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Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
I’ll be posting an essay shortly on the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk. But before that, I wanted to say a few words about the man himself. Consider these thoughts to be non-dispositive; I don’t know the guy. And even if I did, I suspect I still wouldn’t ‘know him’ in any useful way.
Elon Musk has been described as everything from humanity’s savior to a clownish con-artist to the Antichrist. I won’t waste time relitigating all of those arguments here, but I think it’s worth including a brief overview of their species.
Those who have declared him a savior in the past are probably the most confused of the bunch, jumping on and off his bandwagon so many times that most have become exhausted with the whole idea. Their ranks are (or were) mainly comprised of soft-left, transhuman atheists who were tickled pink by the thought of one of their own becoming a world renowned celebrity-superhero. He’d get us to Mars, solve peak oil, build robot slaves and install Gibson-eque chips in our brains that would make us, like, more smarter and stuff.
On bandwagons past, he appeared to sit comfortably alongside men like Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Steven Pinker, as a kind of new breed of witty, nerdy uber-rationalist armed with a huge amount of cultural cache (and Elon had amassed a dragon’s hoard of the latter, in a relatively short period of time). But to their eyes, Musk’s true worth exceeded mere fame. In an entertainment era that prized comic book characters, he appeared to them as a living manifestation of Tony Stark; a man who consistently applied his staggering mechanical genius and Big Ideas to the world’s thorniest dilemmas.
Then he went and ruined it all. He started saying things that sounded too right-wing-y for their erudite tastes, lauding stuff like “personal liberty” and “free speech” and other common neo-Hitlerian themes of our day. Despite their tortured logical contortions to the contrary, what these former disciples really appear to be saying is, “Free speech is all well and good, as long as it conforms to those opinions I currently hold. Everything else is fair game for the butcher’s block.” The amount of Fuck Yous I would respond to these folks with cannot be expressed as a rational number.
I think there are probably some believers left in this group, but chances are they’re mostly just Rand-ian mirror images of the original species, discarding whatever they don’t like about Musk’s stated plans as a clever ruse. Ten-dimensional chess, and all that.
Clown Prince of Crime
Next up, we have his clownish con-artist accusers. Here’s Elon again, playing with a samurai sword on Rogan’s show to distract us from his SEC violation. And look yonder! There he is stealing a farting unicorn, and making weirdass Euro trance music, and selling Flamethrowers, and cuckolding Johnny Depp, and breaking bread with the Right Wing Onion, and smashing the window of his giant G.I. Joe toy, and trolling the President, and X, and Y, and Z. Never forget Z!
In this model, Musk is exactly as puckish and amused as he appears to be, but is also possessed of a Jungian Shadow that’s particularly long and dark. The Clown is no doubt having loads of fun, but the Shadow is the part of him that’s really running the show, demanding he cut serious corners whenever he expands his (already titanic) levels of wealth and status.
To their minds, there is little difference between the clown persona and the sly trickster; one hand washes the other, and those hands have proven rather consistently dirty over time. In light of this, the on-again, off-again, on-again purchase of Twitter is simply the latest iteration of his tawdry business tactics, with his public comedy routines only serving to distract and misdirect.
Spawn of Satan
The third group — those who suspect something altogether more sinister about Musk — is perhaps best epitomized by the great Karen Hunt’s essay, x. She drills through the shell of nerdy jokes and Big Ideas, finding what may well be the darkest, foulest, most radioactive sludge of the entire transhumanist mindset.
Musk wants our data, just like the Chinese government wants it, just like the US government wants it, just like the WHO wants it, just like Google and Facebook want it. Perhaps this rivalry is being used by AI to bring out the best in each. Perhaps at some point the best of what they have all achieved will be combined together and put through a sieve to extract the gold from the silt of our collective minds.
In this model, Musk would be better named Mask, and the odor his name implies would be downright sulfurous. For those who believe they can see clearly through his many masks to the putrid abyss beneath, the Twitter purchase takes on a much more ominous character, as does his statement at that MIT symposium about artificial intelligence being akin to “summoning the demon.”
