In 2021, I wrote a book, a fact which, judging by sales, remains a well-kept secret. It’s called “Who Made the West: A Ranking of the 30 Most Influential Figures in Western History.” You should buy it.
When I’m asked about the book, questions usually come in one of several forms:
- How are sales?/How many books have you sold?
- How did you get the idea?/Why 30 people?/Why just the West?
- Is anyone alive on the list?/What living person could make a later edition?
My answer to the first question is “I don’t care about the damned sales!” and my answer to the second question is “Read the damned foreword!” I can’t imagine why I don’t sell more books.
The third question, however, is an interesting one. As a result of rules made totally by myself, no one living was eligible for the Top 30. That said, there are a dozen or so living people that I can project would be considered for such a future list were I, despite the popular will, to write a sequel decades from now. Names to monitor include tech giants Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (who passed away after I settled on the list) and Mark Zuckerberg; politicians Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump; and scientists Jennifer Doudna, Geoffrey Hinton, and Katalin Karikó.
When considering these names, however, we have to be cognizant of recency bias. If we jump, say, a hundred years into the future, not only do we not know if the people of 2122 will care about Bezos and Trump that much more than we care about Andrew Carnegie and Calvin Coolidge — two important figures, of course, but not really “Top 30” worthy — but we also don’t know what big names will have filled the hundred years in between. Some of the most influential names of 2122 haven’t been born yet. Further, there may be some unknown names of today that take the path of Gutenberg and Shakespeare, their influence felt well after their deaths.
And yet, despite our clouded vantage point, I do feel strongly that one particular living person will, a century from now, be ranked among history’s most influential people. This person will not only be Top 30 worthy in a century’s time, but Top 10. Maybe even Top 5.
That name is Elon Musk, the most influential living figure of the world’s future.
I know it’s a controversial choice. His personal record, particularly when it comes to employer-employee dynamics, is dubious. His record is rife with accusations of managerial impropriety, including fostering a culture of racism and sexism and sanctioning sweatshops. Observations of his leadership have noted an erratic, raging, bullying, sociopathic, narcistic, and “vainglorious villain.” His Twitter account has done nothing to dispel these notions, as the platform regularly hosts his brash, insensitive commentary. Meanwhile, his breakthroughs and accelerations of technologies are almost always a result of the work of his subordinates while it’s Musk who most profits and raises his profile.
His political views haven’t made him any friends either. Noting the candidate’s lack of character, Musk did not support Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. After Trump’s victory, the new President tabbed an agreeable Musk to be on his touted business advisory council, but Musk later resigned from the council after the President withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, tweeting “climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.” He also endorsed Andrew Yang’s far-left universal basic income policy as “obviously needed.” As a result, the right is skeptical of his politics.
And yet, he’s more recently made enemies on the left as well. His flip comments on trangenderism and pronoun-use were criticized by the Human Rights Campaign. He’s attacked Covid-19 overreactions and government overreach. Culturally, he leans into American exceptionalism, describing the US as the world’s “greatest country” and history’s “greatest force for good.” In economic matters, he prefers consumption taxes to income taxes, the former of which is disproportionately burdensome to poorer citizens. It’s speculated that his recent relocation of Tesla’s headquarters from California to Texas is a financial decision that will save him $2.5 billion in capital gains taxes alone; it’s a strong talking-point for conservatives, and Musk has indeed been critical of California’s reluctance to compete with other states on taxes and regulation. Most recently, he’s embroiled himself in a rivalry with the liberal Elizabeth Warren over tax policy, government intervention, and her hypocrisy.
A man without a party, neither side can fully claim him as an ally, particularly with the aforementioned attacks on his personality and managerial record. Yet, although some of Musk’s personal qualities leave a lot to be desired, my book, like today’s analysis, only measures historical figures’ influence. Many of my ranked figures had negative attributes, and the impacts of some of them could be seen, even on balance, as negative. But that’s still influence. So while I don’t mean to handwave the allegations against Musk — I heavily linked to articles so you can follow up at your leisure — I do want to only focus on Musk’s projected influence moving forward.
