Elon Musk is “wired for war.” At least, that’s what Musk has told Walter Isaacson, whose thick biography of the mercurial mega-billionaire, Elon Musk, is out this week. When Musk says this, he’s not talking about Ukraine, where his Starlink internet service has played a central role. And he’s not talking about his aggressive takeover of Twitter. He’s talking about video games.
Civilization, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, The Battle of Polytopia, Elden Ring—Musk has spent much of his life in fantasy worlds. Isaacson’s biography includes many astonishing details and relatively few pages focused on Musk’s gaming obsession. But the video-game detail is telling. Musk doesn’t seem to inhabit our reality, exactly, even as he profoundly shapes it. At once innovative and destructively brazen, he leads companies—Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, X—that influence how we live and communicate in this world, and that aspire to help us reach another. It’s easy to imagine him navigating Earth in a kind of top-down view, allocating his resources to advance along the “rocket science” skill tree or clicking and dragging satellites above an active war zone.
Isaacson’s book recounts something once said to Musk by Shivon Zilis, an executive at Musk’s brain-implant company, Neuralink, and the mother of two of his many children: “I have this feeling that as a kid you were playing one of these strategy games and your mom unplugged it, and you just didn’t notice, and you kept playing life as if it were that game.”
This isn’t a simulation; Musk’s actions have significant consequences, for national security, for the future of green transportation, for the prospect of leaving this planet. I talked to Isaacson about the biography, including a recent controversy over its details about Starlink and Musk’s involvement in Ukraine. The conversation was a bid to understand how Elon thinks—and the future that he hopes to bring about.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Damon Beres: A lot of people are reasonably terrified of Elon Musk and the power that he represents. How do you approach writing about someone like that?
Walter Isaacson: I was just going to be an absolute honest observer and tell the stories of what it was like up close, what he was thinking, what he was doing. I want the reader to be able to judge Musk based on a narrative in which both his good and bad sides are woven together. There are multiple Elon Musk personalities, and there are times when he’s just brutal, times when he’s got an epic sense of himself—which is both frightening and inspiring all at once—and times when he’s an incredibly focused engineer. One of the exciting challenges is navigating the many Elon Musks, which, unlike anybody else I’ve written about, are quite vivid and different.
Beres: You write about his “demon mode” personality. How did you experience that as his biographer?
Isaacson: I saw demon mode many times. It would take my breath away sometimes, when he was furious on a rocket launchpad in Texas or would walk the factory line in Austin and get into hard-core, intense mode. I try not only to report those scenes but to circle back with the people who were the target of either demon mode or inspiration mode and figure out the harmful effects and how it pushed things forward. I did more than 100 interviews. I tried to show what the impact of his various personalities can be.
Beres: How would you sum up that impact?
Isaacson: He’s probably the most important person pushing us into an era of electric vehicles and power walls. Also, he’s singularly been able to get astronauts into orbit from the United States after NASA decommissioned the space shuttle a dozen years ago. He’s been able to create his own Starlink internet in low Earth orbit. And he’s been able to land rocket boosters upright and reuse them again—things nobody else has been able to do. On the other hand, he’s blown up a lot of shit, including Twitter. He’s not nearly as good at understanding how to deal with social media as he is dealing with rocket engines. The book ends with rockets going up and rockets exploding, which is a metaphor for his accomplishments and the debris that often comes in his wake. That makes him an absolutely fascinating person, if you don’t mind rubbernecking and watching a tale unfold.
Beres: Last week, Elon spoke out against the Anti-Defamation League, and did so on X, where he responded to and thus amplified a clip from Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist. This is all happening in the context of the 2024 presidential election, and the context of rising anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. People view Musk’s rhetoric as quite dangerous. This very dark side is politically consequential.
Isaacson: I agree. Musk gets into a dark mode and shoots himself in the foot, which would be fine, but he then shoots other people in the feet. It’s just bad. It’s not just his tweets about the ADL; it goes back for a very long time. He accused a rescue diver of being a pedophile in 2018. There was the Paul Pelosi thing, which was appalling.
In the book, there’s the tale of one of his friends noticing he’s getting into a dark mood and saying, “Let me take your phone.” They were in a hotel, and they put the phone in a hotel-room safe and punched in a code so Musk couldn’t get it. And then Musk calls hotel security at three in the morning to have them open the safe. He’s addicted in a destructive way to the dark, impulsive tweets that are harmful to his legacy, but also harmful to society. I don’t know how much more strongly I can say it.
