Elon Musk: the fake news story that refuses to go away

With all the fuss in the world at the moment about fake news, it is perhaps amazing that stories about the so-called person Elon Musk continue to thrive.

“Elon Musk” was actually the invention of Gavin Daisical, an obscure — some would say failed — graphic novelist and cartoonist. Gavin was looking for a new character to introduce into the unheralded and largely unpublished menagerie of characters he had been working on since high school.

“I had notepads full of characters, most of them based on people I knew at school, and most of who were losers and layabouts of one sort or another. I wanted to add a character who had ‘made good’ and so I came up with this mad inventor, a Silicon Valley type, who has all these crazy ideas that end up making him really rich,” Daisical said in his last-known interview, given on September 10, 2001.

Daisical based Musk on a student who came to his Middle School late in the second term in 1986(he refuses to provide a name for the boy). The student was from South Africa, was very bright, and had an interest in computers. Even today, the Wikipedia entry for “Elon Musk” contains information that traces back to these origins and the experiences of this student:

Musk was severely bullied throughout his childhood, and was once hospitalized when a group of boys threw him down a flight of stairs and then beat him until he lost consciousness.

“It never occurred to me that anyone would take the character seriously, especially given that I called him Elon Musk,” Daisical said.

When asked how he came up with the name, Daisical talks vaguely about his favourite flavour of Lifesaver and anagrams. “Look,” he told the magazine. “I just thought of the stupidest thing I could think of. That anyone would believe that a real person would have that name is kind of incredible to me,” he said. “What is wrong with people?”

Who comes up with the ideas for which “Elon Musk” is famous is less clear. Certainly some of them — the Hyperloop and Mars colonisation for instance — can be traced directly back to Daisical’s original storyboarding for the character. But the provenance of some the more recent Musk “projects” is less clear. Who, for instance, is responsible for “Musk’s” latest idea that humans will have to merge with robots? Was it a journalist? Was it one of the impersonators fully committing to the role and taking it to the next level? We may never know, but they have certainly contributed mightily to the perpetuation of Muskology.

To say that “Elon Musk” has developed a life of its own, then, is an understatement. There are at least three full-time actors who make a living as Elon Musk, travelling the world doing interviews with media hungry to hear his latest crazy scheme.

There are at least three full-time “Elon Musks” working the media circuit

Rumour has it that a secretive group, made up of engineers and designers from various car and tech companies, work together to develop new Musk scenarios and that they have developed close ties with journalists happy to retail their latest stories. This group — generally referred to as the Muskateers — are understood to use the Musk character as a way of trialling various schemes that no-one would usually take seriously, and I must say this does seem logical. What better way to float some crazy new idea and have it taken seriously than to put the idea in the mouth of billionaire genius and media darling “Elon Musk”?

Where all this ends, nobody knows. Facebook are already suspected of developing a filter that keeps “Elon Musk” stories out their feeds, but the pressure on them to play along is immense. The elevation of one of the impersonators (or do they take turns?) to President Donald Trump’s advisory committee has certainly raised the stakes, and more than one person has pointed out the poetic symmetry of a fake billionaire inventor being employed by a billionaire fake President. For now, we can expect a neverending series of articles in which “Elon Musk” expounds on his latest crazy idea breathlessly reported by a media hungry for a vision of the future that takes us out of our more mundane concerns. And really, this alone may explain the character’s enduring appeal.

Just as Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer allows us to confront the terrors of the modern world and make them seem manageable and beatable, “Elon Musk” offers us a vision of the future in which technology does not just destroy all our jobs, where capitalism does not just destroy our environment, and where six people do not just end up controlling ninety-nine percent of the world’s wealth. “Musk’s” vision allows us to believe that although all those things are likely to happen, we can at least go and live on Mars and merge with robots.

For many, Gavin Daisical’s creation is all the comfort they need.

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