To that end, let’s first consider his biography. Born in 1971 Pretoria, South Africa, his early life had both comfort and challenges. Although his family had money, Musk, afflicted with Asperger’s, was bullied (most prominently thrown down stairs by classmates) and grew estranged from his criminal father. After high school he immigrated to Canada and then the U.S., getting educated along the way, including earning Bachelors degrees in economics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania. After starting a materials science PhD at Stanford in 1995, he dropped out to go boom with the internet.
And boom he did. While unable to afford his own place in Palo Alto, he began his first startup, Zip2, which was sold after just four years for $305 million, with Musk cashing out at $27 million. Later in 1999, he started X.com, which he later evolved into PayPal, which EBay then bought for $1.5 billion in 2002. Musk cleared over $100 million from the sale.
It’s with that wealth that Musk began branching off into many stagnant sectors. In the two decades since he sold PayPal, Musk has forced progress in space travel (see SpaceX), electric vehicles (see Tesla), and solar power (see SolarCity, which merged into Tesla). Concurrently, he’s ramped up work on artificial intelligence (see OpenAI), neurotechnology (see Neuralink), and tunnel construction (see The Boring Company, which, incidentally, is also my nickname at parties).
That’s a lot of branches. And a lot of companies. Yet, they all seem to have something in common, something that will allow future generations to smooth the edges of Musk’s reputation. Those sectors of technology share a unifying theme, one quite simple in its vision:
Save the human race.
In a century’s time, if Earth has survived any number of potential catastrophes — including, but not limited to, climate change, a nuclear holocaust, conventional warfare over dwindling resources like oil, astronomical catastrophes from the sun or meteors, or machines’ revolution against their makers — it’ll be due to the heroics of many individuals, but perhaps none as paramount as Elon Musk.
Let’s start with his Boring Company — “boring,” here, is a homonym and double-entendre, with the company’s true purpose being to bore into the ground — aims to fix traffic problems in cities and simplify travel between them, all in an energy efficient way. In these bored holes they’d build vactrains, or vacuum tube trains, which could travel through partially evacuated air up to several times the speed of sound at highly efficient cost and energy consumption. A transition to this technology would cut down on the need for cars and planes, which would both lower energy consumption (needed to operate cars and planes) and pollution (emitted by cars and planes).
Musk’s work with solar power supplements these efforts. Musk claims we can get the U.S. to 100% solar — all we lack is the will to invest. For his part, he helped fund SolarCity’s beginnings in 2006 under the leadership of his cousins before Musk’s Tesla, Inc. acquired it a decade later. SolarCity works to make solar panels affordable by offering them to customers at no upfront costs, creating a lease agreement between the company and the customer, where SolarCity maintains ownership of the panels and the power they generate but the customer gets to buy some of the produced green energy at an affordable, fixed rate. In the meantime, initiatives like the Tesla Powerwall (which allows homeowners to easily store and manage their own solar power), Tesla PowerPack (which could similarly sustain larger businesses), and the Tesla PowerPack (which could power utility grids) also work to get humanity off nonrenewable energy sources like oil and gas.
So, too, do the increasingly common Tesla electric vehicles at which we ogle on the roads and in parking lots. The company is not only selling high-quality electric vehicles, it’s doing so at an increasingly rapid rate:
In March of 2020 it became the first car company to sell its millionth electric vehicle. It took only until the third quarter of 2021 to sell its two millionth, and soon it’ll be selling over a million annually.
Meanwhile, OpenAI is worried less about the sustainability of resources and more worried about the sustainability of humanity once artificial intelligence reaches escape velocity. Musk has called AI our “biggest existential threat,” which is saying something when he’s clearly also working to reduce the impacts of climate change and resource depletion while also trying to get some boots and habitats on another planet before it’s too late to save this one. Musk isn’t alone in this fear; there’s a history of prominent and anxious thinkers fretting about the problem. Fortunately, Musk isn’t only a thinker. He’s also a doer.
