Image by John Kazior

A Bullshit Genius | On Walter Isaacson’s Biographical Project

Oscar Schwartz

On a friendly stroll somewhere in Colorado in the summer of 2004, Steve Jobs asked Walter Isaacson if he would consider writing his biography. Isaacson, a journalist, academic, and policymaker who was then CEO of the Aspen Institute, an influential think tank, had just published a six-hundred-odd-page study of Benjamin Franklin, and was at work on another about Albert Einstein. “My initial reaction was to wonder, half jokingly,” Isaacson later reflected, “whether he saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence.”

Isaacson did not take Jobs up on the offer until 2009, when he learned that the Apple boss was dying of pancreatic cancer. When Steve Jobs was published in 2011, just a couple of weeks after its subject passed away, it became clear that during his years of reporting the book, Isaacson had been convinced of what had first struck him only in jest. The front cover, designed with input from Jobs himself, featured a black-and-white photograph of the tech guru gazing knowingly at the camera, his thumb on his chin in contemplation: here is Jobs as world-historic genius, Silicon Valley successor to Franklin and Einstein. The narrative resonated with a public still enthralled by the misfit, college-dropout tech genius. That year was a kind of high-water mark for techno-optimism; the Arab Spring protests were still bringing democracy to the Middle East one tweet at a time; Google, with its ping-pong tables and massage rooms, was still widely considered the best place to work in the world. Isaacson’s portrait of Steve Jobs played to this market, selling around 380,000 copies in its first week.

A decade later, Isaacson was casting around for the next genius to include in his rarefied canon, which had grown to include Leonardo da Vinci, too, and was being sold as a “genius biographies” box set. What was kindred among these men, according to Isaacson, was not necessarily high I.Q. but an original spirit. They thought differently than others did — hit targets, as Schopenhauer put it, that no one else could see. This quality often put them out of step with the prevailing attitudes of their time, but these men did not acquiesce to ideological pressure or subscribe to social mores. The Isaacson genius was an avatar of intellectual freedom, a kind of liberal humanist hero who flourished in the West’s innovative meccas: Renaissance Florence, revolutionary America, prewar Western Europe, Silicon Valley.

As Isaacson surveyed the landscape in search of a new genius, one name kept coming up: Elon Musk. He was, without a doubt, a man with grand vision — electric cars, space travel, telepathy. He was unyielding in this vision, too, sometimes belligerently so. In Isaacson’s telling, he arranged a call in 2021 with the help of some mutual friends, and the two spoke for an hour and a half. (Musk has also taken credit for the idea.) Musk, unsurprisingly, was enthusiastic about the prospect of being written about. Isaacson, in turn, demanded full access to his subject, and the freedom to make up his own mind. “You have no control,” he reportedly told Musk. Over the next two years, the biographer followed the Tesla boss around, spoke to his family, friends, and colleagues, and received Red Bull-fueled text messages from Musk late into the night. During this period, Musk’s already bizarre life devolved into pandemonium. He bought Twitter at a massive loss, intervened in the war in Ukraine, spawned offspring with otherworldly names, and challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match. A Fox News segment compared the two men by height, weight, age, and I.Q.: Zuckerberg, 152; Musk, 155. A battle of the geniuses, and also one of the dumbest spectacles of all time.

Nevertheless, when Musk was published in September of last year, it was clear from the dust jacket alone that the book would situate Elon in the Isaacson lineage, painting him as the true heir to Jobs — a brilliant, if troubled, Silicon Valley genius. The cover features a head shot of Musk staring directly into the camera, fingers on his chin — like Jobs, in a thinking position — and the epigraph consists of two quotes, the first from Musk: “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” Directly below it is one attributed to Jobs: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

This time, the pitch didn’t quite land. Mainstream liberal attitudes toward Silicon Valley culture had cooled since the Jobs era, in large part due to a perceived rightward lurch among its upper echelons during the Trump years. Musk had emerged as the poster boy for this shift; he shared a meme that compared Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler, and frequently posted about the “woke mind virus” and Covid vaccines. Isaacson’s book was panned by many; some critics accused the author of engaging in access journalism. In a combative interview, tech reporter Kara Swisher repeatedly asked Isaacson if he had come to “like” Musk. You can hear her frustration and bewilderment. How could Isaacson, her old friend and fellow liberal stalwart, not see Musk for the “asshole” he is, and, in fact, try to rehabilitate his image and burnish his legacy? Jill Lepore posed a similar question in her New Yorker review. Isaacson, she wrote, is “a gracious, generous, public-spirited man and a principled biographer.” Why did he write this apologia for a “supervillain”?

