The billionaires will save us
In any situation they know what to do, because more money = better than.
More money = better than. But better at what? Better at everything.
See, if you have that special brand of entrepreneurial get-up-and-go, maybe have the right business connections, or just know how to exploit workers to make your business succeed, you just might be great at everything.
Bill Gates will tell us how to solve the pandemic. Jeff Bezos will help conquer space.
Of course, none of these men (and it is always men) compare to Elon Musk, who is limitless in potential.
For those who believe that power and control are ultimate virtues, he is a superhero. These are people who are frustrated with society being a complicated, dynamic system, and yearn for someone to iron out all the problems through force of will. People see Musk as a proxy for themselves, in a kind of Randian fantasy.
Musk has been mythologised in web culture, in Linkedin, in Twitter, and in Facebook. Fun, sycophantic memes oblige us to look up to him.
Given this, his recent attempted purchase of Twitter has been largely lauded.
In a recent discussion for TED he provided a justification for wanting to buy Twitter. Needless to say, these justifications are not well thought through. His resolve is applauded, while the thoughtlessness of his statements are glossed over.
The prevailing belief underlying this talk seems to be that if you are good at business and science, you have sound opinions on any topic. And many others seem to agree: Musk can make Twitter better by buying it and exerting his will.
But the fact that a single person can even purchase such an enormous platform is anti-democratic; ironic, as in the TED video he says he is doing this 'for democracy'. Wouldn't something like platform cooperativism be better? Wouldn’t that be more democratic?
No, because he knows what’s wrong. So he can design a better product.
Effective design is often regarded as an oscillation between the theoretical and the practical. That is, design is about understanding both the abstractions about how things might work and the practicalities of how things do work. Understanding how something does work informs theoretical design iterations, via new constraints and goals.
If we look at Musk’s idea of 'free speech absolutism', which is core to the reason he wants to buy Twitter, we can see an absolute failure to recognise this. This ‘absolutism’ is his idea that any speech should be free, outside of what is illegal. Whether he realises it or not, the ‘speech’ part of his idea of ‘free speech’ is premised on the idea that discourse exist in a vacuum, with recipients having omnipotent access to all the speech’s context, source, and fidelity, and an uncanny ability to act in a rational sense to any such speech.
Musk, in other words, isn’t considering the practical realities of how speech happens. Speech, in a practical context, is contaminated by human biases, power relations, time, resources, emotion and the widespread belief in a false equivalence between truth-bearing and efficacy (or virality) of ideas. Now, with regard to his purchase of Twitter, you might not claim Elon Musk is designing as such, but his approach towards free speech nonetheless highlights his ignorance of the difference between the theoretical and practical that is endemic in poor design. Ignoring the practical reality of free speech harms the capacity for speech to be ‘free’, it doesn’t help it.
This is especially true for a medium like Twitter in which virality, atomisation, and the speed of content production means that content moderation not only prevents harmful speech or misinformation, it also enhances the diversity of speech, and if done well, obliges the communicator to stand behind or prove the accuracy of their speech.
Like many people in technology, Musk flattens words into singular meanings, then broadly applies them (see my previous article to learn more about this). He attempts to buoy his idea of free speech by claiming it is ‘inclusive’, which is, in essence, anyone being able to say what they want, hence the ‘inclusive’. But as pointed out by Anand Giridharadas here, ‘inclusive’ free speech means forums in which people are able to make speech without being harassed by pre-existing power imbalances. In Musk’s ‘defense’ of free speech he says, 'if it's a grey area let the Tweet exist'. I wonder how many women who get unsolicited oblique (or not so oblique) sexual advances, or minority groups who are faced with dogwhistles (that is, coded language that is prejudicial) would agree with him on what a ‘grey area’ is?
In the TED video Musk also claims to 'help freedom more broadly' - that is, help promote free speech in countries that do not have it. This is directly contradictory to what he says in the very same video: 'Twitter will still have to abide by a country's free speech laws'. If a country has restrictions on free speech, will his version of Twitter abide by those laws or will it 'help' free speech? As an unrepentant capitalist, I think his answer would be obvious.
It’s clear who he wants free speech for: those who are already in power, those who are afraid of being civil, and those who think ‘wokeness’ has run amok, claiming ‘we can’t say anything [racial/misinformed/hateful/libelous] anymore!’.
One of the things I do is regularly is report racist, transphobic, homophobic etc. content, which is all over - and I mean all over - Twitter, in replies to NYT, Guardian, etc Tweets (on right wing publications it’s even worse). I don't think people realise how much there is. Hateful language, comments, remarks, allusions, metaphors, and misinformation is so unbelievably rife, it’s difficult to fathom. Even totally, utterly innocuous progressive ideas are seen as symbols of ‘wokeness’ or ‘marxism’. It would comical if it weren’t so depressing.
Yet only occasionally will one of my Twitter reports result in punitive action, and even then it is always a temporary suspension. It's already onerous enough for women to report horrible behavior. Punitive or preventative action for this kind of thing is the kind of thing Musk wants to reduce, which has only moved tiny baby steps forward, and only recently. He avoids the ethics involved in these practicalities, however, by bandying about simple truisms, like saying that free speech is when ‘someone you don’t like is allowed to say something you don’t like', to rapturous applause.
Of course, the few things that Twitter has done to combat harmful speech have been good, and it’s only the existing power base who spread repeatedly disproven and often illegal conspiracies who complain.
But Twitter’s actions toward preventing hateful content aren’t lauded. Only billionaire, techno-capitalist heroes are. Money = better than.
This fantasy of the capitalist hero seems difficult to change given the comprehensive financial colonisation of our dreams. Cultural theorist Mark Fisher called this ‘precorporation’: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture. We place those who ‘win’ at capitalism on a pedestal not because we choose to, but because it is chosen prior to us encountering any choice; the choice is not given - it just is.
Anyone - especially billionaires - who says that they alone can fix anything is lying - especially if it is outside of their realm of expertise. ‘Fixing’ is a fraught process that bounces between the theoretical and practical, is rife with ambiguity, and requires not force of will, but force of evidence, ethics, consensus, and alignment. Ultimately, Musk’s opinions are the kind of libertarian silicon valley techno-solutionism that emanates from people who don't really engage with any of this.
More money = better off, but certainly not better than.