Elon Musk’s problematic genius and the cult of Silicon Valley

For his faults, Elon Musk is transforming the way we live in the world, says Ashlee Vance. But, the journalist’s new show also champions inventors who are creating far outside of the Bay’s glossy remit, says Georgina Lavers

There is a man in Santiago who can conjure water out of thin air. Hector Pino has made a machine called FreshWater that pulls moisture out of the atmosphere, filters it, and turns it into pure drinking water. He made it because his daughter was unable to process the high mineral content in the local water, and was having kidney problems as a result.

It is these kinds of socially conscious inventors that tech journalist and self-confessed ‘Silicon Valley cynic’ Ashlee Vance is seeking to put on a bigger platform in his show ‘Hello World’, on Bloomberg TV.

Talking to Vance during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he enraptured his audience with tales of a demanding and peculiar Musk, one gets the sense that he is relieved to be removed from what he discreetly calls the ‘personalities’ of Silicon Valley.

“I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 15 years and started out covering the minutiae of life there: semi-conductor architecture and things that people would consider boring,” he says.

“Then I worked my way up to the New York Times to cover Silicon Valley in a much broader sense, the culture.”

As the bubble began to expand and interest in the young upstarts that controlled this chunk of San Francisco began to increase, personalities started to develop. It was these that Vance sought to dismantle.  

“I think everybody who’s there buys into the myth a little bit,” he says.

“The tech press, we were a little too easy on these companies and the personalities. I was sort of known as the curmudgeon for a long time… which got me blacklisted from a fair few companies.”

One gets the sense that he is relieved to be removed from what he discreetly calls the ‘personalities’ of Silicon Valley

Om Malik of the New Yorker recently called the tech hub an “empathy vacuum”, writing of Facebook: “… It is time for the company to think not just about fractional-attention addiction and growth but also to remember that the growth affects real people, for good and bad.”

As the Valley moved away from its material science and physics origins toward attention-grabbing platforms and apps that sought advertising as an end goal, Vance sought refuge down the food chain.

“I always flocked more to the engineers, that made me happy – talking to the people that did the work, instead of the big personalities. There are bits and pieces that I love. I love the inventors and the spirit of the place. But the ‘we’re going to change the world’ hype from companies that don’t strike me as being particularly world-changing? That was a little depressing.”

There was one person, however, that very much lived up to this hype.

Elon Musk had the exotic backstory to match a meteoric rise in the technology world: part of a family who did things like go on year-long hunts for lost cities, he ran away from South Africa at 17 with just $100 in his pocket, dropped out of Stanford after two days, and promptly created a succession of some of the most talked-about companies in the world.

“Elon has always stuck out to me as being a little bit different from the rest of the Silicon Valley CEOs,” he says. “Though he has questionable social niceties – in all the months I spent with him, he never once asked anything about my life – he does have this strange empathy for humankind.”

Founder of electric-car company Tesla Motors, SolarCity (the largest American solar power installation company, which Musk convinced his cousins to set up during a road-trip to Coachella), and SpaceX, it is the 43-year-old’s attention to the bigger picture that Vance most appreciates.

“There has a big swing in the pendulum of what people pay attention to in the Valley,” he says.

“In the beginning, the attention was around microchips and computers – it was industrial, and pushed the limits of physics. But over the course of time, it has skewed towards entertainment. We have these apps now, which are useful, sure, but people just spend their time looking at their Facebook feed, or Twitter, or Netflix. It’s entertainment. If you look at Google or Facebook, two of the biggest companies in the world? Essentially they are advertising companies.”

The ‘we’re going to change the world’ hype from companies that don’t strike me as being particularly world-changing? That was a little depressing

Ashlee Vance

He bemoans that the brightest engineers in the country, coming out of Stanford, Caltech and MIT, are ending up making people click on as many things as they can. And while there are a hundred anecdotes about the various ways Musk demeans and belittles his employees he does, says Vance, hark back to a different era of Silicon Valley.

“California is one of the most expensive places to live but he’s got a rocket factory in Los Angeles, a car factory in Silicon Valley, a battery factory in Nevada, a solar plant in New York,” explains Vance.

“He’s created tens of thousands of jobs and totally gone back to physics in its purest form. And that speaks much closer to my heart.”

Ultimately, concludes Vance, any man who is worth billions of dollars but who will still risk it all to try and build a colony on Mars is someone we can learn from. 

“Whether you’re talking about Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or the engineers they employ, it all comes down to passion. When I think about the story of Space-X, where 25-year-old engineers were building shelters in the day and rockets at night, it is this capability that will continuously amaze me.

“These are people who are so curious about the world, they will stop at nothing to discover. How can we not be inspired?”