Elon Musk is an impressive character - a mysterious billionaire who believes in pushing the limits of technology and making the impossible possible. In 2012, Business Insidercalled Musk 'The most inspiring entrepreneur in the world right now' and for good reason. His companies, Tesla and SpaceX are revolutionary in their approach to innovation and Musk's latest invention, a home battery for storing solar energy, may represent a serious shift in how people use energy and allow them to go off grid.
Whether Musk's technology is game changing or not, the marketing surrounding the Powerwall battery certainly implies that it is. In true Steve Jobs fashion, Musk unveiled the Tesla Powerwall on stage in front of adoring fans dressed in casual Silicon Valley garb and laying out his vision of a 'smart tech' utopia:
In the wake of Musk's battery announcement, the media fawned over Musk in much the same way that they did over Jobs, running headlines like: "Tesla Battery Economics: On the Path to Disruption," and "Why Tesla’s announcement is such a big deal: The coming revolution in energy storage".
The transformative power of the Tesla Powerwall has yet to be proven though and there are serious arguments against it, particularly if you live in North America where the cost is predicted to outweigh the potential savings for most people. The notion that the privatization of energy production will 'save the planet' is also highly dubious, particularly when $3500 is defined as cheap (this is more than most Americans earn in a month). It may help, but collective action on a global scale is the only serious way to combat energy inefficiency. Regardless, Musk's knack for PR meant that it did wonders for Tesla's stock - a reminder that humanitarian issues aside, Musk is a business man first and foremost.
This inherent dichotomy is rarely addressed in America, where people want to believe that they can become billionaires while saving the planet. The CEO culture surrounding people like Musk and other 'visionary' CEOs feeds into the everlasting American myth of the messianic leader rescuing the country from all its ills.
America is a strange country that prides itself on rugged individualism, free speech and democracy. Yet every day, millions of Americans willfully hand over their rights to undemocratic power structures built on leader worship and top down authority. American CEOs are regarded as celebrities - from Donald Trump to Jack Welsh to Elon Musk, these moguls are revered by employees, the media and the public for their power of personality and supposed 'leadership' qualities. In America, this mostly means being able to give a good speech and the willingness to fire people for minor infractions. Jack Welch's nickname was 'Neutron Jack' after laying waste to thousands of American jobs at GE despite the company's profitability, and Steve Jobs was notorious for creating a climate of extreme fear inside Apple. Jobs's passion for ridding people of their employment was so extreme that it extended beyond Apple to other companies employees who did anything to offend him.
As for Musk, he fits the stereotype of the work obsessed psychopath to a T. A former Tesla employee had this to say about his former employee:
Elon's worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection. Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.
In a humane society, this behavior would be regarded as not only insane, but completely unacceptable. No one would accept spending most of their waking life being subjected to this type of autocratic authority. While North Koreans don't have much of a choice when it comes to controlling their own lives, Americans do, yet flock to companies like Musk's in droves. Speaking to the New Yorker, Musk said this about the public's perception of him: "The people who know me generally have a good impression. Generally, if I didn't fire them, then they have a good impression."
Apparently, Musk found this to be funny. It goes without saying that those employees whose careers he terminated did not see the humor in having their livelihoods taken away from them. But in American corporate culture, it is simply accepted that your job can be evaporated on a whim.
Elon Musk may one day invent something that saves the planet from the impending environmental catastrophe. But it is worth remembering that our environmental catastrophe only exists in the first place because of an economic system created by men just like him.