The Elon Musk/Twitter affair has riveted our attention like no other celebrity melodrama since Meghan & Harry went top of the charts 4 years ago. Perfect lead character, perfect script, perfect timing: megalomanic multibillionaire encounters high-tech social media giant. Engagement, each jilts the other, shotgun reengagement, nail-biting wedding, new jefe immediately shows the world who’s boss by sacking thousands with a smug grin, hitting subscribers with unheard of fees, and calling the bluff of advertisers by threatening an embargo to match their boycott.
Quite a performance. Like all celebrity affairs, though, it titillates while diverting attention from the serious questions raised by the takeover of our lives by social media and their Silicon Valley partners in engineering the country’s future – in effect, colonizing it while extracting huge rents. In theory, the Musk celebrity happening could serve the cause of getting a grip on the runaway IT express by stripping away the pretentions of unalloyed beneficence for humankind with which the perpetrators adorned themselves and their product. Remember the prophet Zuckerberg’s forecast of how Facebook would unite the entire world in one harmonious chatroom – where the peasant in Bangladesh could become soul-brother of the Goldman Sachs Executive Board? The promise that the masses now would be empowered to assert their rightful sovereignty of those who exploit and repress them?
Well, thanks to Musk, it has become is starkly clear what moves the movers and shakers of electronic intercourse: greed, arrogance, fame. self-aggrandizement, power, control.
It long should have been understood that IT in its many manifestations has become an integral part of our lives – individual and social – shaping it, animating it, directing it. The resulting transformations are impressive. The repercussions will be even more profound. Yet, this historic phenomenon has received little in-depth critical attention.* The vast majority of writing on electronic communications falls into three rough categories: celebration of the achievements and doings of its heroic creators – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page; and new kid on the block – Musk.; excited forecasts of the great developments to come; and nuts-and-bolts accounts of how to make it in the high-flying world of high tech business. Questions of management, regulation and collective need get scant attention – as witness the near universal backing for the idea of mandating private companies to decide what the terms of access to news sources should be, i.e. censorship. So, Zuck et al are nominated as Royal Censor to go along with their positions as Federal Election Commissioner and Kickback King of the electronic Yellow Pages who sells prime space to the highest bidder.
The European Commission, too, has jumped in with its own madcap proposal to privatize censorship. As in the U.S., the Brussels crowd have committed the EU to encouraging private companies to police the Internet for ‘hate speech’ and ‘misinformation.’ Over here, the two parties vie with each other to define for Zuck et al what is fact, what is truth, and where the boundaries of free speech lie. Regulation of these public utilities in the public interest? So retro!
Absurd? – Of course. Dangerous?- Definitely. An abdication of public/governmental responsibility? Absolutely! But no less absurd, dangerous and irresponsible than our cavalier acceptance of it as normal.
Our most distinguished intellectual journals, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times among them, just go with the flow. The Times has instructed us that the giant technology platforms were “too big to regulate.” They thereby join the too big to regulate banks, too big pharma, too big oil, too big real estate, too big industrial-defense complex, too big Intelligence establishment, too big NCAA and anybody else with the clout to intimidate a beholden and meek Washington. Better to fill their pages with weepy tales about the under-representation of women among the predatory billionaires who rule those power blocs. Techno-determinism is prevailing by default. So, it is the occasion for congratulations when somebody finally gets around to doing a probing examination of the IT revolution’s disturbing implications.
That person is John Lanchester who published this long essay in the London Review of Books a while back.
*There are a few exceptions: e.g. Jonathan Taplin MOVE FAST and BREAK THINGS (2017). See also Antonio Martinez’s revelatory account about life in Silicon Valley