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What does Elon Musk want?

Musk's views on science fiction, socialism and Section 230 are key to his vision


The Burning Question is a column that tackles some of the biggest questions in the intersection of science, technology, geopolitics and culture that shape the world as we know it. The column will soon be expanded into a newsletter, and you can subscribe here. Subscribers will receive updates via email, Telegram. Write to editor@theweek.in with comments, suggestions and questions.

It has been a hectic few days for Elon Musk.

The world’s richest man—a restless workaholic who has no qualms about calling all-hands-on-deck meetings on 1am on Sundays—raised $675 million to dig more tunnels for his Hyperloop project (raising the value of his Boring Company to $5.7 billion), won a $13 billion suit challenging Tesla’s acquisition of renewable energy startup SolarCity (filed by Tesla shareholders who objected to Musk spending billions of dollars on a struggling company owned by his first cousins), lost a legal bid to wriggle out of an agreement made with authorities to let his tweets be monitored (Musk’s tweets are officially part of Tesla’s regulatory filings), and successfully launched SpaceX’s 150th Falcon 9 rocket to orbit (the partially reusable Falcon 9 now holds the world record for the most consecutive successes by any orbital rocket).

But the one deal for which he moved heaven and earth was his $44-billion acquisition of Twitter. Musk believes that the social media giant—which he famously described as the world’s “de facto public town square”—has not been rigorously adhering to the principles of free speech enshrined in the US constitution. He also believes that Twitter has become an ideological war zone dominated by trolls and spam bots, a platform the left and the right are constantly battling to shape public discourse. “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally,” he tweeted days after the acquisition. He wants the Twitter algorithm to be open source, with “no behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually”.

Interestingly, Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter has evoked polarising reactions, mainly because he is seen as an idiosyncratic and often reckless billionaire. The right wing feels triumphant—because conservatives have been complaining that they have been feeling censored ever since Twitter banned former US president Donald Trump. The left and the progressives, in general, are apoplectic. They fear that Musk’s stress on ensuring free speech will transform Twitter into a hatchery for hate politics and dangerous misinformation.

Twitter executives themselves are not enthused by the takeover. Vijaya Gadde, a powerful Indian-origin lawyer and the platform’s policy and legal head, reportedly cried during a meeting while discussing the changes that could happen. Also, civil society groups are demanding that corporates keep a check on Musk’s Twitter through a carrot-and-stick approach on advertising; they apparently feel that the government can do little to stop Musk from wrecking Twitter.

All of this poses several big questions—what is Musk’s politics; which party does he support; why does he come across as weird; what is his worldview; where does he draw inspiration from?

And, above all, one burning question: What does Musk really want?

Which political party does Musk support?

This year, Musk completes 20 years as an American citizen. His political leanings, however, remain unclear. He started out as an engineer-businessman in California (a Democratic stronghold) and, after he became a centi-billionaire, moved his base to Texas (a Republican majority state). He has contributed money to both Republicans and Democrats, almost in equal measure (see chart below). And, he has been shrewd enough not to make his core political beliefs very obvious.

For instance, Texas’s Republican governor Greg Abbott once tried to get Musk’s endorsement for his party’s social conservatism, saying Musk had to move out of California because of the state’s overtly liberal social policies.

“Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas,” Abbott tweeted. Musk gave a gentle rebuke in response: “In general, I believe government should rarely pose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximise their cumulative happiness. That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics.”

Democrats-republicans Courtesy: opensecrets.org

Is he a centrist then?

Musk has said several times that he does not like the far right or the far left, but he is certainly not a centrist. He once described himself, very strangely, as an “utopian anarchist”—apparently because his objective was to build a world where there is no scarcity of goods, and where people can freely pursue happiness while not having to follow irrational rules. “I don’t mean to suggest chaos, but rather that you’re not under anyone’s thumb,” he said in an interview last year.

Musk is also not a fan of representative democracy, and holds strong libertarian opinions. He was once asked what guiding documents would he use to establish a governing system if he succeeded in his mission to colonise Mars. He replied: “Direct democracy by the people. Laws must be short, as there is trickery in length. Automatic expiration of rules to prevent death by bureaucracy. Any rule can be removed by 40 per cent of people to overcome inertia. Freedom.”

