Elon Musk’s Texts Shatter the Myth of the Tech Genius

Yesterday, the world got a look inside Elon Musk’s phone. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO is currently in litigation with Twitter and trying to back out of his deal to buy the platform and take it private. As part of the discovery process related to this lawsuit, Delaware’s Court of Chancery released hundreds of text messages and emails sent to and from Musk. The 151-page redacted document is a remarkable, voyeuristic record of a few months in the life of the world’s richest (and most overexposed) man and a rare unvarnished glimpse into the overlapping worlds of Silicon Valley, media, and politics. The texts are juicy, but not because they are lurid, particularly offensive, or offer up some scandalous Muskian master plan—quite the opposite. What is so illuminating about the Musk messages is just how unimpressive, unimaginative, and sycophantic the powerful men in Musk’s contacts appear to be. Whoever said there are no bad ideas in brainstorming never had access to Elon Musk’s phone.

In no time, the texts were the central subject of discussion among tech workers and watchers. “The dominant reaction from all the threads I’m in is Everyone looks fucking dumb,” one former social-media executive, whom I’ve granted anonymity because they have relationships with many of the people in Musk’s texts, told me. “It’s been a general Is this really how business is done? There’s no real strategic thought or analysis. It’s just emotional and done without any real care for consequence.”

Appearing in the document is, I suppose, a perverse kind of status symbol (some people I spoke with in tech and media circles copped to searching through it for their own names). And what is immediately apparent upon reading the messages is that many of the same people the media couldn’t stop talking about this year were also the ones inserting themselves into Musk’s texts. There’s Joe Rogan; William MacAskill, the effective altruist, getting in touch on behalf of the crypto billionaire and Democratic donor Sam Bankman-Fried; Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer (and the subject of a recent, unflattering profile); Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, NIMBY, and prolific blocker on Twitter; Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, who was recently revealed to have joined a November 2020 call about contesting Donald Trump’s election loss; and, of course, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and former CEO. Musk, arguably the most covered and exhausting of them all, has an inbox that doubles as a power ranking of semi- to fully polarizing people who have been in the news the past year.

Few of the men in Musk’s phone consider themselves his equal. Many of the messages come off as fawning, although they’re possibly more opportunistic than earnest. Whatever the case, the intentions are unmistakable: Musk is perceived to have power, and these pillars of the tech industry want to be close to it. “I love your ‘Twitter algorithms should be open source’ tweet,” Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir, said, before suggesting that he was going to mention the idea to members of Congress at an upcoming GOP policy retreat. Antonio Gracias, the CEO of Valor Partners, cheered on the same tweet, telling the billionaire, “I am 100% with you Elon. To the mattresses no matter what.”

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