The address was ‘Rocket Road, Los Angeles’ but it might as well have been Universal Studios, Hollywood. Meeting Elon Musk was like walking on to a movie set.
First we passed a giant control room straight out of the film Apollo 13 (though far bigger and more high-tech). Then we entered a cavernous hangar with rockets — yes, actual space rockets — in various stages of construction all around us. Our tour guide, Musk himself, was overflowing with child-like excitement about everything that was happening.
Except this was no juvenile hobby. It was the headquarters of a multibillion-dollar business that would soon win its first contract with the U.S. space agency Nasa and eventually supplant Nasa as America’s — and the world’s — top space exploration pioneer.
The company was SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies), founded by Elon Musk in 2002 (when he was 30 years old) with the $176 million he made from the sale of a previous venture he was involved in, PayPal. Astonishingly, Musk taught himself rocket science in order to start SpaceX.
Whether it is exploring space so humans can live on other planets and preserve Earth, pioneering electric cars for the mass market or ending traffic jams, Musk genuinely sees his role as solving mankind’s problems through business
Perhaps even more astonishingly, to get to the SpaceX headquarters we drove past the design centre for an electric car company few people outside California had even heard of at the time: Tesla. Also founded by Elon Musk.
This was in 2013. Our meeting had been arranged by my friend and former Downing Street colleague Rohan Silva, to see if Musk had any useful observations on government transport policy in the UK.
Indeed he did.
‘Why on earth are you guys still talking about building high-speed rail? It’s such old technology. You’re crazy!’ he said.
He railed — apologies for the pun — against the cost of traditional railway construction, explaining that he had been developing alternatives that could achieve much better results for a fraction of the cost.
He told us about his plans for a ‘hyperloop’ — an ultra-high-speed transport system that would enable ‘pods’ of passengers to travel through a vacuum tube at speeds of over 600 mph on magnetic tracks.
A few years later, as a guest on the BBC’s Question Time, I mentioned Elon Musk’s hyperloop idea in response to an audience member’s question about the latest costly bureaucratic delay to hit the HS2 project.
I remember the merciless mockery directed at me by fellow panellist Ed Miliband for bringing my ludicrous California blue-sky babble about ‘hyperloops’ to the gritty topic of train travel in England.
Sure enough, the audience hooted at me in derision (thankfully, it was the ‘warm-up’ round and was never broadcast).
But look where we are today. The prototype hyperloop has been built and is working in Las Vegas. The technology is being developed by yet another Elon Musk start-up, The Boring Company, which aims to eliminate urban traffic by digging underground tunnels in big cities.
Oh, and did I mention Neuralink? Musk founded that company to develop artificial intelligence and neural implants to help people with brain injuries, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and even paralysis to regain some independence by controlling computers and mobile devices with their brain.
Ludicrously, some commentators have even argued that Musk’s intention to ensure free speech on Twitter is itself a threat to free speech. These insults could not be more wrong
And speaking of the fight for independence, soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk announced that high-speed broadband had been restored across the country thanks to Starlink satellites developed by SpaceX.
Musk has donated thousands of terminals which are now operational in hospitals, energy installations and other critical infrastructure.
The technology even beat the Russian army’s hacking attempt with a rapid software upgrade, impressing the head of the Pentagon’s electromagnetic warfare division, who said: ‘That is fantastic . . . how they did that is kind of eye-watering to me . . . we need to be able to have that ability.’
This is the background to the business adventure that has put Elon Musk in the spotlight as never before, while bringing down on him the vicious ire of the Establishment, media and Left-leaning politicians: his attempt to buy the social media site Twitter and make it a forum for free speech.
This week, he unveiled a $46.5 billion finance package for the bid — $21 billion in equity and $25.5 billion from Morgan Stanley — tweeting that if he succeeded in buying Twitter, the company would focus on removing spam from the site.
The elite, clearly rattled by the prospect of a serious challenge to their control of the public conversation, have tried to characterise Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter as a menacing attempt by a crazed billionaire to seize control of the world’s digital public square, so he can impose his own ‘far-Right’ views. It is ‘troubling’, ‘dangerous’, ‘a threat to our democracy’, they desperately witter.
Ludicrously, some commentators have even argued that Musk’s intention to ensure free speech on Twitter is itself a threat to free speech.
These insults could not be more wrong. They completely misunderstand Elon Musk’s mindset, his motives and the real menace in this story: the Establishment’s relentless, demented — almost totalitarian — zeal to impose its own insular, woke groupthink on the world.
Over the past few days, I have spoken to friends who know and have worked with Elon Musk about what really makes him tick. A clear and consistent picture emerges.
He is above all an engineer — probably one of the best in the world. When an earlier model of his Tesla electric car was plagued by production problems, he spent night after night sleeping on the floor of the California factory to try to work out what was going wrong.
He had already hired some of the best-qualified automotive engineers anywhere. Yet, in the end, it was Musk himself, screwdriver in hand, who solved the problems.
Solving problems is what motivates him. When an interviewer once suggested to him that he had a tenuous grip on reality, he replied that ‘physics is the most real thing there is’. He sees problems in the world and tries to use physics and engineering to solve them.
We have seen the rise in recent years of Silicon Valley billionaires who have amassed huge wealth and influence through producing innovative software — websites and apps such as Google and Facebook.