In a deeper sense, his mother, Maye, says that the danger for Elon is that he becomes his father. The book begins with the darkness of the father, who is filled with conspiracy theories and epic fantasies and can go dark and demonlike. It is reflective at times of an almost epic struggle—to make humans multiplanetary, but still channeling demons that are deeply destructive.
Beres: Let’s go to Starlink, the constellation of satellites that Musk has launched to provide internet to a number of countries. Musk’s attitudes are now affecting the war in Ukraine. He is, reportedly, caught between the Ukrainians, who want his aid, and the Russians, who supposedly have his ear. What is your read on where Elon stands in the context of this conflict, knowing what we know about his darker attitudes?
Isaacson: When Russia invaded Ukraine, they were able to disable the satellite communications of private companies, like Viasat, and military satellites. The only one that could resist Russian attacks was Starlink, and immediately Musk started getting texts from Ukrainian leaders. His savior instincts kick in, and he’s deeply supportive of Ukraine. He sends hundreds of Starlink satellites and pays for free use by Ukraine. Then as the war goes on, there’s one amazing Friday night where he texted me, and I’m at my old high school watching a football game. I go behind the bleachers, and he’s talking about the Ukrainians using Starlink for a sneak submarine drone attack on the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. And he says, “How did I get into this war? I just made Starlink so people could watch movies and play games.” He decides not to allow the Ukranian drone subs to sink the Russian fleet, which he thinks would lead to World War III. He begins to realize, Why am I in this position? That’s too much power.
He then makes a deal to be just a contractor and allow certain of these satellites to be owned and controlled by the U.S. military and intelligence, creating something called Starshield, where these things are used for military purposes, but he’s not the one in charge of them. I think that’s a logical outcome. So, yes, he’s got an extraordinary amount of power by being the only person who has a communications system that can’t be hacked in outer space. But he realizes that and feels his way out of it.
Note: After I spoke with Isaacson on Friday, confusion arose over whether Musk ordered his engineers to disable the Ukrainians’ internet access in Crimea or instead refused to enable it in the first place. An excerpt of Isaacson’s book in The Washington Post said the former, but Isaacson then posted on X to say that the latter situation was in fact true. I asked Isaacson to clarify in the following brief text exchange. Our original conversation continues after the break.
Beres: Are your new statements meant to be taken as a correction of the text in the book? How confident are you that Elon was truthful with you about this in any case?
Isaacson: Based on my conversations with Musk, I mistakenly thought the policy to not allow Starlink to be used for an attack on Crimea had been first decided on the night of the Ukrainian attempted sneak attack. He now says that the policy had been implemented earlier, but the Ukrainians did not know it, and that night he simply reaffirmed the policy.
Beres: I see. So in a sense, both statements are true: Elon did secretly decide to turn off coverage—that is, without telling the Ukrainians—but the notion that it happened in the middle of an attack is not accurate.
Isaacson: Yes. A more technical term would be that he decided to geofence coverage so it was not enabled along the Crimean coast.
Beres: You say that Musk made Starlink so people can watch movies and play games. That’s a little naive, right, this notion that such a powerful technology doesn’t have a greater consequence? Do you think he really believes that?
Isaacson: He launched Starlink as a funding mechanism for SpaceX so he could get rockets to Mars. He says there’s a $1 trillion market for internet and communications, and if he could just get 3 percent of that, he would have a budget larger than NASA’s. So that was a much more practical reason for launching Starlink. Musk is motivated by an odd mix of goals. He actually believes in the epic mission that he set for himself of getting humans to Mars. But he’s also very practical in saying the steps on the way include launching communications satellites so he can fund it.
Beres: With that in mind, what motivated the purchase of Twitter, which he has now rebranded as X? His grand ambition is to get people to Mars. He buys this social-media platform, and here we are. How do we make sense of that decision?
Isaacson: It was astonishing to watch him as this Twitter purchase evolved. He was secretly buying Twitter stock and thinking of going on the board of Twitter. He had money from the sale of stock options, and he said, Well, what product do I like the most? I’m addicted to Twitter, so why don’t I invest in that? His kids, his friends—all in Austin, Texas, over the course of a few days—say, Why are you doing this? This makes no sense. It doesn’t fit into your missions. And by the way, Dad, you know we don’t use Twitter.
