For the longest time, when you thought about the most powerful person in the world, the person who probably came to mind was the president of the United States, the leader of the free world. But in 2023, the person who comes to mind for most people these days isn’t an elected official at all. Instead, a lot of people picture a 52-year-old civilian who, through his own determination, ambition, and sheer will, has amassed an enormous amount of wealth—more than any other person on this planet—and also an enormous amount of influence over many of the most important industries in the world, especially as we look to the future.
Elon Musk’s biography is difficult to summarize, but that’s exactly what our guest today, Walter Isaacson, has spent the past two and a half years doing: outlining Elon Musk’s life to the tune of about 700 pages, in a new book simply titled Elon Musk. Isaacson is an award-winning biographer of luminaries including Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and Jennifer Doudna. But this recent undertaking has no doubt been his most complicated one to date. That’s because the man he wrote about has a story that’s very much still unfolding. In fact, when Walter Isaacson started writing the book, Musk hadn’t even purchased Twitter yet.
One of the questions that underlies the entire biography is this: What does it mean for a single man to have so much singular power? And though Walter doesn’t answer the question explicitly, we’ve all had a glimpse into exactly what it means for the world during this past month.
Take, for example, how when Israel briefly cut off the internet inside of Gaza as part of their war strategy to eliminate Hamas, Elon announced that he was going to provide it himself through his company, Starlink. After widespread criticism, he posted an exploding head emoji. Then, when a commenter suggested that he must have felt pressure to provide the coverage, Elon simply responded, “yeah,” with a frowny face. Musk apparently then met with the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, and announced that he would, “double check with Israeli and U.S. security officials before enabling any connections.” The point, as my friend and writer Jacob Siegel put it, is that “non-state kingmakers are redefining the scope of warfare through direct intervention.”
Of course, there’s also Elon’s newfound power over the information that all of us consume on X, Twitter’s new brand. It’s hard to imagine under Twitter’s previous regime that we would have had access to the raw, brutally violent footage from Hamas’s October 7 massacre. Elon’s version of Twitter, which is less censorious than the previous guard, has allowed millions of people across the globe to see—with their own eyes—exactly what Hamas did. And yet, with those loosened rules, there’s also so much genuine disinformation spread at a pace like never before. Scores of people, including elected officials like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, are posting horrifying photos and videos of crying children from Gaza, when in reality they are photos and videos from Syria in 2013.
It has never been clearer that one man wields an enormous amount of influence over everything from social media to warfare. And the question is, should he? That’s the theme of today’s conversation.
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