Critical Analysis of Steven Levy’s WIRED Article on Elon Musk’s Biography by Walter Isaacson

The WIRED article “If Elon Musk Had Been a Happy Child, Would He Still Be Launching Rockets?” by Steven Levy delves into biographer Walter Isaacson’s insights on Elon Musk, drawn from Isaacson’s extensive new biography of the tech mogul, simply titled “Elon Musk”. This critical analysis examines Steven Levy’s WIRED article, scrutinizing its engagement with Walter Isaacson’s biographical approach to Elon Musk, while also questioning the ethical considerations Levy brings into focus.

Isaacson, known for biographies on figures like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, posits that Musk’s tumultuous childhood was a significant catalyst for his later achievements in various fields such as space exploration, AI, and electric cars. The article contrasts Isaacson’s storytelling approach to biography with the more exhaustive style of Robert Caro, touching on Isaacson’s willingness to show multiple facets of Musk’s personality. It also mentions the public’s mixed reactions to Musk’s controversial actions and statements. Finally, it critiques Isaacson’s portrayal of Musk as being somewhat apologist, potentially excusing Musk’s behavior by tracing it back to a difficult past.

Critical Analysis

  1. Subject Complexity: Isaacson presents Musk as a highly complex character, a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality who is part visionary and part authoritarian. While the article appreciates this nuanced portrayal, it questions whether this justifies some of Musk’s more questionable actions. This leads to the ethical debate surrounding the impact of childhood on adult behaviour—can a difficult childhood excuse poor behaviour later in life?
  2. Biographer’s Approach: Isaacson’s storytelling style leaves room for readers to form their own opinions about Musk, which stands in stark contrast to Robert Caro’s more exhaustive and critical style. This article challenges whether a biographer should play the role of a “storyteller” or a “preacher” in exposing the complex layers of their subject. There is a concern that Isaacson’s method leans towards an apologetic tone, which could indirectly validate Musk’s controversial behaviours.
  3. The ‘Rosebud’ Concept: Isaacson often finds a ‘rosebud’—a key to understanding his subjects based on their past. The article criticizes this technique for potentially reducing the complexities of life to a single factor. This may inadvertently send the message that individuals are largely shaped by their past, overshadowing personal accountability for actions taken in adulthood.
  4. Public and Private Perception: The article touches on the divisive public opinions on Musk, reminding the reader that biographies often add to pre-existing narratives. It implicitly raises the question: To what extent do biographies shape public opinion, and should they aim for a balanced view?
  5. Comparison to Previous Works: There’s also an implied critique that Isaacson’s previous subjects (like Jobs) felt misrepresented. This sets the stage for a discussion on the difficulty and responsibility of capturing the essence of such complex figures.
  6. Isaacson’s Own Revelation: Isaacson reveals his own ‘rosebud’, a pleasant childhood, explaining that it made him more of an observer than a disrupter. This adds an introspective layer to the discussion—highlighting that the biographer’s own background can influence how they approach their subjects.

The article serves as both a discussion of Isaacson’s biographical technique and a critical look at how society engages with the complexity of influential figures. While appreciating the depth of Isaacson’s work, it invites the reader to question the ethical and methodological considerations involved in documenting the life of a polarizing individual like Elon Musk.