But within the context of Isaacson’s nine books, Musk is not an anomaly. In method and thesis, it is perfectly in line with a career built on promoting elite interests under the guise of biographical neutrality and insipid humanism. This time, though, his “genius” subject is idiotic enough to throw the bullshit at the heart of the project into stark relief. Musk is not just the natural successor to Isaacson’s genius canon; he may be its necessary conclusion.


Isaacson’s first book was not a biography, but a collection of essays entitled Pro & Con: Both Sides of Dozens of Unsettled and Unsettling Arguments. Published in 1983, when Isaacson was an up-and-coming editor at Time magazine, it lays out opposing positions on controversial topics like gun control, abortion, and smoking. Isaacson acts as a kind of referee, mediating impartially in order to allow his readers to come to their own conclusions. It is a role that Isaacson would later leverage to great effect — as a neutral observer floating above the political fray — but this early attempt went mostly unnoticed. He had more success with his second book, coauthored with Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, which told the story of the coterie of East Coast statesmen who crafted U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. But his breakout achievement came in 1992, with his next project, a biography of Henry Kissinger. The book was an amalgam of his first two works. Isaacson sought to present both sides of the bloody machinations of one of America’s most notorious statesmen — to produce, as he put it, “an unbiased biography that portrayed Kissinger in all of his complexity.” While The New York Times called it a “devastating portrait of Mr. Kissinger,” Christopher Hitchens felt that Isaacson’s fealty to “the tradition of New York-Washington ‘objectivity’” led him to grossly euphemize Kissinger’s war crimes. Isaacson, Hitchens wrote in the London Review of Books, “moves in a world where the worst that is often said of some near-genocidal policy is that it sends the wrong ‘signal.’”

Isaacson’s interest in power, and his commitment to that “New York-Washington objectivity,” made him particularly at home at Time, where he was promoted to managing editor in 1996. Under his leadership, the magazine pivoted away from hard news to entertaining profiles of prominent figures across the political and cultural spectrum. Isaacson had a knack for covering the influential in affable, entertaining prose that gently probed entrenched hierarchies, but did little to upset them. (Kissinger, for instance, still accepted invitations to Isaacson’s Time gala dinners after that supposedly “devastating portrait.”) Isaacson’s magnanimity was less usefully deployed at CNN, where he was made CEO in the summer of 2001. He arrived at a network under attack from an ascendant Fox News, which had been pitched by Rupert Murdoch as an alternative to the hegemony of the liberal media. Isaacson aimed for principled impartiality — or he played both sides, depending on how you look at it. One of his first moves as chairman was to meet with Republican lawmakers to discuss how the network could cover conservative perspectives with balance. The strategy backfired. Liberal viewers thought Isaacson was pandering to the right, while conservatives still preferred Fox, particularly after 9/11, when Roger Ailes expertly appealed to patriotic bloodlust. In 2002, Fox eclipsed CNN in the ratings, and Isaacson left the following year.

His next job, as president of the Aspen Institute, was a far more comfortable fit. The organization was established in Colorado in 1949, by a wealthy industrialist named Walter Paepcke, who enlisted the future curator of the Great Books of the Western World series to put together a continuing education program for business leaders with limited reading habits, composed of the most significant works in the Western canon. Paepcke’s hypothesis was that mountainside discussions of the likes of Sophocles, Adam Smith, and Herman Melville — interspersed with picnics and the occasional afternoon white-water rafting trip — would help the upper crust “gain access” to their “own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.” Over the decades, the Institute grew into a kind of nonpartisan paradise, where participants from various, and sometimes opposed, political backgrounds could think out loud and learn from their differences. Aspen was a neutral zone, an intellectual Switzerland, facilitating the peaceful transmission of ideas among people of goodwill. But if Aspen encouraged collegial disagreement, it wasn’t a place for true dissent. With professed neutrality, the Institute quietly pushed its own agenda — to imbue participants with the feeling that they were rightful heirs to and custodians of the Western intellectual tradition, of which their wealth and power were somehow natural outgrowths.

