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December 8, 2022

The Musk Factor

At last, someone with the capability and the resolve to break social media’s stranglehold on public opinion.

I wonder if the public at large a century ago realized that Henry Ford was not just making cars — and money — he was building an industry that would employ millions and underpin the nation’s economy for decades.

Today, that’s happening in spades. Among the amazing people who are leading today’s technological advances, Elon Musk stands alone in terms of the breadth of his accomplishments.

There’s Tesla. With no prior experience in auto design or manufacture, Musk led the company that turned the concept of electric vehicles into reality. Teslas are everywhere; over three million have been sold worldwide. He didn’t copy the automotive giants — they are now copying him.

Simultaneously, he created SpaceX. In 1969, NASA put man on the moon — but that was a massive, government-run and taxpayer-funded extravaganza. By comparison, Elon Musk — seemingly in his spare time and with private funding (much his own) — turned space into a commercial venture. SpaceX supports numerous NASA missions, including shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station, while simultaneously running circles around NASA with hundreds of commercial launches, using reusable rockets to deliver payloads into space. Think galactic FedEx.

Also (probably on weekends and evenings) Musk has sired Neuralink and a few other potentially large ventures in other technologies.

Like many successful industrialists, Musk has his detractors. His leadership style is chaotic, his decision-making is spontaneous, and he routinely sets ridiculously optimistic schedules and then misses them by a mile. But in fairness, invention success can be hard to predict — just ask Thomas Edison about his lightbulb. And the results Musk promises are often spectacular, and he usually finds a way to achieve them, in his own time.

But these days, dazzling results don’t always generate popular acclaim. The comical part is watching U.S. media and intelligentsia abruptly turn on Musk — the guy whose EVs are viewed as the answer to climate change — when it dawned on them that their Wonder-Kid does not share many of their progressive viewpoints.

The first chinks in the Musk armor appeared post-COVID when he publicly demanded that his Tesla executives actually show up at work, in person, instead of managing the enterprise online at home in their pajamas. It seems that Elon Musk has grasped — and is willing to state in public — the reality that Zoom meetings can only go so far in replacing eyeball-to-eyeball interactions in running a company (or for that matter, in educating our children).

That mini-controversy was nothing compared to the flak that has accompanied Musk’s rocky takeover of Twitter. First, there was his sweeping staff reduction and his stated expectation of “hard core” effort from those who managed to keep their jobs. It sounded like pure Ebenezer Scrooge, just in time for Christmas — the greedy richest guy in the world demanding back-breaking effort from his minions, prompting gasps of outrage and a flood of resignations.

The counterpoint, of course, is that no one knows better than Elon Musk the intensity and commitment needed to achieve big things. Anyone who’s ever tried to start up a small business will confirm that if you really want to make a go of it, you can forget the idea of nine-to-five. It’s perfectly reasonable for Musk to make clear to his new team what it will take to turn Twitter into an enduring, profitable venture.

Next, Musk truly poked the hornets’ nest by taking on the core issue of how to make sound decisions about information content, with the objective of making Twitter an open and transparent platform for information sharing, and not a propaganda arm for one political side.

The tectonic shock was Musk’s release last week of the so-called Twitter Files — documents revealing the extensive and unseemly interaction between Twitter and the Biden campaign headquarters prior to the 2020 election, leading to extraordinary measures by Twitter to block (i.e., censor) from public view information that might damage Biden’s chances of winning the presidency. These revelations were not surprising — we all watched it happen — but seeing the hard evidence is nonetheless shocking. This is a very big deal, just the beginning of a scandal that will involve all of Big Tech. Hold onto your hats.

There is conjecture — and wishful thinking — among the new legions of Musk-haters that he’s simply not up to the job and that Twitter, his $44 billion plaything, will go belly-up. Don’t count on it. It’s a good bet that the guy who created the EV business and who launches payload-carrying rockets into space weekly can figure out how to run a social media platform.

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