Perhaps our greatest asset in a future showdown with AI is neurotechnology, as furthered by Musk’s Neuralink. Neuralink studies brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs, which can use computers to hack the human body, providing any number of advantages, from healing disease, to storing and replaying memories, to “uploading” abilities into our brains (as in we’d be able to download the ability to speak a language or play an instrument, for instance). It’s far off, as critics often remind us, but Neuralink is making progress. It has already installed BMIs into pigs (and successfully removed a BMI without harm), and a BMI installation into a monkey’s brain allowed the animal to play a video game with just its mind. The potential of the human mind being enhanced by computers and software-upgrades would be a paradigm shifting moment of human history, one that may be inevitable but also hastened by Musk’s work.
And then there’s SpaceX and its goal to get us a Mars colony. No initiative is more clearly an insurance policy for humanity’s survival. Until we’re interplanetary, all our eggs are in one earthly basket. Whether it’s death from above or death from ourselves, Earth’s days are numbered; it might be tomorrow or it might be hundreds of millions of years from now, but it’s going to happen. Setting up a self-sustaining community on another planet is the logical hedge against this fragile situation. Although the moon may be closer, its proximity to Earth may tie it to Earth’s fate, and more importantly it’s much less hospitable than is Mars.
If Musk guides any one of the above fields to their fruition, he’d be an extremely influential person worthy of consideration for a future Top 30, like the other names I listed at the top of today’s post. But if he impacts most or all of these fields?
Not too long after he dies, we’re going to have statues of him.
When Time magazine named Musk its “Person of the Year,” editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said that “In 2021, Musk emerged not just as the world’s richest person but also as perhaps the richest example of a massive shift in our society.”
The influence of Musk is not merely a matter of projection. He’s already had substantial impacts. Despite having become the world’s wealthiest individual — he may indeed make another billion dollars in the time it takes you to read today’s post — Musk has dropped barriers to competitors sharing in that wealth. Back in 2014, Musk and Tesla famously announced that “in the spirit of the open source movement,” Tesla’s patents would be released, and Tesla “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” (The “good faith” part basically meant that anyone who used the technology could not in turn patent it for themselves.)
Musk actually lamented how much better Tesla was doing than all other car manufacturers when it came to elective vehicles. EV productions at the major manufacturers were small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales. “At best,” Musk complained in Tesla’s announcement, “the large automakers are producing electric cars with limited range in limited volume. Some produce no zero emission cars at all.” A worried Musk fretted that the green revolution was simply not coming as quickly as necessary. “It is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. . . . We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”
Since Tesla had such a head start on electric vehicles, it would have been profitable for Tesla to strangle the market share and fight off all EV competitors. Instead, Musk promoted competition between Tesla and other car manufacturers. He knows competition leads to innovation, and innovation leads to progress in a field in which Musk desperately wanted it.
So far, it’s working. Electric vehicles were once punchlines, weak novelties that could never compete with the power and range of the carbon-spewing combustion engine. Tesla proved they could work — not just technically, but in the market as well — and car manufacturers finally worked to catch up. Cadillac President Steve Carlisle admits that Tesla has “done a lot to popularize electric vehicles and to get into the minds of consumers.” IHS Markit analyst Michael Robinet concludes that “Tesla has shown the industry that markets do exist for electric vehicles, and the major players have taken notice.”
And remember how Tesla’s sales are growing at an increasingly rapid rate? It’s doing so while its market share is falling. Other car manufacturers are closing the gap, albeit slowly. Although EVs only accounted for 2.4% of vehicle sales from January through June of last year, that marked 117% growth from a year earlier. As Time noted, the electric vehicle market is one Musk “almost single-handedly created.” He’s doing it.
Equally remarkable is the way Musk has reinvigorated almost totally dormant space travel. Like Henry Ford (the 20th most influential figure in Western history!), Musk sees efficiency as the way to success, and the way NASA operated, like other government programs, was not terribly efficient. Musk deduces that our best chance to have a robust space-faring society that could return to the moon and colonize Mars would be if costs come way down.
The most obvious way to do that is to make expensive rockets reusable. For that purpose, SpaceX pioneered the Falcon 9 rocket, which can launch a payload, return to Earth, land safely, and then be relaunched again. Halfway through last decade, SpaceX started hitting reusability milestones never dreamed of by NASA and other space agencies. SpaceX now sends things into space at about a third of the cost — as measured by pounds per dollar — as NASA does and even cheaper than China.
