change, a threat so serious, he told blogger Tim Urban, “we better get to the multi-planet situation fast.”

But to boost humanity’s chances, Musk decided early on, he first needed to become rich.

Musk, who did not respond to multiple emails requesting an interview, displayed cosmic ambition even in childhood. At 14, having already created and sold a video game called “Blastar” (it won $500 from a computer magazine), Musk decided his life needed a serious mission.

He would, he later told his biographer, “strive for greater collective enlightenment.”

Musk’s first wife learned about her husband’s supreme confidence early on. When Musk asked Justine Musk how many children she wanted, she said “one or two, although if I could afford nannies, I’d like to have four.”

Musk laughed, Justine later wrote, and said, “That’s the difference between you and me. I just assume that there will be nannies.”

There were. The couple ultimately had six sons (one died in infancy) and a domestic staff of five. Married in 2000, they divorced in 2008, when Musk got engaged to actress Talulah Riley, whom he married and divorced twice. Musk later had two children with the singer Grimes.

Adventure came naturally to Musk, who was born to a family of explorers. His mother, Maye, a model born in Canada, flew around the world in her father’s prop plane as a child. His father, Errol, was a South African engineer who lectured Elon and his brother, Kimbal, for hours, teaching them electrical wiring and bricklaying. (He also has a sister, Tosca.)

But Musk’s childhood in Pretoria, South Africa, was volatile. His parents split when he was 9, and he has described his upbringing as lonely and harsh. He read constantly, often 10 hours a day — science fiction, history, encyclopedias.

After the divorce, Musk spent two years with his mother, then took it upon himself to move in with his father, who “seemed sort of sad and lonely,” as Musk told Ashlee Vance, author of “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” But Errol treated young Elon poorly: Kimbal said the father engaged in “psychological torture” against his older son. Both brothers have declined to offer details, and Errol has consistently denied any abuse.

At school, Musk was bullied, shoved down a flight of stairs, beaten so badly he needed a nose job. At 17, he resolved to immigrate to America. He arrived first in Canada, taking jobs logging and farming before enrolling at Queen’s College in Kingston, Ontario.

He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and did some graduate work at Stanford, but was anxious to dive into his life’s work. He knew how to achieve (“I work a lot,” he said on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2020. “I mean, a lot”) and he knew what made him different.

He could, he said, “boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to … copying what other people do with slight variations.”

Some of his critics see Musk’s attitude toward his intelligence and ability to generate wealth as evidence of ultimate arrogance. Musk sees it as simple fact.

“How does this wealth arise?” he told Rogan. “You organize people in a better way. That gives you a right to organize capital.”

His first step down that road was Zip2.

A ‘fanatical intensity’

In 1995, when the World Wide Web was still a mystery to most Americans, Musk was 24, a self-taught programmer fresh off an internship at a video game maker in Palo Alto, Calif. Three years before two other Stanford graduate students launched Google, Musk created Zip2, which built online directories of local businesses. These were essentially digital Yellow Pages with something extra — digital maps.

With a $28,000 gift from his father, Musk and his brother rented a small office in Palo Alto, recruited sales people to hawk the idea to local retailers and worked around-the-clock to perfect Zip2′s software. Less than a year later, a venture capital firm pumped $3 million into Zip2, allowing Musk to hire talented engineers and shift the company’s focus to news organizations.

Eager to translate their offerings from paper to screen, newspapers wanted to offer readers a way to search for restaurants, events and local businesses. Newspaper executives who met with Musk liked his technology, but didn’t know what to make of the frantic, awkward, temperamental guy who was selling it.

“There were a lot of graduate students coming to us then, many of them out of Stanford, with ideas about how to make the transition” to digital, said Ralph Terkowitz, chief technology officer at The Washington Post at the time. “They were all brash, eager. They saw the world differently.”

Musk “had an almost fanatical intensity that all successful entrepreneurs have,” said Martin Nisenholtz, the CEO of New York Times Digital who negotiated a deal to use Zip2 technology to build the Times’ first online city guide and later joined the company’s board.

“But I’ve also known unsuccessful entrepreneurs with that same fanatical intensity,” Nisenholtz said. Musk “was super dramatic,” he added, “but I didn’t see greatness there.”

Several former news executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of public attack by Musk recalled him as difficult to work with. “He would lose it over very small things,” one said. “Every little thing was existential.” Two executives described Musk storming out of a board meeting in a huff because he wasn’t getting his way on a minor issue. Two recalled Musk upbraiding employees at Zip2’s offices in front of visiting investors.

