A wonderful snippet I just came across on Wikipedia:

Elon Musk, after viewing the first episode of the show, said: “None of those characters were software engineers. Software engineers are more helpful, thoughtful, and smarter. They’re weird, but not in the same way. I was just having a meeting with my information security team, and they’re great but they’re pretty weird—one used to be a dude, one’s super small, one’s hyper-smart—that’s actually what it is. […] I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley […] If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it. You could take the craziest L.A. party and multiply it by a thousand, and it doesn’t even get close to what’s in Silicon Valley. The show didn’t have any of that.”[31]

In response to Musk’s comments, actor T.J. Miller, who plays Erlich on the show, pointed out that “if the billionaire power players don’t get the joke, it’s because they’re not comfortable being satirized… I’m sorry, but you could tell everything was true. You guys do have bike meetings, motherfucker.” Other software engineers who also attended the same premiere stated that they felt like they were watching their “reflection”.[31]


From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, loc 5351:

Musk had made a number of art cars over the years at Burning Man, including an electric one shaped like a rocket. In 2011, he also received a lot of grief from the Wall Street Journal for having a high- end camp. “Elon Musk, chief executive of electric- car maker Tesla Motors and co- founder of eBay Inc.’s PayPal unit, is among those eschewing the tent life,” the paper wrote. “He is paying for an elaborate compound consisting of eight recreational vehicles and trailers stocked with food, linens, groceries and other essentials for himself and his friends and family, say employees of the outfitter, Classic Adventures RV…. Classic is one of the festival’s few approved vendors. It charges $5,500 to $10,000 per RV for its Camp Classic Concierge packages like Mr. Musk’s. At Mr. Musk’s RV enclave, the help empties septic tanks, brings water and makes sure the vehicles’ electricity, refrigeration, air conditioning, televisions, DVD players and other systems are ship shape. The staff also stocked the campers with Diet Coke, Gatorade and Cruzan rum.” Once the story hit, Musk’s group tried to move to a new, undisclosed location.

From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 318:

After arriving at Burning Man, Musk, a regular at the event, and his family went through their standard routines. They set up camp and prepped their art car for a drive. This year, they had cut the roof off a small car, elevated the steering wheel, shifted it to the right so that it was placed near the middle of the vehicle, and replaced the seats with a couch. Musk took a lot of pleasure in driving the funky creation. 19 “Elon likes to see the rawness of people there,” said Bill Lee, his longtime friend. “It’s his version of camping. He wants to go and drive the art cars and see installations and the great light shows. He dances a lot.” Musk put on a display of strength and determination at the event as well. There was a wooden pole perhaps thirty feet high with a dancing platform at the top. Dozens of people tried and failed to climb it, and then Musk gave it a go. “His technique was very awkward, and he should not have succeeded,” said Lyndon. “But he hugged it and just inched up and inched up until he reached the top.”

What a glorious way to describe the life of an organisation. I wonder which other organisations this might be an apt description for? What’s it like to work  under these conditions? From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 258 (my emphasis):

Just as it did in the early days, SpaceX continues to experiment with these new vehicles during actual launches in ways that other companies would dare not do. SpaceX will often announce that it’s trying out a new engine or its landing legs and place the emphasis on that one upgrade in the marketing material leading up to a launch. It’s common, though, for SpaceX to test out a dozen other objectives in secret during a mission. Musk essentially asks employees to do the impossible on top of the impossible. One former SpaceX executive described the working atmosphere as a perpetual- motion machine that runs on a weird mix of dissatisfaction and eternal hope. “It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas,” this executive said. “They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, when they set off for New York after that year, all of the vice presidents think privately that the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico— twice as far as they ever expected— and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.”

An email sent to the entirety of SpaceX by Elon Musk, as quoted in Ashlee Vance’s book about him, pg 238-239:

There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees. That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action— I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. 

If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past. For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS- 3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name! The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, eg MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C- Vacuum or Merlin 1C- Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.

From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 220-222:

Like many tech companies, SpaceX subjects potential hires to a gauntlet of interviews and tests. Some of the interviews are easygoing chats in which both parties get to feel each other out; others are filled with quizzes that can be quite hard. Engineers tend to face the most rigorous interrogations, although business types and salesmen are made to suffer, too. Coders who expect to pass through standard challenges have rude awakenings. Companies will typically challenge software developers on the spot by asking them to solve problems that require a couple of dozen lines of code. The standard SpaceX problem requires five hundred or more lines of code. All potential employees who make their way to the end of the interview process then handle one more task. They’re asked to write an essay for Musk about why they want to work at SpaceX. 

The reward for solving the puzzles, acting clever in interviews, and penning up a good essay is a meeting with Musk. He interviewed almost every one of SpaceX’s first one thousand hires, including the janitors and technicians, and has continued to interview the engineers as the company’s workforce swelled. Each employee receives a warning before going to meet with Musk. The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e- mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.

From that point, the tales of engineers who have interviewed with Musk run the gamut from torturous experiences to the sublime. He might ask one question or he might ask several. You can be sure, though, that he will roll out the Riddle: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” One answer to that is the North Pole, and most of the engineers get it right away. That’s when Musk will follow with “Where else could you be?” The other answer is somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile. Fewer engineers get this answer, and Musk will happily walk them through that riddle and others and cite any relevant equations during his explanations. He tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.

From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 16. I think a sociological analysis of contemporary digital elites needs to treat these ambitions seriously, while nonetheless recognising how these cultural formulations intersect with material interests.

While the “putting man on Mars” talk can strike some people as loopy, it gave Musk a unique rallying cry for his companies. It’s the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does. Employees at all three companies are well aware of this and well aware that they’re trying to achieve the impossible day in and day out. When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees, and works them to the bone, it’s understood to be— on some level— part of the Mars agenda. Some employees love him for this. Others loathe him but remain oddly loyal out of respect for his drive and mission. What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to … well … save the human race from self- imposed or accidental annihilation.

Given the mimetic proclivities of status conscious digital elites, I find it hard not to wonder how the scale of these ambitions may cycle upwards over time. Musk’s vision is enticing to anyone who grew up on science fiction but it’s easy to conceive of comparable visions that are much less welcome. The rich vein of dystopian fiction about digital capitalism that is beginning to emerge (e.g. The circle, whisky tango foxtrot, super sad true love story) could be read as in large part about the future ambitions of digital elites and the dangers that follow from their possession of a “meaningful worldview”.