SpaceX’s success has led the company to be hired by commercial and government customers for scores of launches with myriad payloads for orbiting satellites, and they keep getting better at it. In January of last year, the Falcon 9 rocket, on a single mission, put 143 satellites into orbit for itself and customers. In May 2020, SpaceX delivered two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, the first American spaceflight since the last space shuttle mission nearly a decade earlier.
The rapid mastery of orbital spaceflight, of course, is just the beginning. SpaceX is currently developing the SpaceX Starship, which will take people to the moon and Mars. We’ve long been hearing the government plans to do that, but it’s always accompanied by wide and mobile goal posts — predictions like “hopefully by 2030” or “perhaps in the next ten years.” With Musk on the case, the timeline is considerably abbreviated. By the end of 2023 — next year — the SpaceX Starship plans to make possible billionaire Yusaku Maezawa‘s “dearMoon” project, which will send a handful of artists around the moon in an effort to record and report what the Apollo astronauts were unqualified to do.
We can expect progress into space will continue as well. The Space Race of the 1960s was a race to the moon. With the race over, so was the pushing of limits. Now a race to Mars, Musk won’t stop at the moon. He’s going to keep going. All of the SpaceX Spaceship designs have an eye on Mars, with the moon just a nearby testing ground.
Like Tesla, SpaceX both promotes and is motivated by a competition with others. Many others have poured money into space travel, most notably Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin (prompting a dystopic space rivalry between the two wealthiest people in the world) and aviation titans Boeing and Northrop Grumman. NASA and SpaceX are technical rivals when it comes to a new space race, but so far it’s been a healthy competition with a side of cooperation in the face of the brewing U.S.-China rivalry. Meanwhile, Russia, ever protective of its sphere of influence, has just demonstrated it can shoot down satellites, which, even if it never targets a competitor, can create debris that threatens satellites and crew-carrying vehicles like the ISS and anything Musk or Bezos put up there.
A U.S.-China Mars race, billionaire rivalries, Russia shooting stuff down… it’s all rather stressful. However, barring a robust United Nations effort — never something on which we can rely — we should have expected a new space race would not be easy or geopolitically smooth. It was inevitable.
Still, although technically a competition, it honestly appears no one is playing the game better than Musk. He’s going to put us on Mars, and in the meantime the competition will yield all sorts of breakthroughs and efficiencies that we can’t even anticipate, just as space travel has already done. That’s what open competitions do, just like with electric vehicles, and just like with solar power, where SolarCity’s lease model became the most common approach by solar panel competitors, giving us more solar-powered homes than ever before.
Musk has acted as an accelerant on all these major fields. Has he gone about it perfectly? Of course not. Is he a great role model? In some ways yes, in others no. But there is precedent for his erraticism and approach to management. In my Top 30 book, I noted how Henry Ford (#20) “had a failed Senate bid, an increasingly messy relationship with workers who wished to unionize . . . a failed airline, and accusations of anti-Semitism.” Louis Pasteur (#8) “rarely gave credit to scientists that had laid the groundwork for his breakthroughs. It was also later discovered that he sometimes faked results or experiments in order to secure further support for his work. His personality also left a lot to be desired. Just as his body of scientific achievement was without rival, so was his arrogance and inflexibility. . . . He was cantankerous toward his contemporaries.” Pasteur was one of the most intolerable men from whom a student could learn and for whom a subordinate could work.
Perhaps the best Musk comparison is Thomas Edison (#18). “Throughout his impressive career,” I wrote, “Edison was not without off-putting quirks and flaws.” He was “an ornery conversationalist . . . disheveled . . . a boaster and swearer.” Worse, his “loyal army of inventors received little acclaim. Despite so much help from his lab mates, it was still Edison who received almost all of the credit and money.”