Isaacson took to this agenda gladly, and his biographical works began to reflect the values and style of the Institute. He published his biography of Benjamin Franklin during his first year as president, presenting the founding father as the type of guy who would have felt right at home in the mountain seminars. Isaacson writes that he could “easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas.” A few years later, Isaacson framed Einstein, too, in the mold of a liberal think-tank fellow of the late 2000s. What made Einstein’s insight into the fabric of the universe possible, Isaacson proposes, was a “nonconformist” spirit, unbounded curiosity, and an appreciation for the arts. (He makes much of the physicist’s prowess on the violin.) Isaacson trumpets not just Einstein’s scientific virtues, but his liberal values, too: “Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society.” As with Kissinger, Isaacson narrates the two men’s lives in impressive detail, and without too much editorializing. When he does intervene, the analysis is banal, platitudinous, and sentimental. Einstein teaches us, for example, to “question every premise, challenge conventional wisdom, and never accept the truth of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious.”

Isaacson also sought to modernize Aspen for the 21st century. If, in Paepcke’s era, the elites were capitalists who wanted to delve into Goethe, by Isaacson’s time they were increasingly tech investors and founders who wanted to pontificate about the future. The tech scene was one that Isaacson was already familiar with and enamored by. In the 1990s, he had briefly left Time to work as the new media editor for Time Warner, where he helped develop, a web portal that aggregated content from across the media company. This early attempt at digital journalism failed, costing the company over a hundred million dollars. Isaacson was sent back to edit the magazine, where he satisfied his entrepreneurial urge by establishing a new section covering science and technology, with a focus on the wunderkinds of Silicon Valley. By the time he arrived at Aspen, Isaacson knew how to appeal to this crowd, and one of his first major initiatives was to establish the Aspen Ideas Festival, a weeklong event where “thought leaders’’ gathered to give TED-like talks to card carriers and members of the public who paid the price of entry. The conference fulfilled the Aspen remit to a tee, but with a modern twist, providing the ruling class with an opportunity to broaden their horizons not by reading ancient tracts, but by listening to snappy presentations from the likes of Colin Powell, Jane Goodall, and Jeff Bezos.

Under Isaacson’s leadership, the new Aspen ideal was to be as interested in Goethe as in quantum computing. Amusingly, Isaacson also retrospectively imposed his admiration for tech innovators onto his historical subjects. Franklin is not just a “successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity,” but a man who “would have felt right at home in the information revolution.” And although Einstein was not, like Franklin, much of an inventor — he was more prone to theorizing in the abstract than to patenting — “his fingerprints,” Isaacson emphasizes, “are all over today’s technologies. Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even semiconductors all trace back to his theories.” There was, clearly, a taste for this kind of thing in the 2000s, when the phrase “techno-enthusiast” could still be uttered with a straight face. Both biographies were best sellers.


With Franklin and Einstein, Isaacson was simply rearticulating the achievements of canonical geniuses in the vernacular of his time. Jobs represented a different challenge: because he was still alive, a case had to be made for his inclusion in Isaacson’s coterie of polymaths. Following some two years of reporting, Isaacson wrote a fluent narrative about Jobs that, at least superficially, depicted a man with two sides. Sometimes he is a brilliant, intense, eccentric creative with an uncompromising aesthetic vision. Jobs drops acid and travels to India. He takes a course in calligraphy and later uses what he learned there to help develop the Mac’s font range. He sees a Cuisinart food processor at Macy’s and has the idea to encase his computers in molded plastic. Other times, Isaacson shows Jobs as volatile and cruel. He gets his girlfriend pregnant, then denies it. He betrays old friends (including his Apple cofounder, the true engineering genius Steve Wozniak). He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates. He cries like a small child when he does not get his way. But whenever Jobs behaves badly or demands too much of his staff, or loses himself in perfectionistic pursuit of some detail, Isaacson demonstrates how the unwieldy parts of Jobs’s temperament allowed him to create world-changing products. The cruel and authoritarian impulses were established, in other words, as necessary components of his creativity. “His personality and passions and products were all interrelated,” Isaacson writes, “just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system.”

