It is unfortunate that while almost everything about Elon Musk is fake, his power in our society is very real. I don’t think he had any clear idea what he was going to do with Twitter, but for all some of the wealth of billionaires is illusory, I think Musk has more than enough to survive this debacle. Lives and livelihoods are being destroyed, but the person responsible will be fine. Musk may be more incompetent and foolish than most billionaires, but not by much, and that much wealth is too good of a safety net for him to be put out of our misery.
That said, it’s worth paying attention to what he’s doing, because of that power, and what his motivations might be. Yanis Varoufakis has been saying for a while that he believes capitalism more or less ended in 2008, and since then we’ve been in the early stages of “technofeudalism”. It’s as good a name as any, and it has long been pointed out that feudalism is the inevitable result of neoliberal/libertarian capitalism, but what does that actually mean?
Feudalism was based largely on control of land, but while plenty of billionaires do own a great deal of land, the “techno” of technofeudalism serves as a reminder that control over physical territory and the people therein is not the whole story. The power that Bill Gates has over me has much more to do with the computer I’m using than with the farmland he owns, and similar things can be said about Bezos, and the other oligarchs who are better at staying out of the spotlight.
Unlike old-fashioned terrestrial or analogue capital, which boils down to produced means of manufacturing things consumers want, cloud capital functions as a produced means of modifying our behavior in line with its owners’ interests. The same algorithm running on the same labyrinth of server farms, optic fiber cables, and cell-phone towers performs multiple simultaneous miracles.
Cloud capital’s first miracle is to get us to work for free to replenish and enhance its stock and productivity with every text, review, photo, or video that we create and upload using its interfaces. In this manner, cloud capital has turned hundreds of millions of us into cloud-serfs – unpaid producers, toiling the landlords’ digital estates and believing, like peasants believed under feudalism, that our labor (creating and sharing our photos and opinions) is part of our character.
The second miracle is cloud capital’s capacity to sell to us the object of the desires it has helped instill in us. Amazon, Alibaba, and their many e-commerce imitators in every country may look to the untrained eye like monopolized markets, but they are nothing like a market – not even a hyper-capitalist digital market. Even in markets that are cornered by a single firm or person, people can interact reasonably freely. In contrast, once you enter a platform like Amazon, the algorithm isolates you from every other buyer and feeds you exclusively the information its owners want you to have.
Buyers cannot talk to each other, form associations, or otherwise organize to force a seller to reduce a price or improve quality. Sellers, too, are in a one-to-one relation with the algorithm and must pay its owner to complete a trade. Everything and everyone is intermediated not by the disinterested invisible hand of the market but by an invisible algorithm that works for one person, or one company, in what is, essentially, a cloud-fief.
Musk is perhaps the only tech lord who had been watching the triumphant march of this new techno-feudalism helplessly from the sidelines. His Tesla car company uses the cloud cleverly to turn its cars into nodes on a digital network that generates big data and ties drivers to Musk’s systems. His SpaceX rocket company, and its flock of low-orbit satellites now littering our planet’s periphery, contributes significantly to the development of other moguls’ cloud capital.
But Musk? Frustratingly for the business world’s enfant terrible, he lacked a gateway to the gigantic rewards cloud capital can furnish. Until now: Twitter could be that missing gateway.
It’s not that he wants to own Twitter, as such, but more than he needs to own a domain of cloud “real estate” that befits his wealth and fame, if he wants his power to be durable, and reliable. Twitter doesn’t need to be what it was, it just needs to be big and influential, and it’s unlikely that Musk’s incompetence can change that. I don’t know if it’s “too big to fail”, but I think the concept applies here, at least to some degree. It’s not the most important infrastructure of the internet, but it is a part of that infrastructure, and it has momentum.
Again, this framing gives Musk a bit more credit that I’m willing to provide, but when someone has this much power, it’s worth thinking about his use of it.
The liberal commentariat is fretting over Donald Trump’s reinstatement. The left is agonizing over the rise of a tech-savvy version of Rupert Murdoch. Decent people of all views are deploring the terrible treatment of Twitter’s employees. And Musk? He seems to be keeping his eye on the ball: In a revealing tweet, he confessed his ambition to turn Twitter into an “everything app.”
An “everything app” is, in my definition, nothing less than a gateway into cloud capital that allows its owner to modify consumer behavior, to extract free labor from users turned into cloud serfs, and, last but not least, to charge vendors a form of cloud rent to sell their wares. So far, Musk has not owned anything capable of evolving into an “everything app” and had no way of creating one from scratch.
For while he was busy working out how to make mass-produced electric cars desirable and to profit from conquering outer space, Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Facebook, and Tencent’s WeChat were wrapping their tentacles firmly around platforms and interfaces with “everything app” potential. Only one such interface was available for purchase. Musk’s challenge now is to enhance Twitter’s own cloud capital and hook it up to his existing Big Data network, while constantly enriching that network with data collected by Tesla cars crisscrossing Earth’s roads and countless satellites crisscrossing its skies. Assuming he can steady the nerves of Twitter’s remaining workforce, his next task will be to eliminate bots and weed out trolls so that New Twitter knows, and owns, its users’ identities.
In a letter to advertisers, Musk correctly noted that irrelevant ads are spam, but relevant ones are content. In these techno-feudal times, this means that messages unable to modify behavior are spam, but those that sway what people think and do are the only content that matters: true power.
As a private fief, Twitter could never be the world’s public square. That was never the point. The pertinent question is whether it will grant its new owner secure membership in the new techno-feudal ruling class.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Twitter will collapse in the coming months, and not return. Whether that happens or not, you can be sure that our overlords will want what Twitter offers them, and they will continue working to shape society to fit their interests. As that happens it’s worth remembering that their “success” is the result of having virtually unlimited wealth and power, so that even when their endeavors fail, they can just try again, or spin what happened until they can claim it was their genius plan all along.
After all, if the King doesn’t deserve his power, why does he have it?