It took less than 48 hours for Elon Musk to reveal just how dangerous his new toy can be to this world. Replying to a tweet from former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the man worth more than $210bn with more than 112 million Twitter followers spread a dangerous conspiracy theory intended to distract people from an attempted political assassination just one week before a major US election.
Clinton had warned that “the Republican party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories”, in response not just to the attack on home and spouse of Nancy Pelosi but a slew of attempted kidnappings and threats against elected officials who have stood up to the Trump agenda and the attempted overthrow of the US government in January 2021.
Musk replied to it by citing a discredited rightwing blog claiming there was something else at work in the hammer attack that put Paul Pelosi into the hospital, that it might not have been motivated by animus on the extreme right. Musk later deleted his response. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote on Sunday morning.
That someone of such prominence and power would tweet first and ask questions later is indicative not only of Musk’s bad habits but of the demands of this age. Musk’s takeover of Twitter was greeted on the radical right with glee. Within hours of the announcement that the deal had closed, more than 300 accounts began a coordinated barrage of hateful expressions onto the platform, sending Twitter security officials, many of whom expect to lose their jobs imminently, into a flurry of defensive activity. Musk seems to vacillate between promising to keep Twitter clean and safe while also inviting noxious accounts back to the service and yielding to whatever he thinks “free speech” is.
He has even floated a half-baked idea of creating different Twitter experiences for users to pander to their personal tolerance to disturbing content. How such an idea would work in Turkey, Germany, Morocco, or Pakistan is unclear. Then again, everything that Musk expresses is unclear. It’s a series of hunches and feelings, devoid of learning, analysis, rigour, or consideration of consequences.
Musk, despite his wealth, good fortune, and global influence, is not a serious person. He never exhibits any deep grasp of any issue of substance. He’s shown from the beginning of his dance with buying Twitter that he does not understand the company, how it makes money, how or why it tries to keep the experience pleasant and clear for its 230 million users, or why it’s such a terribly run business.
Beyond his bumbling acquisition of Twitter, which he tried for months to escape, Musk has embarrassed himself by using the platform to voice profoundly ignorant and dangerous positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, embraced Musk’s “plan” (which was no plan at all). Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reminded his followers that Musk has seemed to support the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression when it served his purposes. Yet now, just as the war has tilted in favor of Ukraine, Musk seems to be willing to boast of his closeness to Russia.
Most dangerously, Musk has directly complicated the security of Ukraine directly in recent weeks. He boasted for months about how his company, SpaceX, was providing, for no fee, impromptu internet connectivity to civilians and military in Ukraine. Then, in recent weeks, SpaceX has indicated that it can’t or won’t continue to provide this essential service to Ukraine. Even though most of the Internet hubs used for the service, called Starlink, have been purchased and donated by governments and supportive non-governmental organisations, Musk wants governments to pick up the whole bill now. While that’s not an unreasonable request, it belies the fact that Musk happily drew accolades for his alleged generosity and still would control the infrastructure itself.
Musk is unserious but is toying with dangerous ideologies nonetheless. He subscribes to “longtermism”, a muddled pseudo-philosophy that emerged from an amalgam of radical utilitarianism and “effective altruism”. It exhibits complete faith in the ability of technological and financial elites like Musk himself to re-engineer humanity, transcend corporeal limits, embrace other planets as homes and destinations, and surrender autonomy to elites instead of people. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-humanistic.
This goofy collection of dorm-room-bong-hit-level ideas is taken deeply seriously among the rich boys of Silicon Valley. While, like the libertarianism that intersects with it, longtermism is easy to dissect and dismiss, it is also dangerous because it’s so attractive to the rich and powerful. The short-term implications of longtermism include a tolerance, if not embrace, of chaos agents that might include antisemites, fascists, misogynists, tricksters, and trolls.
Any group or force that can disrupt or distract serious thought about serious problems serves the cause of longtermism. If enough people resign from the public sphere and surrender their autonomy to technology, those who control that technology can guide us anywhere they want, regardless of the pain suffered along the way. The basic tenet of longtermism is something like: “As long as we can check out of this hotel room, we might as well trash it. We will build and own a better hotel in the long term.”
Or, as political scientist David Karpf put it, “from a longtermist perspective, it doesn’t matter if Tesla mistreats factory workers, or if Palantir lies about its predictive capabilities. What matters is that these “great men”, these hero-inventors, be encouraged and rewarded for their ambitions. They are extending the light of consciousness throughout the cosmos, warding off existential risks, providing bounteous gifts to the far-future of humanity.”
Like Trump, Musk is as much a symptom of the current malady as a cause. And, like Trump, Musk gives us insight into a vapid mind super-charged by wealth, ego, and a cult following. We are in the uncomfortable position of having to take Musk more seriously than he takes us. To ignore or dismiss him would be a big mistake.