It is a classic stereotype: the flawed genius, wherein the flaw is the essence of the genius. It is also a pose that Jobs had previously adopted to market Apple products. In 1997, Apple launched the “Think Different” ad campaign, which featured black-and-white footage of iconic twentieth-century geniuses — Einstein, Picasso, Edison, Martin Luther King, Jr. — as well as a spoken-word poem that, according to Isaacson, Jobs helped draft. Isaacson buys right into the conceit. Instead of offering critical reflection on what type of person invokes Martin Luther King, Jr. to advertise computers, he recapitulates the ad campaign wholesale, concluding the biography with a quote directly from the spoken-word copy (the same one that would later appear in the epigraph of Musk): “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

“Think different” encapsulated Isaacson’s idea of genius in two words, and became one of his mantras. After the biography was published, the chairman of the firm that created the ad accused Isaacson of “revisionist history.” It is true that Jobs had been involved in overseeing the ad, but he had not been the mastermind, as Isaacson portrayed him. In fact, Jobs had initially described the copy for the ad as “shit.” This corrective notwithstanding, Isaacson would continue to attribute the slogan to Jobs alone, and also apply it to his own subjects, even retrospectively. “Einstein had the elusive qualities of genius, which included that intuition and imagination that allowed him to think differently (or, as Mr. Jobs’s ads said, to Think Different),” Isaacson wrote in a 2011 New York Times editorial. “Like Mr. Jobs, Franklin enjoyed the concept of applied creativity — taking clever ideas and smart designs and applying them to useful devices.” What’s remarkable here is that Isaacson compares Einstein and Franklin to Jobs, instead of the other way around: with Isaacson’s spin, Jobs becomes their apotheosis, and Silicon Valley begins to look something like the genius promised land.

Of course, Isaacson’s Jobs biography did not inaugurate the Silicon Valley myth. It was evangelized throughout the 1990s, when tech founders were framed as geek heroes who were engineering machines that would one day turn libertarian principles into social facts. What Isaacson did in Jobs was repackage the folklore for a mainstream audience and focus it on one person. The pitch worked — and the book’s success transformed Isaacson into a star biographer. In 2012, he was named to Time’s list of influential people for writing a “trio of brilliant works about men of genius.” Isaacson later referred to himself as a Boswell for Silicon Valley, a shadow-like scribe who exists to record how the ingenious live for posterity. A more apt analogy, though, might be Giorgio Vasari, a prominent architect and mediocre artist who lived some five hundred years ago in Florence. In 1550, Vasari published Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors, a group biography of Italian artists. A seminal work, it originated the concept of the “Renaissance” and its association with Florence, where Vasari’s benefactors, the Medicis, ruled. It also featured the first full account of the life of Leonardo da Vinci. “So great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease,” Vasari writes. Indeed, it was Vasari who established the endlessly repeated trope that it was ingenious Renaissance Men like da Vinci who led Florence, and then all of Europe, out of the darkness and into the light. The book made Vasari’s reputation, too, forever linking his name with this period in history. With the Jobs biography, Isaacson’s project began to bear a distinct resemblance to Vasari’s; Palo Alto became a kind of American Florence, the home base of the 21st-century Renaissance, leading the world towards a brighter, enlightened future. Isaacson was the court biographer.

In his next book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014), Isaacson traces the lineage of Silicon Valley, a place where “authority should be questioned, hierarchies should be circumvented, nonconformity should be admired, and creativity should be nurtured.” The first forebear of the digital revolution, according to Isaacson, was Ada Lovelace, the mathematician daughter of Lord Byron who developed a theory for programming a prototype computer called the Analytical Engine. Isaacson uses her poetic pedigree and unconventional approach to mathematics to make the argument that, like the Renaissance, the digital age was a product of irreverent creatives who embraced the marriage between the arts and humanities. “I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences,” Isaacson writes. Each subsequent figure is cast in this mold. Claude Shannon is “the eccentric information theorist, who would sometimes ride a unicycle up and down the long red terrazzo corridors while juggling three balls and nodding at colleagues.” Alan Kay builds graphical user interfaces and plays in a jazz band. Sergey Brin and Larry Page attend Montessori schools.