How serious is Musk when he says he is a utopian anarchist?

Quite serious, apparently. Musk has time and again shown that he has no respect for laws that he thinks are stupid. He once smoked marijuana on a live podcast, causing Tesla’s shares to plummet. And he likes cocking a snook at rules, regulations and authorities. On August 7, 2018, he tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share, and that he had secured funding. This caused the Tesla stock price to surge massively, but it turned out that Musk had not been entirely truthful. He had been in talks with a Saudi sovereign wealth fund, but no deal had been struck at the time of the tweet. People later realised that Musk had made a marijuana joke: in the US, 420 refers to the act of smoking weed. The regulators, for their part, ensured that it was an expensive joke—Musk and Tesla were fined $40 million for defrauding investors.

Jokes apart, what is his view of capitalism?

Like most capitalists, Musk is anti-subsidy. But Tesla has received billions of dollars in subsidies, tax breaks and government loans. He opposes trade unions, saying they pose a barrier to achieving operational efficiency, and is against the proposal to tax the income of billionaires.

Perhaps what sets Musk apart from other dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers is that he does not seem to believe that corporations and the government are, in nature, any different. Musk gives the example of how governments and corporations fare on capital allocation—giving money and resources needed to produce goods and services for society. In his view, governments are just corporations that struggle to do business. The solution: take governments out of the equation, at least in the case of capital allocation.

“It does not make sense to take the job of capital allocation away from people who have demonstrated great skill in capital allocation, and give it to an entity that has demonstrated very poor skill in capital allocation, which is the government,” Musk said. “Government is simply the biggest corporation, with a monopoly on violence—and where you have no recourse. So how much money do you want to give that entity?”

A corporation of the people, by the people, and for the people, replacing the government—is that what Musk envisions?

It could well be so. Musk certainly does not think of himself as a traditional capitalist. “I am actually a socialist,” he tweeted in 2018. “Just not the kind that shifts resources from most productive to least productive, pretending to do good, while actually causing harm. True socialism seeks greatest good for all.”

Surely, Musk must be joking. Does he not know what socialism means?

Musk has scant regard for Karl Marx, and he has tweeted several times poking fun at Marxists.

But Musk does owe Iain M. Banks, a crusading anti-capitalist who died in 2013, for shaping his views about society, laws, economy and human progress. A Scottish writer, Banks wrote the Culture series—a dozen science-fiction novels and stories centred on The Culture, a highly advanced space society living in artificial habitats across the Milky Way. The Culture is a post-scarcity economy where goods are available either very cheaply or free of cost, and where people work only if they feel like it, and are not bound by irrational laws—a kind of utopia that Karl Marx might have dreamed of.

Musk derives his ‘socialist’ ideas from The Culture, which perhaps in his view, represents an ideal civilisation with a distinctly other-worldly techno-socialist streak. In that respect, his claims of being a socialist may not be entirely illegitimate.

So, Musk is a sci-fi nerd?

Very much so. Musk often waxes eloquent about esoteric aspects of the genre, and fashions himself as the “competent man”—a sci-fi character archetype exhibiting a wide range of abilities and knowledge. The ‘competent man’ archetype was made popular by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most iconic names in science fiction who died in 1988, at the age of 81.

“A human being,” Heinlein wrote, “should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

Musk, who prides himself in being a father of eight who digs tunnels and sends rockets to space, is very much Heinlein’s competent man. In 2014, he won the Robert A. Heinlein Award instituted by the US National Space Society “for achieving historic feats of aerospace engineering” and helping in the “dramatic betterment of humanity”. While accepting the honour, Musk said Heinlein had a formative influence on him, and that one of his favourite books was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a space opera in which a colony on the moon revolts against the earth-based government. The reason: the government is bad at governance.

How does Twitter fit into Musk’s plans?

