[ 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.