This angle may have sold in 2011, but by 2014 perceptions about tech culture were just beginning to shift. The book’s publication coincided with the beginning of the so-called “tech-lash,” heralded by The Economist the year before as a “revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace.” Pundits were panicking about device addiction and misinformation; the internet, where knowledge was supposed to be free, was beginning to reveal itself as a giant surveillance engine that accumulated wealth and power for the few, while fragmenting society into increasingly antagonistic and paranoid groups. The tech industry was dominated by megacorporations — Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google — that tried to ameliorate concerns about their consolidation of wealth and power with noble slogans like “Don’t Be Evil.’’ Critiques emerged from Silicon Valley stalwarts, like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, who lamented how the hyper-successful tech lords had lost touch with their formerly radical, free-spirited values. Tristan Harris, a tech entrepreneur who began to freak out about the fiendishly addictive affordances of social media, established a Center for Humane Technology. Others, like Peter Thiel, thought the problem was that the bloated tech giants had become enfeebled by establishment politics and liberals more concerned with effecting social change than fortifying American power with new technology. Donald Trump’s populist, antiestablishment posturing only emboldened Thiel’s reactionary grievances. Meanwhile, disinformation-obsessed liberals blamed social media and iPhones for rending the fabric of our shared reality — and for bringing about Trump’s election.

If the tech-lash caused Isaacson’s faith in the Silicon Valley model of genius to wobble, he didn’t show it. In 2017, he published a biography of Leonardo da Vinci in which he described the original Renaissance man as innovative — an outsider, the noble bridge between science and art. This was almost indistinguishable from how he wrote about his coterie of hackers, geniuses, and geeks. He went so far as to invoke Jobs’s advertising slogan “Think Different,” this time to capture the spirit of the man who painted the Mona Lisa. “The fifteenth century of Leonardo,” he writes, “was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own.” He continues with a lesson: “Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it — to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”

After the da Vinci biography, Isaacson left the Aspen Institute, became a history professor at Tulane University, took a consulting role focusing on “technology and the new economy” at a global financial services firm, and launched a podcast in partnership with Dell called “Trailblazers,’’ which looked at “digital disruption and innovators using tech to enable human progress.” He also continued working in policy, something he had intermittently done for decades. (Isaacson advised the Bush administration on U.S.-Palestine relations, for example, and under Obama, he was appointed to the Defense Innovation Board.) His next biography, The Code Breaker (2021), was about Jennifer Doudna, one of two winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on CRISPR gene-editing technology. Although it reprised some themes from his previous works — maverick scientist, innovation, code — it was a departure, too. This was Isaacson’s first full-length work about a woman, and it contained extensive deliberation about the ethics of biomedical technologies. It was also timely. In it, Isaacson reports on how Doudna and her collaborators assisted in the development of the mRNA Covid vaccine. The savior in that moment was not some tech maven, but an international conglomerate of scientists who collaborated extensively with global public health institutions. Was Isaacson taking a step away from the hyper-individualistic Silicon Valley and towards a broader, more complex conception of scientific innovation?


Not quite. A few months after the Doudna book came out, Isaacson spoke to Elon Musk on the phone. Musk was, at the time, on the cusp of becoming the richest man in the world, a position consolidated during the pandemic. For some, this made Musk a hero: a brazen, freethinking visionary, leading humanity into a brighter future. For others, Musk became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Silicon Valley: he was the mad king of a high-tech feudal state. In any case, he was the object of our collective fascination, a walking headline. Isaacson embraced the opportunity to get close to this powerful and polarizing figure, and he produced a biography of astounding access and significant detail. If you’re curious about what Musk’s life looks like day to day, Isaacson paints a vivid picture of the chaos — all laid out in highly consumable prose. As usual, Isaacson promises to be objective — to show all sides of the man while withholding judgment. This may have worked with Einstein, da Vinci, and even Jobs. But Elon Musk was like cable news come to life; he may have once appealed to CNN viewers, but was now looking more and more like a Fox guy. And Isaacson did not learn his lesson from his time at CNN. In his effort to appeal to Musk’s lovers and haters, he ended up making himself look like an apologist.

