Elon Musk's bid to buy Twitter and defend free speech is part of his mythmaking : It's Been a Minute The saga around Elon Musk's deal to buy Twitter has been just that: a months-long soap opera involving lawsuits and subpoenas, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, even a town hall. But why does Musk — one of the world's richest and arguably most influential men — want with a social media platform?

Host Brittany Luse dives into the dreams and myths surrounding Elon Musk with Jill Lepore, a political historian and host of the podcast Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket. They look back at his science fiction and fantasy influences and ask where his vision could lead.

Then, Brittany brings on senior producer Barton Girdwood to play a brand new game called, Sounds Fake, But OK.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRITsBeenaMin and email us at ibam@npr.org.

How Elon Musk used sci-fi and social media to shape his narrative

How Elon Musk used sci-fi and social media to shape his narrative

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1128184270/1129047931" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Carina Johansen/NTB/AFP via Getty Images; Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images; Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images; Justin Williams - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images; Illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR
Elon Musk, Twitter, Don&#039;t Panic and Iron Man.
Carina Johansen/NTB/AFP via Getty Images; Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images; Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images; Justin Williams - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images; Illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR

The saga around Elon Musk's deal to buy Twitter has been just that: a months-long soap opera involving lawsuits and subpoenas, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, even a town hall. But why does Musk — one of the world's richest and arguably most influential men — want a social media platform?

It's Been a Minute host Brittany Luse puts the question to Jill Lepore, political historian and host of The Evening Rocket, a podcast about Musk. Lepore says that the idea of being a savior of free speech would appeal to Musk, who has built around himself a mythology inspired by what she sees as a misinterpretation of mid-twentieth century science fiction.

Lepore discusses how Musk crafted a powerful narrative that millions around the world have bought into; how he draws from science fiction and film; and why we need to be more critical of billionaire visionaries.

Y0u can listen to the full episode at the top of the page, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On Musk's self-mythology

Brittany Luse: In a nutshell, what is the myth that you see Elon Musk trying to sell about himself?

Lepore:
The story that he tells about his own life is kind of ripped out of the pages of early science fiction. He's a boy wonder, right? He's this kind of boy genius. And there's a whole origin story about Musk in South Africa that involves winning an award for a computer game that he wrote as a boy. He's marketed as this figure straight out of comic books. And the version of the story that he's kind of bandying about now is one in which he's the ultimate futurist. He is the visionary innovator, an engineer-slash-entrepreneur who will bring the light of human civilization to the stars and colonize Mars.

On turning to science fiction for inspiration

Lepore: Musk often talks about how he was transformed as a boy by reading Isaac Asimov and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. These books, he will say, taught him that humankind must reach for the stars, that we must colonize other planets in order to bring the light of human consciousness elsewhere. For Musk, his vision of himself is as the hero of a science fiction story from the 1950s. And yet he completely misreads that very science fiction.

Luse: You brought up Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That was also one of my favorite books when I was around the same age. I read it in middle school. I loved it. I thought it was hilarious. Different life trajectories, me and Elon Musk. But you point out in your podcast, he names a space ship after the Heart of Gold spaceship that's also in the book. He calls Douglas Adams, the author, one of his favorite philosophers. And yet, as you just said, you believe that he misses the point of the book. How does he miss?

Lepore: Yeah so, the Hitchhiker's Guide stories – which are comedies, these big BBC radio plays written in the '70s – were an indictment of the widening inequalities of wealth in Britain and around the world. The real bad guys in the story are these super wealthy people who want to build luxury planets where the poor can serve them. And they were broadcast to South Africa, to Pretoria, where Elon Musk grew up under apartheid, in a wholly white community where all the labor was done by Black people living under conditions of profound degradation and deprivation. And Douglas Adams had – on the manual typewriter with which he typed the plays and then later the books – he had a sticker that read, "end apartheid."

Hitchhiker's Guide is essentially about the injustice of advanced capitalism, as is much science fiction. We think about H.G. Wells writing The Time Machine. A lot of these science fiction writers are [indicting] colonialism in particular. Like, don't go to other planets and make other people your slaves. Wells was a big critic of the British Empire and British imperialism, especially in Africa. [Musk] is actually the villain of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He is not Arthur Dent. He's Zaphod Beeblebrox. Jeff Bezos is the same way. They talk about having read all this science fiction as boys, which inspired why they found these rocket companies later in life.

But of course, science fiction completely changed around the time that Douglas Adams was writing. You see the emergence of Afrofuturism or someone like Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and this kind of feminist science fiction and this interesting kind of transgender way of thinking about alternative universes and possibilities in which the future involves a lot of suffering. When I hear Elon Musk talk about the future, it really sounds to me like a very, very sad version of the past.

On being the 'real-life Iron Man'

Luse: The writers of Marvel's Iron Man cited Elon Musk as an inspiration for Tony Stark. And you also pointed out that the first Iron Man movie came out the same year the Tesla Roadsters were released. Can you talk about how the fictionalized version of Elon Musk in Tony Stark then influenced the real Elon Musk?

Lepore: It's sort of an interesting reciprocity. I mean, Iron Man dates to the 1960s when he's created in comic books by Stan Lee. The character is very much updated and kind of wrapped around the idea of Elon Musk, where you can take the same storyline about Tony Stark from the '60s and glue to it the kind of cultural fascination with the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, of which Musk was the best model.

And I don't want to be heard to be somehow discrediting Musk's accomplishments. He has this extraordinary career as a businessman. He goes to Stanford to get a Ph.D. — guy's really, really smart — drops out to found his first company, moves quickly through a series of startups that are extraordinarily successful. And then around the time of the first Iron Man, Musk moves from from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, and he becomes a Hollywood figure. You can't really conceive of anyone else doing that. You can't conceive of Bill Gates going to live in Hollywood. So there's this kind of interesting trajectory that takes him from the sort of nerdy Silicon Valley inventor guy to Tony Stark with sexy cars and sexy women.

Luse: What does it say about our society that Elon Musk has become a celebrity in a similar way to somebody like a rock star?

Lepore: Well the happy reading of it is: Celebrities are not celebrated for having ideas. Musk has many ideas. We should be heartened by the idea of someone with engineering genius being celebrated. That's not exactly what he's being celebrated for, but I think in some ways that's maybe the least concerning piece of it.

It's surprising that people aren't more concerned about the idea that you would go from extraordinary, unrivaled business success, to Hollywood fame celebrity stardom, to political aspirations that bring you in and out of the White House, to a pursuit of a position of power possibly over communication across the whole planet. It's very much like a scripted Marvel moment where people keep giving this character more and more power, and the viewer's like, "I think he might be evil." But people still give him more power. This is kind of where we are in the movie moment right now. We just don't quite know.

This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Barton Girdwood, Liam McBain, Jessica Mendoza, Janet Woojeong Lee and Jamila Huxtable. Engineering support came from Joby Tanseco and Natasha Branch. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. Our executive producer is Veralyn Williams, our VP of Programming is Yolanda Sangweni and our Senior VP of Programming is Anya Grundmann. You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at ibam@npr.org.