What Elon Musk has done is different and, frankly, far more difficult. He has built businesses that focus on hardware — and hardware that is exceptionally hard to get right, such as reusable space rockets.
And this is how Musk thinks about Twitter and its role in society: as an engineering problem.
His Neuralink start-up approaches the human brain as a computer, albeit one far more sophisticated than anything technologists have built. If the brain is the ‘hardware’, Musk believes millions of people around the world have fallen prey to malicious ‘software’ that is affecting society in destructive and divisive ways.
He has called it the ‘woke mind virus’ — the ideology that drives so much of today’s activism and cancel culture. His key observation is that this ‘software’ was written by someone else — by the far-Left academic ideologues pushing wokeism.
Solving problems is what motivates him. When an interviewer once suggested to him that he had a tenuous grip on reality, he replied that ‘physics is the most real thing there is’. He sees problems in the world and tries to use physics and engineering to solve them
He wants people to think for themselves, to see and hear all points of view, to come to their own conclusions. He believes that is the way to get the best outcomes for society: the scientific method.
Elon Musk is not arguing for free speech because he wants to impose his views on everyone else. Instead, he wants all views to be available to everyone.
Indeed, it is hard to even pin down where Musk stands politically. Some of his stances — for example on marijuana, and government regulations — might place him on the political, even libertarian Right. On the other hand, his strong environmentalism (before it was folded into Tesla, Musk was connected with yet another company, SolarCity, which produced and installed solar panels) used to be heralded by the Left.
But that was before his stance on free speech made him the mortal enemy of the Leftist Establishment, threatening their ability to police what we can all say and thereby, they hope, what we think.
Their power to do this has been building for years, enabled by the fact that the giant tech companies, now so central to our public and political discourse, are all based in the most Left-wing part of America: the San Francisco Bay area, where I live.
Public data on the political donations of tech workers confirms what many long suspected: they are overwhelmingly Left-wing — and not just Left-wing but far-Left. This matters because of the way online speech is policed today.
We hear a lot about the ‘algorithms’ used by Twitter, Google, YouTube, Facebook and others for ‘content moderation’. The companies claim these algorithms are impartial tools to prevent the spread of ‘misinformation’.
But the content suppressed by the algorithms all seems to fall on one side of the political divide, leading many to suspect that ‘misinformation’ is simply the Establishment’s term for opinions that run counter to its approved narrative and groupthink.
This suspicion is given further weight when we realise that algorithms are not some objective, technical device but computer code that is written by people — the same, generally far-Left, software engineers and product managers who work for the tech companies.
The problem — and the truly ‘undemocratic’ nature of this ‘thought policing’ — is that the policies, values and assumptions expressed in these algorithms are hidden from public view. This is an outrageous breach of the trust we have the right to expect from companies that play such a crucial role in shaping our society. And this is the central focus of Elon Musk’s intentions for Twitter.
In his view, the Twitter board of directors have abdicated their role as guardians of the public interest. They have barely any stake in the company and have allowed it to be taken over by activists pushing the ‘woke mind virus’.
Musk believes that not only can he improve Twitter as a business by taking it private, but he can bring transparency and accountability to the hugely consequential decisions it makes about what can and can’t be said — with a strong bias in favour of permissiveness. Of course, critics may laugh at the suggestion that this often eccentric billionaire, literally the world’s richest man, can in any way represent ‘the public interest’.
They would no doubt argue that such a brash individual, who smoked marijuana during a video interview in 2018 and recently endorsed the use of psychedelic drugs, would be a danger to the public if he managed to get his hands on Twitter.
How could anyone take seriously a man who had a son with electronic pop star Grimes, then named him X Æ A-Xii; and who was reportedly the inspiration for the maverick genius Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man superhero films?
But again, this is to misunderstand Musk’s worldview. He has recently argued that his business ventures are in fact philanthropy in the original Greek meaning of the word — ‘love of humanity’.
Whether it is exploring space so humans can live on other planets and preserve Earth, pioneering electric cars for the mass market or ending traffic jams, Musk genuinely sees his role as solving mankind’s problems through business.
That is not some outlandish concept — in fact, it is what I argued for in my book Good Business 20 years ago, and through my consulting firm of the same name.
With Musk, the publicity hasn’t all been positive. There was a nasty libel case prompted by the totally uncalled-for ‘paedo guy’ insult hurled at a British caver during the rescue of trapped Thai schoolboys in 2018. There were ethical concerns raised about the way SolarCity was acquired by Tesla. And yes, Musk can be a bit of a troll on Twitter.
But most of his trolling is directed at government and regulators. Isn’t a billionaire who challenges authority much more admirable than one who fawns and sucks up to it — as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos did with his purchase of the ultimate Establishment mouthpiece, the Washington Post?
Bezos has now adopted the lifestyle of an uber-rich celebrity, swanning around the world posting photos of himself on superyachts.
Elon Musk, by contrast, has said he has sold his homes and most of his possessions and now stays in friends’ spare bedrooms when he travels — which is only for work.
It seems to me he has earned the right to be taken at face value when he says he is motivated not by money but by making the world a better place.
And that right now, making Twitter a platform for the open exchange of uncensored views is one of the most important ways of doing just that.
Steve Hilton was David Cameron’s director of strategy from 2010 to 2012.