Elon Musk’s Hunger for Light

© Elon Musk/Instagram

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is on Instagram. I find his account charming in its wizardly bizarreness; he posts photographs of rocket launches alongside his children’s birthday parties. But his Instagram is truly exceptional for a different reason — most business leaders don’t use social media. According to a 2016 report, only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs have Instagram accounts.

The business difference between Musk and other CEOs is that in order to sell his products he must also sell his vision of the future. He does indeed seem to be a visionary, one capable of predicting our future technological needs and investing billions in the right places far in advance of market demand. So the openness of Musk’s Instagram presents an extraordinary opportunity to answer this question: how does someone who correctly predicts the future see the present? I examined all of the photographs he has shared to Instagram since his very first post in 2012 and looked for the meaning behind what he chooses to shoot and share.

© Elon Musk/Instagram

Most of his posts serve as updates on his family or his businesses, but I was surprised to see that he posted relatively few images of Teslas. The cars are never presented clearly, in vivid color, the way they are displayed in advertising photographs. Rather, they are obscured; he seems to prefer highlighting a Tesla’s parts to its whole. He usually shows Teslas in the context of one of his other businesses: within a Hyperloop pod, outside the Tesla factory, in a Boring Company tunnel.

Hearing about Elon Musk in the news here and there has always given me whiplash. Electric cars, rockets, solar power, tunnels, but what’s he doing, really? Looking at the way he photographically visualizes the products that come out of his seemingly disparate corporations, his motivations become obvious. To him, they all one interconnected business machine.

© Elon Musk/Instagram

Musk has posted many more SpaceX-related photographs — rocket launches, space capsules, drone landing ships, astronaut space suits. There is an obvious explanation for the discrepancy between the number of his posts having to do with SpaceX and those about Teslas, that rockets are spectacular and cars are not, but I think this is about something else, and it has to do with his attraction to brightness. He posted several outliers — images that don’t have to do with his family, businesses or ideas. The incandescent black and yellow exterior of a Japanese noodle shop. An art deco movie theater sign, red and turquoise blue. A Berlin kebab stand awash in cinematic fluorescent light. A glossy arcade game, Smack ‘n Alien, lit from within. These incongruent images, taken all over the world, years apart, all have the same quality of light.

© Elon Musk/Instagram

Most of what Musk is compelled to shoot and share are real-world manifestations of himself and his ideas, electric cars, rockets, even his family photos fall into this category. So what has the power to break through his self-created world where he gazes at his own inventions? What else gets him to take out his camera? Light, fluorescent, neon, arcade games, and, of course, burning rocket fuel.

To distinguish himself from other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Musk has always referred to his drive towards the betterment of humanity. “I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way,” he said, in an interview for his Elon Musk, his 2015 biography. The rare CEO on Instagram, as you might expect, he does mostly use his account for business, to craft a visual narrative of a better human future built by his interconnected products. Except for a handful of times, when the bright lights of the present, the world we are all already inhabiting, jump out and catch his eye.

This essay was originally published in my “Social Spy” series for the Dutch magazine FD Persoonlijk. Je kunt dit stuk hier in Nederlands lezen. All photos via Elon Musk’s Instagram.

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