Then he goes off to Hawaii to stay at Larry Ellison’s house and meet one of his girlfriends at the time, Natasha Bassett, the actress from Australia. And he just gets into a manic, impulsive mode and stays up all night for two nights and starts sending text messages to Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter [at the time]. Then he goes to Vancouver, where he meets Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, his other girlfriend. They stay up all night playing Elden Ring until 5:30 in the morning. And then he says, I made an offer.
So rule one in understanding Musk is that he’s impulsive. He’s a risk lover and he’s immature at times. And so in a few weeks of dark impulse, he decided to make a bid for Twitter. And then we ride along for a couple of months. Half the day he’s saying, How am I in this mess? How can my lawyers get me out of this mess? And the other half of the day he’s saying, I can fulfill my vision for X.com—the company he started 20 years ago—and make a financial platform connected to a social-media network.
I finally ask, “How does this fit into your big mission? Getting humanity to Mars? Getting us into the era of electric vehicles and making AI safe?” At first he tells me, “I guess it doesn’t fit in. It’s crazy.” And then he says, “Well, maybe by having more free speech on Twitter, we can help save democracy.”
Beres: Do you believe he’s a free-speech absolutist, as he’s described himself?
Isaacson: Oh no. He’s definitely not a free-speech absolutist. It wasn’t just the ADL. The first week he takes over Twitter, he’s yelling about kicking people off who are advocating boycotts of Twitter for allowing extremists to come back on. This is nothing new. He’s able to have some contradictory opinions: Boy, I like free speech, but then if somebody doxes my location by putting up where my jet is, or if somebody advocates a boycott of Twitter, can’t we get them off? And he has to be talked down from that.
Beres: Is Elon Musk a dangerous person? Is that a word you would use?
Isaacson: There are things he does, especially with Twitter, that I think are really problematic. There are things he does that are actually quite helpful, including creating a world that’s moving toward electric vehicles when the other car companies in the early 2000s had given up on that. This is a person with multiple moods and modes and personalities, ranging from engineering mode to demon mode. At times, he can be reckless and even dangerous. And at times, he can do some pretty amazing things.
There are really three great innovators of our time. One is Steve Jobs, who brings us into the digital age of friendly personal computers and smartphones and music. There’s Jennifer Doudna, who brings us into the age of editing our own genes. And to some extent, Musk, who may bring us into an era of electric vehicles and space adventures. In the case of Musk, it’s not as pretty of a sight as it is for the other two.
Beres: Do you think Musk’s darker side is fundamentally rooted in his upbringing and the way his father looms over him? How do you explain it?
Isaacson: The book begins with growing up in a very violent place in South Africa. Being beaten up by bullies, having his head smashed as he’s pushed down the concrete steps of the schoolyard, and then having his father take the side of the bullies. And his father berated him for hours on end. His father had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, and had fantasies that were dark. Those instilled a lot of demons in Musk. Grimes talks about demon mode coming out and how bad it can be, and how it sometimes gets shit done.
Talulah Riley, Musk’s second wife, tells me about holding his head at night when he was vomiting because of stress. He started channeling things his father said to him and using the same phrases. That addiction to drama, that addiction to risk taking, that addiction to making really dark and stupid tweets—it’s all ingrained in who he is, as well as the adventuresome, risk-taking side of his upbringing that helps him accomplish things.
We live in a country that is populated by people who took lots of risks to get here, whether it was on the Mayflower or crossing the Rio Grande. And we got to the moon. Musk feels that we’ve become a nation with more referees than risk takers, more regulators than people willing to push the boundaries. It’s why we don’t have high-speed rail and why we haven’t been able to go back to the moon after 50 years. He approaches that with a certain impulsiveness and a rashness and an immaturity. But he feels it’s a bit of an antidote to the psychological comfort and carefully regulated world that we’re living in.
There’s a right balance somewhere, and I would probably be much more on the cautious side of that balance. But that’s why I end up writing books about people who shoot rockets to Mars. I’m never going to build a damn rocket that’s going to go to Mars. And nor are you.