The let’s-hear-from-everyone media revolution needs Elon Musk as much as he needs Twitter. His guides would be Robert Oppenheimer, Michelangelo and King Crimson



Should Elon switch species to a different, less complacent-looking bird for Twitter?



Musk focuses on what intrigues him as intently as a foraging woodpecker. He is studying an antique Samurai sword here during a 2018 podcast interview with Joe Rogan

[ 14.10. 2022 A quotation of an article on the Intelligencer site has been corrected for errors of transcription. ** ]

There could be no one better equipped to run Twitter for the public good than Elon Musk. Not that the link between past and present evidence of this is obvious. His exploits in space transport and electric cars have virtually eclipsed his beginnings as a pioneering new media entrepreneur. Riding on the slogan ‘We Power the Press,’ his maiden venture, Zip2 — a collaboration with his brother Kimbal — sold specialised software that helped US newspapers to dip their toes in the internet in 1995. Customers included The New York Times.

At the end of last month, a quarter-century later, Musk restored uncensored internet access to Iranians being blocked from posting, for instance, video records of police brutality. Deploying satellite technology in an unexpected caped-crusader move on their behalf, he created a communication alternative for citizens fighting steadily tightening state control through surveillance and personal data collection tied to digital identity cards unavoidable in using public health services, or buying rail or plane tickets.

Musk, more than any other technologist or legacy media operator, could engineer exactly the right transformation of mass communication. This will mean letting unmediated and dissenting voices compete with legacy publishing on less unequal terms without destroying what is best in the Fourth Estate tradition — a balancing act that is a crucial preoccupation of this website.

Musk could actually reshape Twitter expressly to democratise media, as he said he hoped to in April:

Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is important to the future of civilisation. […] Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square … It’s really important that people … are able to speak freely, in the bounds of the law.

He could supercharge the evolution of the complacent, smug-looking Twitter bird into an energetic woodpecker pecking apart any anti-social old media cliques, and disrupting their instinctive, tacit collusion — rather than active conspiring, I suspect — in only informing the public about what suits their interests and those of their allies and financial supporters, which now include Big Tech.

The scheme for phasing out the advertising-centred ‘business model’ for publishing with which this  post-Gutenberg.com (pG) site began eleven years ago aimed to correct that unfortunate tendency towards centralised control and throttling freedom of expression.

Unlike some high-profile attempts at new media creation — for instance, Truth Social and WT Social, started from scratch by a former U.S. president and a Wikipedia co-founder, respectively, at opposite ends of the political spectrum — pG’s proposal of a hybrid keiretsu-cooperative structure would grow new branches and leaves on existing rootstock.

Any significant transformation — however sensitively designed to calm the loss-of-status anxieties of old media — has to be led by an extrovert able to take it from a blueprint to a practical solution for the 21st century. That is certainly not this writer. I was surprised when certain reflexively sceptical thinkers approved of the keiretsu-cooperative’s logic instantaneously, when I sketched its outlines for them in December 2009. I was dispatched to William Dutton, the founder-director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who invited me to set down my proposal for publication as a discussion brief at the start of 2010.

In 2022, the ideas it blends together turn out to be remarkably like those of Elon Musk and some of his keenest supporters — notably, Mathias Döpfner’s. He is chief executive and part-owner of Europe’s largest mass media conglomerate, Axel Springer SE. In March, he texted Musk to say —

Why don’t you buy Twitter? We run it for you. And establish a true platform of free speech.Would be a real contribution to democracy.

Here are four reasons why Elon Musk could succeed in turning Twitter into something like a keiretsu-cooperative. They might seem a little odd, at first glance:

1. What physicists know about the foundations of the material world — in particular, ‘wave-particle duality’ — supports Musk’s belief that Twitter should be the equivalent of a town square equally open to voices from the political left and right

This correspondence between basic physics and politics occurred to Robert Oppenheimer — the so-called father of the atomic bomb — in the middle of the last century. It would be surprising if Musk, who studied economics and physics at university, did not know about the parallel he drew. 

A British physicist and decoder of Oppenheimer’s thinking, Brian Cox, has testified to the mental struggle of physics undergraduates confronting the bizarre truth that a single atomic particle at the core of seemingly solid material reality sometimes resembles a tiny billiard ball or marble; at others, is most like a water wave on the surface of a pond: ‘Neither description of it is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. They are both necessary.’ 