Elon the Antichrist’s transhumanistic appetites become his most important quality, and perhaps the only sincere expression of his nature. According to this reasoning, Musk purchased OpenAI not to be its virtuous watchdog, but rather its unholy master and most dominant zookeeper. Ironically, he is “the guy with the pentagram and the holy water” in his own demonic analogy. But hubris is the cancer of intellect, and the philosophy of the arrogant narcissist can be summed up best as: “Nobody can do that! Except me, of course.”
His work with Neuralink is darker still; it’s one thing to summon demons, quite another to blow open a portal for them into human minds. I think there’s a chance that even a hardline atheist can see the existential dangers associated with this form of scientific “progress”. Or, at least I hope there is. If the rationalist’s theory of evolution ends with us turning into robotic slave monsters, then that’s just one more good reason to reevaluate the model.
By now you probably suspect I’m in that third camp, ready to cast Elon into the pit of demons that he seems to both fear and lust after. My short answer is, “Not exactly.”
Karen writes the following, referring to the Pandora’s Box of AI that Musk appears poised to pry open:
Don’t worry your little head about not understanding computer algorithms, just think of them as black boxes. You can put information into them (input) and information will come out (outputs). You don’t have to understand exactly how it works, just know that it does.
This works as a pretty good analogy of how I’ve come to think about the man himself. He is essentially a “black box” of a person to me. It’s difficult to model other human minds in general, but the struggle becomes virtually impossible with people like Musk, who appear bright enough to even fool themselves about their true motives. An opacity of 100% titillates some people, in a “Who is that masked man?” sort of way. For the rest of us, the theatrical quality wears thin quick. There's a “tryhard” aspect to it that suggests the person’s desperation to distinguish oneself from the crowd is due to a very shallow understanding of human nature. With that in mind, Musk becomes significantly less interesting. There seems to be no there there. And even if there is something there, it would probably turn out to be dull as dishwater. I mean, Amber Heard? Really?
So in my own model, Schrödinger's analogy isn’t exactly about whether the cat is or isn’t alive, but whether or not it is a psychopathic tool of evil. Perhaps there is something much darker lurking inside him, as Karen and others surmise. On the other hand, maybe that inner darkness is more akin to the kind that temporarily possessed Victor Frankenstein (I happen to know a little something about that). If this is the case, it’s the kind of spiritual wound that I strongly believe could someday be healed, and his significant talents turned toward noble ends.
Even so, that wouldn’t mean the guy isn’t dangerous. He is playing around with a set of infinitely horrifying toys, and his personal displays of recklessness don’t exactly inspire confidence that he can control his own inner demons, let alone the digital or cybernetic kind.
The retort I often hear goes something like this: “Well if he doesn’t do it, someone else will.” Occasionally, this “someone else” will even be named: “the Chinese” or “the Russians” or “Current Bad Guy” will do it. This axiom will be held forth as useful regardless of whether the word “it” describes “send people to Mars” or “build self-driving passenger vehicles” or “seize control of the ultimate weapon of surveillance and mind control” or “perform disturbing and deadly experiments on primates, as a pretext for the creation of human-machine hybrids.”
Okay. But if Elon is even half as bright as everyone seems to think he is, what an extraordinary waste of his time and talents such pursuits would be. He himself often claims that the Doomsday Clock is perilously close to midnight. Does he really want to spend that time trying to play catchup with all the latest horror movie plots? Or would we all be far better served if he turned his attentions towards foiling the schemes of all those other mad scientists out there? That’s what a real superhero would do, after all. I even think there’s a chance he might try to do that, when push finally comes to shove.
In my next article I’m going to propose just such a version of Elon Musk. I will name this fictional character “Elon Musket” in honor of his adopted home’s ancestral weapon. This is a thought experiment, mind you: I am not suggesting this is who Elon actually is, only who he could potentially become if he ever wakes up and smells the coffee.
Everything about this new person outwardly appears to be the same, sealed up tight in the blackest of boxes. But, unbeknownst to all of us, one critically important thing has changed. Instead of describing this change in words, I’ll put it this way:
In a moment of revelation, Elon Musket sees the world, humanity and our future less like this…
And more like this…
On the exceedingly off chance that Elon ever happens to read this, I’ll let the Beatles have the final word here:
Nowhere man please listen
You don't know what you're missing
The world is at your command
Ah, la, la, la, la
Thanks for reading, billionaire or otherwise. I'm going to post in depth about the Twitter deal, probably in a day or two. Stay tuned.
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