Elon Musk is typically the object of considerable masculine envy, and so, in the interests of avoiding accusations of green-eye, it would be nice to be able to declare him unequivocally as on the side of the angels. But, for all his legendary space-adventuring, this is by no means clear.
For one thing, he is a longtime friend of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, which hints that, despite all the talk about Musk's Twitter being a haven for freedom of expression, his reign as supremo of the world’s leading wittering platform must be subject to a probationary period. For another thing, Twitter is, in its essence, not a platform for the free thinker. Free speech tends to be an individual thing. But Twitter has been, remains, and will endure only as an instrument of mob-speak. I mean this in the sense that the French psychologist Gustave Le Bon spoke of the “psychological crowd,” in which individual personality disappears to be replaced by a new “being”—exactly, he said, as the cells in the human body unite to create a single entity “which displays characteristics very different from each of the cells singularly.”
This is what Dorsey and Twitter stumbled upon: not merely the possibility of a global electronic megaphone for the voices of useful mobs, but an evolutionary device with which to attack public discourse more or less unrestrained. Where Twitter is concerned, once the mob has been blooded and loosed, “free” speech can only mean turning up the volume.
Two years ago, while foolishly running for election to the national parliament of my country, Ireland, I briefly had a Twitter account wholly administered by others. This was against my better judgment, since for many years I had been saying that, when the issue of blame for the ending of civilization would in the not too distant future be investigated by anthropologists (if there were any anthropologists) these worthy surveyors would in jig time emerge from the ruins with a piece of paper bearing just one word: Twitter.
Nevertheless, Twitter, for good or—more likely—ill, has become, as Musk says, the de facto town square. The nature of the platform, being defined by loudness and rudeness, offers a ready justification for enforcing “restraint” or “civility”—here the last refuges of scoundrels. For related reasons, the very conditions that characterize the Twittersphere have become repressive, because they “invite” a moulding of commentary to skewed notions of truth-telling as a requirement for basic continuity of access. Twitter has become the perfect medium for deniable censorship.
Elon Musk may understand all this. He describes social media as “giant cybernautic collectives,” which he must know are not the same as open conduits of free speech—a concept he defines as “when someone you don’t like says something you don’t like.” He has already begun to move the Twitter furniture about in a manner suggesting good intentions. But the problem is a deeper one, as we may soon get the chance to observe.
When one watches and listens to him, it is not hard to like Elon Musk. He seems to speak tentatively like a shy child who does not want to invite a wave of effusive praise from an indulgent aunt or neighbor. He knows how smart he is, but would like to keep it as something understood rather than talked about. He seems all the time to be amazed by himself and his existence in the world. In this sense, he is the perfect antidote to a world jaded by taking itself for granted.
But Musk is not any kind of conservative, and so the tentative cheers from such quarters that have greeted leftist dismay over his apparent routing of the Twitter board might more wisely have been postponed to see what the new Twitter may look and sound like.
He is no fan of wokeness, for sure, and it may well emerge that the Musk supremacy will mark the ending of Twitter’s thus far lifelong association with that agenda, though this, while a welcome relief, would proffer insufficient justification for his dramatic intervention. Wokeness, after all, is on its last legs, the adults of the world having at last begun to awake to the evils of transgenderism and Drag Queen Story Hour. Moreover, “woke Twitter” has already fulfilled its deeper purpose in the agenda of the Cultural Marxist revolution: the sowing of unprecedented intellectual discord in Western society and the demoralization of conservative opinion.
It is where this might be taken next that ought to concern the world, and where Musk’s influence may prove most critical. Assuming the world finds a way of side-stepping the looming prospect of World War III, the next phase of the agenda will be posthumanism, when the focus of both woke and conservative attentions should pivot from the recent fixations on sexual anthropology to the metaphysical. The issue of Twitter’s undemocratic aspect, and detrimental effects on freedoms of various kinds, is dwarfed by another longtime concern articulated by Musk: the failure to regulate the evolution of digital superintelligence, a form of AI that promises to change not merely the environments and cultures we inhabit but our own minds and souls.
Musk is an ambivalent figure in this context, and his charger is not white, nor even a horse, but something like a zebra, either black with hopeful white stripes or white with worrying black ones. He has many critics who look with suspicion at his 2,000+ Starlink satellites and mutter how conveniently they appear to fit with the new age of surveillance and social credit systems. Then there is his Neuralink venture, for developing implantable brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), which essentially enable the brain to connect remotely with robotic and smart devices. It is, in short, another way of creating a mob-compliant mind, and human trials are scheduled to begin this year.
The circumstantial evidence, then, points to Musk as a tech poacher turned gamekeeper. He claims that for years he tried to persuade the world to slow down AI, but eventually admitted defeat and decided “if you can’t beat them, join them.” He is conscious of the potential for dystopian outcomes arising from the supplanting of human relationships with robotic ones, but ominously adds: “It’ll be whatever people want, really.” “I am really quite close to the cutting edge in AI, and it scares the hell out of me,” he has said. “It’s capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential.”
His thinking becomes worrisome when he hints that implanted neural circuitry is just the next step from smartphones: “We all of us already are cyborgs. You have a machine extension of yourself in the form of our phone and your computer, and all your applications. You are already superhuman.”
Sure, Musk defuses much of the concern when he talks about democratizing AI technology to render it safer, but what is ominous right now is that, thanks to the COVID project, the democratic processes are more weak and tender than they have been in perhaps 75 years. A key contributor to social media lawlessness has been the wholesale failure of democratic representatives to confront the high-handed and quasi-criminal practices promoted and justified by self-serving tech moguls rabbiting on about free speech.
Musk is now not merely the richest man in the world but the richest human being in history. Worth $24.6 billion pre-pandemic, by February last he had added another $200 billion, less small change. It is a measure of our desperation that we now find ourselves hoping, as though praying to some monied god, that Elon will “do something” about the sequestration of our democracy by other unelected, unmandated moguls, and then graciously undo the damage done to liberty and truth before riding off into the sunset. In a certain sense, even his succeeding in this would amount to an added insult to the egregious offense already delivered. In the final analysis, it would be fatuous were the free world to now wait with bated breath to see what a billionaire might do to face down this next looming tyranny.
For all that Elon Musk might be a hero of our times, we remain on the cusp of the final transfer of the numinous freedom of humanity from the metaphysical to the material realms: freedoms no longer deriving from God or even gods, but from the bank balances of the oligarchs who aspire and machinate to supplant all deities.
Elon Musk is, apart from being the richest, perhaps the most likeable mogul on the planet. But that does not mean he would be a more congenial or sympathetic god. We should mark those black stripes carefully as his zebra comes over the hill.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.
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