Just as fundamental science rules out absolutism, Cox has explained, Oppenheimer believed ‘it also has no place in politics or human affairs. It is a dead end.’ The American physicist-philosopher arrived at this conclusion in grappling with the dire, incommensurable weight on his conscience of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recognising that he had given politics and politicians the power to blow up the whole world, he called for rejecting You’re either for us or against us absolutism in favour of complementarity

Almost like a poet, the exceptionally well- and widely-read Oppenheimer spoke in 1953 of ‘the life of the human spirit’ far more abundant than the ‘wealth and variety’ of physics or indeed all the natural sciences; ‘enriched by complementary, not at once compatible ways, irreducible to one another,’ and even so, part of ‘a greater harmony.’ 

2. Musk understands the new media platforms thoroughly from a user’s perspective — and is clearly addicted to Twitter, to which he could owe the vastness of his fortune 

A thoughtful long article on Intelligencer asserts that cannily calculated, massively escalated tweeting has been explosively enriching for him. Though he could be short-changing the Tesla chief’s engineering instincts — possibly, genius — the profiler, Lane Brown, is at least semi-persuasive when he says,

It’s hard to fathom how somebody could make more money faster than anyone ever has by tweeting, yet that’s pretty much what happened: A carrot was dangled, and Musk, likely figuring he would never reach it on the basis of such old-fashioned metrics as quarterly earnings, yoked Tesla’s stock to his Twitter feed and went goblin mode. A little like when Neo from The Matrix realized that reality was a mirage and therefore he could do kung fu without any lessons, Musk intuited the illusory nature of the stock market and social media and ran up a new all-time-high score. If Tesla might have been a $300 billion company under a generic Silicon Valley CEO, it was a $1.2 trillion company with the guy who turned it into a product cult.

3. He could afford to be one of those great revolutionaries who succeed wildly before they fail — on their way to a possible, grand, posthumous triumph 

For example: Einstein, much-quoted for saying that most of his ‘intellectual offspring end up very young in the graveyard of disappointed hopes.’ Long after he won the 1921 Nobel physics prize, he never stopped producing them and on the day before  he died in 1955, was still on his famous thirty-year quest for a unified theory capable of combining electromagnetism and gravity. 

Another example: Michelangelo. He could have luxuriated in retirement after his David and Pietà won him his place in sculpture’s firmament. He continued to hammer out new marvels instead, decade after decade, and spent seventeen of the last twenty years before his exit in 1564, aged eighty-nine, going full-tilt at his supreme accomplishment — the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. He did that keenly aware that he would never see it in limestone, in its finished state. 

It would of course be better if Musk succeeds in his lifetime, but the worst case always bears thinking about.

4. Improvisational — like quicksilver, various, and adaptive — is a quality Elon Musk shares with cerebral-danceable progressive rock (prog) bands such as King Crimson in its earliest (mid-‘70s) incarnation 

It is a characteristic indispensable to successful new media management. 

To observers, Musk’s work and private lives look overwhelmingly chaotic. He already has his (tunnel-)Boring, Neuralink, SpaceX and Tesla companies competing for his attention, with regulators and packs of lawyers — in addition to his nine children and their three mothers; and past and present girlfriends. But this existence that few of us could tolerate for a week is a lot like prog, whose fractured and broken, jazz-like surfaces sound annoying in early encounters, until that breakthrough day when the listener perceives the serene, lush underlying harmonies borrowed by its most gifted musicians from modern classical music. 

‘All barricades are down with King Crimson but mayhem does not result,’ a New York Times reviewer remarked in 1973, after noting that the group ‘gallops into the neoclassical, pulls sharply back into rock, indulges in some just plain pretty music […] changes tempo and mood and comes up with some quirky surrealism in the lyrics.’ 

No matter what turbulence is roiling his families and companies, Musk himself seems to pile up impossible achievements steadily, relentlessly and, it must be said, bafflingly. It’s as though his mind has mysterious underlying harmonies in its depths.

Perhaps this natural sympathy between him and Crimson could encourage him to learn from a legend in prog history about the virtues of staying buttoned-up, at the right time — curbing his tendency to speak and act on impulse, for which his critics lambaste him mercilessly. A tender, exquisitely poignant improvisation for a quartet — ‘Trio’ on Starless and Bible Black — was recorded with only three actual players. 

Every time the drummer, Bill Bruford, wondered whether it was time for him to join in, he sensed that he would be messing with perfection. For never once uncrossing his drumsticks from over his chest for the entire session, his band-mates rewarded him with a co-writing credit for ‘admirable restraint.’

If the reports leaked in May about Musk’s plans for Twitter are reliable, they include halving the platform’s dependence on advertising for revenue, and introducing monthly user subscriptions to replace the lost cash.