To begin, Isaacson delves into Musk’s upbringing in apartheid South Africa. Two formative experiences are recounted. The first is veldskool, a sadistic militant survival camp for boys, where Musk learned “that if someone bullied me, I could punch them very hard in the nose, and then they wouldn’t bully me again.” The other comes courtesy of Errol Musk, the psychologically abusive father who berates Elon after he is awfully beaten by another boy at his school. Evidently, Musk internalized the savagery of his early years; Isaacson could have offered a psychoanalytic reading of how this prepared him for the cutthroat, domineering, hyper-capitalist world of Silicon Valley. But Isaacson would rather view his high-tech Florence as a creative utopia. Accordingly, he frames Musk’s trauma in cartoonish, Marvel-like terms: Musk is beset by demons, but like Jobs, he ultimately channels them to “nurture the flame of human consciousness, fathom the universe, and save our planet.” In one scene, Musk challenges the CTO of PayPal, Max Levchin, to an arm wrestle to resolve a disagreement about operating systems. Musk wins and enlists a team of engineers to rewrite the existing code. The effort takes an entire year and achieves nothing other than distracting engineers from a dire fraud problem on the service. But Isaacson ties this up in a mini-redemption arc: Levchin is seen marveling at Musk’s technical expertise. As in Jobs, Isaacson employs his troubled-genius bait and switch, recounting an unhinged Musk anecdote and then justifying it with a moment of brilliance.

The trouble is, there is very little in Musk’s early life that offers any evidence of genius, creative talent, or even above-average intelligence. He is an emotionally detached child who sits in class staring into space. He likes computer games and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He gets As and Bs. The only evidence of superlative capability that Isaacson can conjure is that Musk read his dad’s encyclopedias and made small rockets with chlorine and brake fluid. What does stand out among this otherwise entirely unremarkable youth are stories in which Musk succeeds through dumb luck and aggression. In one, Musk competes in a Dungeons and Dragons tournament with his brother and cousins. The game master tells them that their mission is to identify the bad guy among the opposing players. On the first move, and without any evidence, Musk correctly guesses that the game master himself is the bad guy. The others accuse Musk of cheating. How did he know? “These guys were idiots,” Musk explains to Isaacson. “It was so obvious.” Any reader can see that this story is just Musk being a cocky teenage boy. Isaacson, however, takes it as proof that Musk could “think different.” Musk’s big break comes when he sells his first company, Zip2, at the height of the dot-com boom for $307 million. Zip2 is a searchable business directory that uses map software to give users directions. It’s not exactly the Mona Lisa, but, as Isaacson insists, “some of the best innovations come from combining two previous innovations.” Musk parlays the capital from that sale into an online-payments business that, fortunately, merges with PayPal. What does he contribute? An idea that new users could sign up with their email addresses instead of their Social Security numbers. Isaacson: “Like Steve Jobs, he had a passion for simplicity when it came to designing user interface screens.”

If there is anything remarkable that emerges about Musk in the biography, it is his grandiose, cosmic sense of mission — his obsession with making humanity multi-planetary, for example — and his absurd appetite for risk. The combination could be inspiring for those Musk worked with — and it certainly makes for good marketing. Like Jobs, Musk’s great talent is in self-mythologizing. He builds his cult of personality not around the guru-creative ideal, as Jobs did, but as a crazed, workaholic, alpha-male superhero: a manic Iron Man sending a Tesla Roadster into space. Isaacson credulously regurgitates Musk’s lore, just as he did in Jobs, recounting an anecdote in which Musk plays a game of Texas Hold ’Em and goes all in on every single hand — losing, doubling up — until he eventually wins. “It would be a theme in his life,” Isaacson writes. “Avoid taking chips off the table; keep risking them.”

To redeem Musk as a Jobs-like genius, Isaacson leans heavily on the “crazy” element of the “think different” campaign. It is the “crazy ones,” the ones who go all in at poker, who change the world. The problem is, as the biography progresses, the craziness intensifies even as it bears little connection to the genuine achievements of Musk’s companies, which are adeptly run by very talented employees who do their best to keep Musk out of the way. Isaacson tries to craft a coherent narrative out of such life events as: Musk accusing a British caver who helped save trapped Thai soccer players of being a “pedo guy”; smoking a fat blunt on Joe Rogan’s podcast while talking about our coming A.I. overlords; naming his son with the musician Grimes X Æ A-Xii. Isaacson attempts humor at times, affecting the befuddled tone of a naive grandfather regaling internet drama. When Musk takes over Twitter, Isaacson frames the chaos as a kind of clownish farce.

