Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, went on Joe Rogan's podcast Thursday night, and if you know anything about these people, the end product is pretty much exactly what you'd expect.
Rogan and Musk spend a little more than two and a half hours shooting the shit about Musk's projects, drinking whiskey, smoking weed, and at one point admiring Rogan's samurai sword, which he claims is the real deal from the 1500s. They talked about AI in the way two stoned and genuinely curious people speculate about future technologies (will AI exterminate humanity? Will we be able to control it? Will we merge with AI with the help of Musk's Neuralink company?), but not in the way any of the actual AI researchers Motherboard has talked to on a regular basis for years talk about it—they're not worried about Terminator robots rising against humanity, but about "deepfakes" and the bias of the mostly white people who make algorithms at tech companies.
Rogan, who openly admired the CEO throughout the podcast, prodded Musk to celebrate his Boring Company, which aims to solve our traffic woes by building giant, underground tunnels. Musk responded by repeatedly saying that he has no idea that it will actually work, and at the moment all he has to show for it is a giant hole in the ground and interest from a few cities the company has entered contract negotiations with.
It is, like many episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience, a rambling, entertaining, and at times surprising conversation. Rogan's podcasts are regularly three hours long, which is a long time for an executive like Musk to go on the record, and when someone casually gabs for that long they're bound to say something interesting eventually.
This is what makes Rogan a fun interviewer and his podcast, which he has previously claimed gets 30 million downloads a month, so successful. He's casual, disarming, and in an era where people are highly polarized along Right and Left, Rogan is hard to put into a political, ideological box.
The Joe Rogan Experience is the kind of show that can have guests like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hannibal Buress, and Jay Leno, but also Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and various members of the regressive race and gender science clown car that calls itself "the intellectual dark web." The problem is that, as Rogan himself has said, he's not a journalist. “I talk to people. And I record it. That’s it,” Rogan told the New York Times.
That means guests like Shapiro and Leno get the same kind of non-confrontational treatment. There's a basic rule of improvisational comedy that says that the performers on stage should respond to one another with "Yes, and…" This allows the conversation to continue to flow, sometimes in increasingly absurd directions. This is often how Rogan treats his guests, which works great when he has another comedian on, and not so great when Alex Jones is on the show talking about interdimensional pedophiles, or when Jordan Peterson describes the plight of men besieged by social justice warriors on college campuses. Both are ideas that don't stand up well to scrutiny, which Rogan doesn't provide.
Musk, as a guest, produces the same problems. Throughout the interview, Musk mentions ideas, initiatives, and products he's working on, which Rogan doesn't stop to question. Musk talks about adding an Atari video game emulator to the Tesla, an "easter egg" that can make the Tesla "dance," and a concept for an electric plane, better than any in existence, which can take off and land vertically. Rogan has two and a half hours to question these ideas, but doesn't.
Rogan also had the time to ask Musk about the various labor issues he's dealing with at his factories, Musk repeatedly calling one of the divers who helped save the kids stuck in a cave in Thailand a "pedo," Musk's various feuds with journalists and his plan to start a website that will rank their credibility, and his potentially illegal tweet to make Tesla a private company, a decision he quickly reversed. But none of these issues come up.
We don't know that Musk went on the Joe Rogan Experience because he knew these issues wouldn't come up, but we do know that Musk has a history of wielding media coverage in his favor. At the moment, it appears he's trying to intimidate the journalists who challenge him, while welcoming media that admires him. (Last month, Musk also did an extremely softball interview with YouTuber Marques Brownlee.)
That Musk would seek out only favorable media is not ideal for his customers or employees, but to be expected from any CEO. But that Rogan will allow him to say whatever he wants and not even mention the controversies Musk is currently embroiled in is making his millions of listeners dumber. They walk away with a conception of Musk as an ambitious and quirky genius, not a union busting billionaire who's being probed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
By ignoring the various issues hounding Musk, Rogan is implicitly saying that they don't matter. When Rogan lets Musk smoke a blunt and talk about electric planes, the universe as a simulation, and the singularity without probing him on any recent controversies, the undertone is that Musk’s critics are hysterical for caring about things like union busting, SEC rule-skirting, and how billionaires use their power. It's a dynamic that results in great damage control for figures like Peterson, Alex Jones, and now, Musk.