Musk has more than 90 million followers on Twitter. On an average, he posts around 400 tweets a month. He is a bona fide memelord—which, in internet lingo, means a person who is prolific in creating, sharing or being the subject matter of visual jokes (memes). Twitter has been a great PR tool for Musk and his businesses, which rely a great deal on the aspirations, views and tastes of the educated and moneyed class in the west.

But his acquisition of Twitter is unlikely to give him any financial advantage. He has said that Twitter “will always be free for casual users, but maybe a slight cost for commercial/government users”. “If Twitter acquisition completes,” he recently tweeted, “the company will be super-focused on hardcore software engineering, design, infosec (information security) and server hardware”—all of which requires significant capital expenditure.

Twitter has been a public company for nine years, but it has so far failed to make any significant profit. With Musk’s acquisition, the platform is likely to add another $10 billion in debt, which means servicing liabilities could become hard in the long term.

Also, as far as the nature of Twitter is concerned, Musk’s free-speech absolutism could turn out to be bad business policy. The reason: According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Twitter is far from being the world’s public town square. Less than 25 per cent of the adult population in the US have Twitter accounts, and just 10 per cent of adult users make up 80 per cent of all tweets in the same group. Also, less than two of every 10 tweets were original content, which means users retweet, quote-tweet or reply far more frequently than they actually post an original tweet. And most of Twitter’s active users in the US are relatively young professionals from cities, and whose political views lean towards the left. In the US at least, Twitter is more like a lightly-moderated, invite-only town hall meeting, with some very voluble people on the dais (politicians, journalists, celebrities, policymakers) and an audience that tend to encourage rabble-rousing (activists, fringe groups, trolls, bots, and suchlike). Musk’s stress on free speech would spoil the ecosystem.

It is clear that, with Twitter, Musk has bought himself a major problem—a reason Tesla shares slumped after news of the acquisition broke.

If not money, what else can Musk gain from Twitter?

What Musk told Tesla investors early this year could hold a clue. He revealed that the company had started putting more focus on making humanoid robots, which according to him “had the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business, over time”. He said the prototype robot, which is yet to be built, could first be used to “move parts around the factory, or something like that”.

Investing in robots is investing artificial intelligence (AI). Or more specifically, artificial general intelligence (AGI). The difference? AI is centered on performing cognitive tasks—like making complex calculations and predicting outcomes—that all human beings can perform. AGI takes one step further—it is expected to make the machine as cognitively and intellectually smart as a human being. Like a robot that can go to the grocery store, buy essentials, pay the bill and chat up other shoppers.

To build and improve AGI, the system needs to be fed human interactions over a period of time. With Twitter, Musk can have a possibly unlimited supply of raw material, if he so desires.

Is that why Musk wants to weed out bots, and refashion Twitter as a digital town square populated by real people with real accounts?

Possibly, yes. Spam bots can screw up machine learning. Like what happened in the case of Tay, the AI chatter bot that Microsoft released on Twitter back in 2016.

But a free-speech digital town square can be equally problematic. People can be as bad as bots.

That should not be a worry for Musk. The law gives him and Twitter immunity from being prosecuted for content posted by others.

How so?

In 1996, the US government passed the Communications Decency Act, which was the first major legislation to regulate obscenity and pornography on the internet. A major provision in the act is Section 230—a seemingly unimportant one that provides protection to “interactive” platforms that publish information provided by third-party users. It says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In short, if you run an online platform where others can come in and share information, you are not legally responsible if the said information is objectionable in any way. Section 230 is the legal cornerstone on which the internet and social media was built. Without it, tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter would not have been born. Which is why it is often called the 26 words that created the internet.

Musk’s plans are in tune with the spirit of Section 230. That is why he has been saying that the previous Twitter policy of moderating content contravenes the law.

Is the US government planning to reform Section 230? Will Musk support such a move?

Plans have been afoot since Barack Obama took charge as president. Reforming Section 230 has been a longstanding aim of Joe Biden himself. But the Biden administration does not seem to have the political capital to bring the reforms currently. Also, even a small change in the provision is likely to saddle big tech companies with enormous financial and legal risks.

Musk, for his part, has said that Twitter will adhere to existing laws. “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law,” he tweeted. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”