Let us hope that he can do that as a first stage in the reinvention of media. 

How far will he go? 

A far-sighted text to him earlier this year from his friend Jack Dorsey — the Twitter co-founder who became estranged from his creation — said, in part:

Yes, a new platform is needed. It can’t be a company. That is why I left. … It can’t have an advertising model. Otherwise you will have surface area that governments and advertisers will try to influence and control.

** Huge thanks to John Logan for spotting my confusion of billions and trillions, and misspelling of kung fu. 

A backward glance at a digital future foretold — and in Silicon Valley’s north, an icon of ultra-Luddite resistance in the California legal system

Changing slowly or not at all: in law, unrivalled resistance to using computers and the internet as avenues to transparency and fairness

Above: ‘All that is electronic does not glitter,’ (pullout) survey article in The Economist, 1-7 March 1980

[ In this post spotlighting opposition to technological progress, one early comment about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February deserves mention for whom it was addressed to; by whom; and from where — flagging up an unlikely embrace of the digital juggernaut. This was the ‘Makes sense to me’ reaction of Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s MI6 or Secret Intelligence Service, to a report predicting that Russia would ultimately fail in its war of annexation. Unthinkably, for an agency whose motto is Semper Occultus — Always Secret — he said that to his 130,000 followers on Twitter. An earlier entry on this site pointed to the equally unexpected display by military leaders — of the U.S. Navy — of an ability to stay on their toes not just technologically, but through wildly futuristic organisational experiments. Meanwhile — in an ever-larger and more powerful legal system — an institution with no obstacles whatsoever to keeping up with the times supplies a curious example of white-collar (and black-robed) ultra-Luddites pushing back against the future as hard as they can. ]

Anniversaries — chances for reflection and taking stock — are most childishly satisfying when they fall in a year ending in a zero. This one, a forty-year marker in 2020, did not seem worth mentioning at all in that first week of March, as ordinary life was shutting down in lockdowns everywhere. 

After five and a half weeks of collecting impressions of the progress of the digital revolution in 1979, flitting across the U.S. and Western Europe on an Economist expense account, the young and lamentably underripe scribbler-journalist was lucky enough to detect a pattern in the notes that soon required a small suitcase of their own. (Lucky by comparison with, say, PhD aspirants who have to abandon hope when they can find no thread of significance in the mountains of research they have amassed.) The discovery had to do with obstacles that had somehow been missed in thousands of justifiably overheated column-inches about the prospect of a wholesale transformation of the way we live and work, owing to the arrival of the miniature computer brain — something called a microprocessor. 

The ingenuity and persistence of Federico Faggin, an Italian scientist working at Intel, in California, had been disproportionately responsible for that breakthrough in 1971. Silicon, his memoir published last year — a book unlike any autobiography of a technology star — contains a sparkling, proud yet affectingly unpretentious account of what it had taken him to become capable of shrinking computers the size of hefty filing cabinets into tiny microchips that could fit inside and direct the laptops, tablets and smartphones that had yet to be dreamt up — and of his herculean labour to get the job done.

Other nimble minds like his foresaw a myriad immediate uses for microprocessors but few discerned the pattern that I did, or mentioned it publicly if they had — because finding one was simply the task I had been set by my editors. Two words summed it up. Resistance and obstruction. Above all, the opposition to change of institutions and industries established from fifty to hundreds of years earlier. This was the opening of my report, a twelve-page survey article — the kind in which The Economist allows its writers ‘more freedom than usual to express a somewhat individual point of view’ ** — slashed to half its original length by the brilliant, workaholic science editor, Richard Casement, who had wrestled with its bulk for days.

The following are among the unrealistic clichés being embedded in the public imagination: thanks to the domestic picturephone/electronic mail/personal computer terminal, computing will become a distant memory; schoolchildren will learn their lessons electronically at home; housewives will do their shopping at home, pressing buttons on their computer terminals, but will switch on their ovens from their cars; and many millions of factory workers will be put out of work. And all because of the ubiquitous electronic chip. 

Technology buffs say there are no technical reasons why all this should not happen in the next 10 years and no economic barriers either, because of the declining costs (down 28% a year) of the basic electronic components. But what is technically feasible today will not necessarily be implemented tomorrow. For one thing, people will resist many of the proposed changes, both as consumers and as workers. For another, all sorts of barriers to change exist within the industries that are supposed to be implementing this second industrial revolution. 

