Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours. — Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
Elon Musk acquired Twitter on Monday, making a mockery of… well, pretty much everyone in one way or another, but especially those who doubted his capacity to line up adequate financing.
Spoiler alert: When you’re the richest person in the history of the world, on paper or otherwise, there’s not much you can’t do.
The deal valued Twitter at $44 billion. Shareholders will receive $54.20, a near 40% premium to where the stock traded the day before Musk revealed a large stake in the company, which will now be privately held. “The Twitter Board conducted a thoughtful and comprehensive process to assess Elon’s proposal with a deliberate focus on value, certainty and financing,” Bret Taylor, Twitter’s Independent Board Chair, said, calling the sale to Musk “the best path forward for Twitter’s stockholders.”
Musk played the free speech card. Again. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he mused, reiterating a nebulous promise to unlock Twitter’s “tremendous potential.”
As widely reported ahead of the deal, Musk secured $25.5 billion in debt and margin loan financing and made a $21 billion equity commitment. He wasn’t joking. Or, if he was, jokes about the likelihood that he was joking emboldened him. Now, the joke’s on all of us.
I gave up long ago on the notion that the general public cares about big picture issues, let alone existential quandaries. Fortunately, a fraction of humanity still expresses some interest in answering the questions that matter, otherwise I wouldn’t have an audience.
I’ve spent three years waxing philosophical about Musk and addressing the (often uncomfortable) issues raised by the dawn of the centibillionaire epoch. I’ve also indicted Twitter for being a soul-sucking wasteland that’s immeasurably inimical to public discourse — a digital black hole that tempts otherwise sane people to do silly things, like engage with bots and follow accounts run by outlets and individuals known for the dissemination of misinformation and propaganda.
Ostensibly, Musk wants to fix well-known problems (including the bots), but his commitment to “free speech” could easily make Twitter’s misinformation epidemic worse. Twitter tried, without much success, to draw common sense boundaries, but every good faith effort was met with allegations of censorship. Never mind that Twitter, viewed strictly as a corporate entity, actually isn’t “the digital town square,” as Musk put it. It’s a private sector enterprise like any other, which retains the right to make rules in accordance with what management deems to be in the best interests of the business.
Twitter has a misinformation problem, but management arguably cared more about addressing it than, say, Facebook ever did. Twitter’s main shortcoming, in the context of civic breakdown, is that real discussion is made impossible by design. The expanded character limit (introduced some years ago) was insult to injury — real debate was still impossible, but the space for implicit shrieking, unnecessary punctuation, fire emojis and cartoon hand gestures was doubled overnight.
Facebook is often held up as the poster child for what’s wrong with social media and thereby for what’s wrong with Western democracies. Lost in that discussion is Twitter’s role in destroying civility and undermining Americans’ sense of community.
I’d argue Musk isn’t going to fix any of that. Odds are, he’ll make it worse. He revels in the kind of juvenile, petulant exchanges that make Twitter unbearable for people like myself.
All of that’s well-worn territory. The bigger questions revolve around recognizing the first manifestations of humans becoming gods in the 21st century. I rekindled that discussion earlier this month in “The Gods Musk Be Crazy.”
Consider also (and this is related) that data is power. In October, I argued the media wasn’t asking the right questions about the so-called “Facebook Papers,” a trove of internal documents provided to 17 US news outlets by a former Facebook product manager and a congressional staff member. In “The Facebook Papers: We’re Not Asking The Right Questions,” I wrote that,
Over and over since 2016 (and really, before that), experts hailing from academic, tech and national security circles alleged social media platforms (Facebook especially) were derelict in many of the responsibilities implicitly associated with controlling vast stores of personal data and, more importantly, the capacity to leverage that data in the service of manipulating users on behalf of third parties.
In most cases, the third parties are advertisers — so, companies. In that respect, Facebook is just perpetuating the advertising business, the goal of which has always been to influence consumer preferences. But even there, you could argue that Facebook’s capacity to target consumers based on an algorithm’s assessment of users’ interactions with the site breaches unwritten ethical rules or, at the least, gives us a window into a future in which algorithms and artificial intelligence know us better than we know ourselves, and certainly better than Don Draper will ever know us.
That’s surveillance capitalism. And Musk is now in a position to rival Mark Zuckerberg and Google for the title of world’s most powerful surveillance capitalist.
Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” cast considerable doubt on Musk’s contention that he’s protecting democracy by buying Twitter. In remarks to The Washington Post (an ironic venue considering who owns it), Zuboff called Musk’s prospective acquisition “a disaster.”
“[This] cannot be compared to anything that has ever existed, and allows intervention into the integrity of individual behavior and also the integrity of collective behavior,” she said, adding that “it’s not only about Elon Musk, but he kind of puts it on steroids.”