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The archetype of the eccentric genius goes back way before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, before Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla, before Mozart and Shakespeare. Think of Sappho and Pythagoras or even to myths like Icarus and Daedalus and Cassandra. In the 20th century, we added a new twist: the eccentric genius billionaire, like John D. Rockefeller and Howard Hughes.
There’s an obvious reason why the genius needs to be eccentric—the better to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. Change is hard, the forces of stasis powerful, the views in favor of the status quo entrenched.
Which brings us to the case of Elon Musk.
Lately, we’ve been focused on the first half of the archetype, the eccentric, with him. It’s almost hard to remember that Musk helped pioneer online payments despite the power of the credit card industry, pioneered private spaceflight despite the power of defense contractors and government space agencies, and pioneered the first popular electric car in a century despite the powers of the auto industry, the oil industry, and a few others.
Instead, it’s the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s hijinks that have drawn all the attention. The crazy tweets, the crazy lawsuits, the crazy baby name that I can’t mention here not because it’s inappropriate but because my web typography skills don’t encompass all the proper characters. And to the dear PR person who emailed me yesterday with an offer to interview the developer of the Instagram photo filter that allowed Musk and his girlfriend Grimes to post a picture of the young lad with faux facial tattoos, sorry, no, I can’t even.
But even if we have a little fun with Elon now and then, we should still acknowledge that making electric cars cool and relatively affordable (complete with a nationwide charging network to address the range issue) is an awe-inspiring and possibly planet-saving move. That putting hundreds of broadband satellites in space to offer fast Internet service to everyone in the world (without going bankrupt even once) could be another game changer for the planet.
That’s not to say that everything Musk does is making the world better. His recent attempt to keep a Tesla factory open during a shelter-in-place order was accused of putting lives at risk, for example.
But who knows what comes next? We might still be debating Musk’s deeds as we scooter across the red landscape in our Tesla Mars rovers.