“He’d tell them that compared to what he’d studied in college, this stuff was so stupid that he couldn’t believe they couldn’t do it perfectly,” one executive recalled.

In 1999, Compaq, a personal-computer maker, bought Zip2 for $307 million. Musk got $22 million: He was rich.

Soon, he’d be much richer.

He used a large chunk of his Zip2 profits to start X.com, which eventually merged with a competitor founded by Peter Thiel to become PayPal, which was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.

Finally, Musk could follow his dream.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of getting people to Mars. Like Tesla, which would seek to end dependence on gas-powered vehicles, SpaceX was meant to save the species. Mars, Musk said, would be mankind’s backup plan, a safe haven in case of nuclear war, climate disaster or some other “extinction event.”

He had been warned it was a fool’s errand; there was an industry saying that “the quickest way to become a millionaire in space is to start out as a billionaire.” But after moving slowly at first, Musk unleashed a characteristic barrage of bombast and bare-knuckled street fighting.

Before starting SpaceX, Musk had checked NASA’s website for information about its first human Mars mission. He couldn’t find it.

“I thought the problem was me,” he said during a speech in 2012. “Because it must be somewhere on this website.”

If NASA wasn’t going to Mars, Musk determined that SpaceX would. Getting there would be expensive — and inconceivable without mega-contracts from the government.

SpaceX barely survived its first few years, its spacecraft failing three times to reach orbit. By 2008, Musk had burned through virtually all of the $100 million he had bet on the company and barely had enough to attempt one more launch.

It was a success — the first privately developed rocket to reach orbit — leading NASA to come to the company’s rescue, hiring it in late 2008 to fly cargo and supplies to the space station.

That contract, worth $1.6 billion, gave SpaceX a toehold in the space industry. But Musk had his eye on another prize: the lucrative contracts to launch national security satellites for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

For years, those launches had been entrusted to the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Musk had attempted to block their merger, filing an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2005 that alleged the companies had “destroyed any pretense of competition.”

Over the next few years, as SpaceX launched several rockets successfully and sent its autonomous Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, Musk made his big move. He beefed up his Washington lobbying efforts and filed another suit, this time against the Air Force, which was moving toward awarding more contracts to the United Launch Alliance.

“We sued the Air Force and Boeing and Lockheed — these are formidable opponents,” Musk once told The Post. “Suing the military industrial complex is something that you do not take lightly.”

The suit angered top Pentagon officials, but Musk charged ahead, taking his battle public, insulting his competitors and casting SpaceX as the moral choice over the United Launch Alliance, whose rocket depended on an engine made in Russia.

Musk prevailed: Congress capped the number of Russian-made engines the United Launch Alliance could buy, forcing it to seek a U.S.-built alternative. The Air Force settled Musk’s lawsuit, allowing SpaceX to bid for Pentagon contracts. SpaceX now launches Pentagon satellites, flies cargo and crew to the space station for NASA and won the contract to build the spacecraft that would land NASA astronauts on the moon.

Musk remains focused on developing Starship, SpaceX’s next-generation rocket. But he’s also looking farther ahead, saying he might want to retire on Mars — but only “if I’m certain that SpaceX will be fine without me” and progress toward space colonization continues.

Rise of the ‘Technoking’

In 1999, flush with Zip2 money, Musk bought himself a toy, a McLaren F1 sports car. He invited a CNN camera to film the delivery.

“Now I’ve got a million-dollar car and quite a few creature comforts,” Musk boasted. (Looking mildly astonished, his then-fiancee Justine pronounced the purchase “decadent.”)

Four years later, with many millions more from the sale of PayPal, Musk’s car interests had shifted: He longed for an electric vehicle but found few options. His search led him to Martin Eberhard, founder of Tesla Motors, which aimed to build an electric car for everyday consumers.

The path to success at Tesla was typically stormy: Musk pumped in millions and eventually fired Eberhard, who sued him, after which Musk called his erstwhile partner “the worst person I’ve ever worked with.” (Eberhard’s libel suit against Musk was settled out of court.)

Musk became more hands-on, seeing Tesla’s first vehicle, the Roadster, through to production. As in other industries he’d entered, Musk struck people in the auto business as impulsive and at times tyrannical, given to sudden terminations known as “rage firings,” according to investors, former executives and employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of risking their jobs by speaking publicly about Musk.

In court testimony last year, Musk denied engaging in rage firing, but said he offers “clear and frank feedback, which may be construed as derision.”

To make Tesla a realistic alternative to gas-burning engines, Musk blazed seemingly contradictory paths, pushing hard against established automakers even as he struck up vital partnerships with Daimler and Toyota — just as SpaceX had both attacked and wooed the federal government.