The contrived goofiness distracts from the troubling reality that, as Musk grew more deranged, his power increased. By 2021, when Isaacson began reporting the book, Musk was running two of the world’s most important companies: Tesla and SpaceX (including its subsidiary Starlink). Isaacson got to see in real time how Musk wielded his influence. One evening, in September 2022, Musk messaged Isaacson to tell him that Ukraine was planning a surprise attack on a Russian naval fleet in Crimea with Starlink-connected submarine drones. Musk told Isaacson he believed there was a “non-trivial possibility” that such an attack could trigger nuclear war, so, as Isaacson tells it, “he reaffirmed a secret policy that he had implemented, which the Ukrainians did not know about, to disable coverage within a hundred kilometers of the Crimean coast.” But Isaacson got the facts wrong. There was no Starlink coverage enabled all the way to Crimea to begin with. The Ukrainians asked Musk to switch it on for their drone attack, but he declined. Much was made of this error after Musk was published, but more concerning than Isaacson’s errant reporting was his indifference to the fact that, whether Musk made the order directly or simply affirmed the preexisting geographical limit, the final decision was still ultimately his alone, giving Musk almost state-like authority. Isaacson fails to call this for what it is: a completely undemocratic consolidation of power. Instead, Isaacson tempers the whole terrifying ordeal by assuring us that Musk never sought such power. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars,” Musk told Isaacson during a late night phone call. “It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.” Once again, Isaacson’s performance of neutrality precludes him from a clear-eyed assessment of his subject. If Kissinger was a serial killer dressed up as a peacemaker, Musk is a mad, petulant oligarch dressed up as a genius.

Isaacson is fond of concluding his books with pithy parting phrases that capture, and also reduce, his subjects. Einstein, we’re told, is the “locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.” Da Vinci is “the epitome of the universal mind.” Jobs is one of the “crazy ones” who “push the human race forward.” He makes no such attempt to summarize Musk. This biography ends at a Starship Launch on 4/20, Musk’s favorite day, because of its associations with weed. He is hyped up on Red Bull with Grimes and three of his eleven kids by his side. He whistles “Ode to Joy” and then gives the command for his rocket to self-destruct after it fails to get into orbit. It is a scene of almost fantastical madness, but Isaacson can’t tell what it all means. In part, this is because Musk just doesn’t fit within the rubric of Isaacson’s new Renaissance Man. It’s also because, as Isaacson was writing the draft, and also after the book was published, Musk continued to unravel publicly, doing dumb things and posting about it for us all to see. In fact, the sense I got, on finishing the book, was that if Musk’s life signifies anything it is how the Vitruvian sense of ourselves as heroic creatures about whom coherent biographies may be written disintegrates online. Life on the platforms unfolds in a fractious and disorienting present tense, never cohering into a meaningful narrative. It is all crisis and reaction, grist for the content mill.


There must be a valuable lesson in the material of Musk’s life — a metaphor for the false promise of Silicon Valley, maybe, which was always the veldskool painted as utopia. But Isaacson has made himself a main character in this tragedy (or is it by now a farce?). Like Vasari to the house of Medici, Isaacson has tied his name to the house of Palo Alto. He is unable to unveil its darker truths without implicating himself.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, Isaacson is summoned to meet Musk in Austin, where the purported genius waxes lyrical about how human intelligence is leveling off while digital intelligence increases exponentially. The A.I. overlords are coming. Musk feels it is his duty to intervene, to develop A.I. according to the principles of rationality and truth, so that our civilization may endure — which is why, Musk tells Isaacson, he is starting an A.I. company. This is right out of the Silicon Valley marketing playbook: by framing the algorithms in folkloric terms of good and evil, tech companies distract from the ways in which they are leveraging mass-surveillance apparatuses, accumulating our data and selling it back to us in the form of supposedly super-advanced A.I. that sometimes gets basic math wrong. Isaacson, as always, repeats the tale dutifully, with little critical intervention.

All this suggests that Isaacson’s next project might just be a ham-fisted biography of A.I. itself — the genius machines created in our image. After all, Isaacson is perfectly placed to whitewash power with the language of humanism. It’s been his project all along. Though Isaacson’s biographies have become so predictable, his style so platitudinous, that we could probably just do it for him, with a bit of help. Computer: write a genius biography of A.I. in the style of Walter Isaacson.

Oscar Schwartz is a writer and journalist. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.