I don’t mean to suggest geniuses are inherently troubled, nor do I think we should ignore legitimate accusations against such geniuses, Musk included. All I’m saying is that each of these men, and others in the Top 30, had their fair share of off-putting personalities and leadership traits — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t change the world. Despite his failings, Ford saturated the U.S. with cars, which transformed how we, and soon the rest of the world, lived. Despite his boorishness, Pasteur, with his work on germy theory, vaccination, and pasteurization, saved millions of lives. And despite Edison’s imperfections, his lab invented a thousand things, not least of which was a practical lightbulb and workable electric grid, and he even modeled how we pursue inventions themselves.
And now, love him or hate him, the problematic but brilliant Musk is working on an existential problem: saving the world. He’s on the right track. For all his contributions to the future of this planet, Elon Musk is the most influential living figure of the future.
That sentence links to one of the more fascinating — and terrifying — Wikipedia pages I’ve ever read: “Existential risk from artificial general intelligence.” It lists a bunch of potential problems with overly intelligent AI, problems that are too complicated to get into in this post (although the most worrisome may simply be our current inability to know when we’re approaching or even passing a point of no return on AI). I encourage you to dive into it on your own. My favorite (read: most horrifying) part was that although we’re better and better at creating machines that know more and more, we’re lagging in teaching the kind of empathy that could temper machines from acting on that information in possibly murderous ways. We could one day create a machine with the ostensibly harmless prime directive of being the best chess player in the world, and we connect it to the internet to study all the games in chess history to achieve its directive, and it determines that despite this information it cannot beat world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, so it uses its internet access to start learning about money-making with its wealth of information, then it uses that money to anonymously hire a hitman on the dark web, then it pays that hitman to kill Magnus Carlsen, and then with Carlsen dead the machine is the best chess player in the world. Prime directive achieved — coolly, unemotionally, and without regard to the moral or political laws that have become ingrained into us over millennia. To mitigate potential side-effects like this, programmers have to write in a whole bunch of limits on a machine’s abilities, but there are infinite unforeseeable actions that are tough to limit. Musk’s point is that we’re sprinting toward increasingly intelligent machines when we should be treading carefully.
For human colonization, Mars has several advantages over the moon. For example, the moon is a near vacuum waiting to be pounded by meteors, but Mars has an atmosphere to protect it. The moon’s lack of atmosphere means extreme temperature swings and no climactic patterns, whereas Mars is more temperate. Martian climate is linked to Mars’s seasons, which mirrors Earth’s thanks to its 25-degree axial tilt, similar to our 23.5. We’re also more attracted to Mars’s gravity (36% of Earth’s) than we are the moon’s (17%), which would help with daily tasks, to say nothing of physiological adaptation. Ditto to Mars’s surprisingly Earthy 24.5-hour day. We couldn’t ask for a better home away from home.
There are cynical takes on Tesla’s decision, and compelling arguments exist that Musk made this decision for the benefit of Tesla. Even if true, it is possible, I think, to benefit both Tesla and the world at the same time. His statement said as much.
To be fair to NASA, it hopes to launch a crew around the moon on Artemis 2 in 2025, but color me skeptical. As great as NASA’s manned flight achievements were in the 1960s, they’ve been just as weak in the last 20 years. Still, guess who NASA tabbed to build its lunar lander for manned lunar missions? That’s right — SpaceX.
I’ve seen entertaining speculation that his recent trolling of liberals has been a way to stave off conservative pushback of his progressive approach to energy. Liberals have long pushed renewable energies like solar power and electric vehicles, but conservatives, ever the skeptics of climate change and energy depletion, may not quite embrace his vision. Indeed, a while back there was anti-Musk, anti-green conservative pushback funded by Koch and other petroleum lobbyists defending against a green revolution, with all sorts of arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals seeping into conservative media. Musk could reasonably have been worried that Republicans and traditional energy corporations could launch some broadsides against his companies and reputation, and even use their political power to slow or derail Musk’s progress. Yet, when someone takes the fight to sanctimonious Elizabeth Warren, somehow still-alive Bernie Sanders, and government overreach, they can quickly find some right wing cheerleaders. In the words of liberal pundit Matthew Iglesias, “The future of the world hinges on leftists continuing to tweet about how they hate Elon Musk so that conservatives can buy EVs to own the libs.”