Tesla was near collapse during the 2008 Great Recession when Musk spotted an opportunity. Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, was seeking help designing an electric version of its Smart car. Tesla electrified Daimler’s vehicle to its specifications and added a few extra perks — which shocked the German powerhouse during a demonstration at the electric carmaker’s Bay Area offices in early 2009.

The car “was so fast, you could do wheelies in the parking lot,” Musk said, according to “Insane Mode,” a book by Hamish McKenzie. The Germans gave Tesla a contract to make electric powertrains, according to the book, saving Tesla from its immediate crisis and helping it win a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Newly flush, Tesla pressed ahead with the Model S, the car that made it a household name.

Next, Toyota bought a 2.5 percent stake in Tesla and sold the electric carmaker the California factory that would become its main manufacturing hub. But the meticulous Japanese carmaker sensed that Tesla was moving too fast and cutting corners, and the relationship soon soured. A recall Toyota faced on a Tesla-built powertrain didn’t help.

“Basically, it was cultural incompatibility,” said Ed Niedermeyer, author of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.” Tesla and Toyota were “kind of like oil and water from the get-go,” he said, and Toyota worried “that Tesla’s practices would reflect poorly on their brand.”

Still, Musk found a way to make major carmakers dependent on his company. Because Tesla sells only electric cars, it easily surpasses state emissions standards, winning credits it sells to carmakers that fail to meet emissions requirements. The result is a windfall for Tesla, which posted a $331 million profit in the third quarter of 2020 because of the credit sales.

Around the same time, Tesla’s stock price began the steep climb that would make Musk the world’s richest person, topping out at more than $1,200 per share a few months after he changed his title from CEO to “Technoking.” (Tesla closed Friday at $769.)

When Musk talks about Tesla, he steers clear of profit, preferring to focus on its role in saving “all life on Earth,” as he told podcaster Kara Swisher in 2018.

“If we do not solve the environment,” he said, “we’re all damned.”

With Tesla and SpaceX established as exemplars of innovation, Musk has branched out, looking for other ways to bolster life on Earth.

In 2016, he launched Neuralink, which seeks to develop brain implants to be drilled into people’s skulls — including his own, “if it works,” he says. So far, the evidence is thin. But Musk says the implants eventually will cure ailments, restore lost memories — even eliminate the need for words.

“You would be able to communicate far more quickly and with greater precision” without words, Musk said on Rogan’s podcast. He expects to liberate people from having to talk “in maybe five years, five to ten years.”

Until then, Twitter offers communication in 280-word snips — and poses a challenge unlike any Musk has faced so far.

After Musk joined Twitter in 2010, it took him 18 months to post more than a welcome note. “Went to Iceland on Sat to ride bumper cars on ice!” he tweeted. Hardly anyone noticed.

In recent years, tweeting has become part of Musk’s daily routine. He posts at all hours, promoting developments at Tesla, posting launch videos from SpaceX. He replies to fans, snaps at competitors, needles critics. Asked why he devotes so much energy to it, he replied, “Because Twitter is fun.”

In a 2018 interview with “60 Minutes,” Musk described Twitter as “a war zone. If somebody’s going to jump in a war zone, it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re in the arena, let’s go.’ ” It’s a game and a show, and a way to promote his ventures.

He says it’s also about free speech, but there his ideas have been inconsistent. He tweeted last month that he favors allowing as much free speech as the law permits. Yet he also has called government regulation of Big Tech a likely necessity: “If something … could potentially negatively affect elections or something like that … there probably should be some regulatory oversight,” he told Swisher.

Yishan Wong, who worked with Musk at PayPal and later became chief executive of Reddit, predicted that Musk would be frustrated by Twitter, arguing that the calculus required to protect free speech while discouraging damaging misinformation and abuse — especially violence against women and minorities — is far more complicated than actual rocket science.

“The internet is not a ‘frontier’ where people can go ‘to be free,’ it’s where the entire world is now, and every culture war is being fought on it,” Wong wrote last month in a lengthy Twitter thread. “The problems are NOT about politics, or topics of discussion. They are about all the ways that humans misbehave when there are no immediately visible consequences.”

Eventually, Musk would be forced to bow to the need for discipline, Wong wrote, pushing the freewheeling entrepreneur into the dour and “inevitable” role of censor. “This will distract from his mission at SpaceX and Tesla, because it’s not just going to suck up his time and attention, IT WILL DAMAGE HIS PSYCHE.

“I think if Elon takes over Twitter, he is in for a world of pain,” Wong wrote. “He has no idea.”



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