[…]

Three years ago, most of Europe seemed in blissful ignorance of the significance of the silicon chip. The Economist played its part in trying to change that. Today the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

So, this survey seeks to highlight restraints on the rate of chip-induced change that are generally being overlooked.

Without the pandemic, it could have taken far more than four decades for parts of 1980’s conceptions of the future to become our present, and for ‘virtual’ to seem thoroughly unremarkable, understood by everyone to mean ‘created by computer technology and appearing to exist but not existing in the physical world.’

This entry on post-Gutenberg.com is only a brief — glancing — commemoration, not an exhaustive comparison of what my survey got right and wrong about the revolution. Just these questions demand consideration, now, because of their implications for the next phase of the transformations: what would it have taken to prevent it? What degree of resistance, and by what means? Of course the answers would vary from one segment of human life to another. The crucial determinant seems to be — unsurprisingly — self-interest incompatible with change, and in certain circumstances, selfishness unbound.

All that is easily discernible in official reporting in 2019 about a remarkable computer or IT system on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, at Silicon Valley’s northern limit, in the office of California’s Commission on Judicial Performance.  The CJP is charged with investigating complaints about misbehaving — insulting, abusive, raving — and corrupt or incompetent judges by lawyers and members of the public for a state so rich that, on its own, it would rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy after Germany and above Britain. At the time, the minute fraction of allegations against judges that the CJP does not instantly dismiss but accepts for further investigation were processed through this IT system. A report on the CJP’s execution of its charter, published three years ago by the California State Auditor, Elaine Howle — following a meticulous examination of its operations — uncovered these facts about it:

Its computer system shielded the CJP from receiving complaints from the public by any electronic means, except for faxes. Printed forms or grievances that arrived at the CJP by mail or fax had to be typed into the organisation’s case management computer system by a clerical worker.

The IT system was a 25 year-old digital antique when the Auditor’s report was issued, and was still the only means of using computers to file information and process cases. It was essentially unchanged since it had been designed and put in place around 1994 — before most people had personal computers or email accounts, and more than a decade before the invention of social media. 

In early 2016, the head of the CJP claimed that an online complaints system was under development — but there was no still evidence of anything of the kind three years later.

The host of the CJP website — the California Department of Technology — had offered to adapt the site to meet the public’s need for an electronic avenue for submissions, but the CJP either spurned or ignored this offer.

No one at the CJP understood how the prehistoric computerised case management system worked, or had any idea of how to maintain or repair it. The ‘IT specialist’ who built it had retired four years before the Auditor’s investigation, and he left no manual or written instructions demystifying its operation. 

Soon after that solitary computer expert’s departure in 2014, the CJP told the Auditor, it ‘stopped attempting to recruit for the position’ in that summer, ‘because of a lack of qualified, interested candidates.’

Only in April 2021, two years after the Auditor pressed for digitisation of complaints submissions, did the CJP begin to accept online reports about California judges.

Excerpt from the report of the California State Auditor on the Commission for Judicial Performance, 25 April 2019

Why did California’s judges risk being ridiculed about that system by anyone, let alone the supreme management-and-performance watchdog for state agencies? For the same reason why, in October 2016, the CJP sued the Auditor to try — unsuccessfully — to derail the audit, in what became a two-year battle in court. To evade public scrutiny and accountability. To do all it could to obstruct the creation of records of judges acting against the interests of California taxpayers — in a tradition that can be traced back at least as far as the British Raj in 18th-century India.

Two final bits of context about the CJP’s jewel of ultra-Luddism, its icon of resistance to the information age in a profession that runs on information — which should be impounded and displayed in Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum in San Jose. Law is, after all, one of the wealthiest segments of the California economy — with a legal services market estimated at $54 billion, made up of 71,362 businesses in 2019, in a reckoning by IBIS World. ‘The expanding empire of law is one of the most significant phenomena of our time’ — as Jonathan Sumption, a former member of the U.K. Supreme Court, has pointed out in a special BBC Radio 4 series, the Reith Lectures. Reminding listeners of law’s ‘vast domain’ when he turned to the U.S., he added that ‘lawyers, as a body, form the most powerful, if not the only, counterpoint to the democratic element in the Constitution.’

Here is one conclusion about the digital revolution that could not have occurred to me in 1980. Power resists technological progress when new tools can expose its weaknesses; oblige it to account for lapses; and force it to accept punishment for them. Excessive power can take resistance to absurd, shameful extremes.

                                                     CHERYLL BARRON

7 March 2022

** The Pursuit of Reason, Ruth Dudley Edwards, 1993