The Twitter takeover will collapse into mere rebranding
Elon Musk is not Thomas Jefferson
The understandable enthusiasm surrounding these recent developments is, shall we say, both naive and premature.
Let’s just begin with the often reiterated fact that technology is not neutral. It’s not “neither good nor bad”, and its effects are not solely determined by how we use it.
Technology has inherent tendencies which are part and parcel of the very nature of the systems, artifacts and institutions we’re dealing with. And when you introduce them into a social setting, you also invoke the equally inherent tendencies of human nature (for all you reductionists out there, let’s just call them statistically relevant patterns or something).
So when you take modern society of the 20th century and toss in a bunch of nuclear weapons, a set of consequences will follow that simply are not optional. While the exact outcome isn’t given, the choices available to that society were quite strictly proscribed by the character of the technology.
Same with automobiles. Given a prosperous growing economy, an ample supply of petroleum, and that technology made suburbia metaphysically necessary. This particular phenomenon was an outcome that the implementation of the automobile made entirely inevitable in that societal setting.
And it’s the same with social media. It has inherent tendencies which will manifest at the aggregate level over time. Even if isolated individuals choose to defer from using these technologies, or actively resist their indirect effects upon discourse, culture and communication &c, that’s not going to matter, because too many people won’t. The general patterns of human behaviour will collectively, and over time, translate these inherent tendencies into new social patterns and structures.
So it doesn’t really matter who owns Facebook or Twitter. These (and similar platforms) will exert their considerable influence on society entirely without regard to the intentions of the shareholders. You may tweak the systems as much as you like, even entirely eliminate filtering and algorithmic censorship - they will nonetheless tend towards their inherent ends. It’s just like how educational childrens’ TV programming more than anything else teaches kids to passively consume televised entertainment.
And what are the… “socio-cognitively” influential characteristics of these social media technologies that I think are relevant here?
Well, they’re quite many. I think one of the most important aspects is the trivialization of the information we receive in accordance with the mode of entertainment. However you cut it, this system establishes an attention economy where the number of interactions is king. This pushes content towards the lowest common denominator (in a context of rapid information flow prioritizing instant gratification) in a way that directly disadvantages subtlety and refinement, and supports neither complex exposition nor truthfulness.
In other words, the context as such undermines our ability to understand intricate problems as well as our capacities of critical assessment.
Another issue is the normalization of surveillance. Even without actual algorithmic interference, censorship and intrusive data collection, well, you’re still marketing a persona in an attention economy. This is going to attune your mindset and, in turn, your cognitive habits, to a situation of surveillance framed by the commodification of human interactions. Follow this situation to its logical endpoint, and there is no such thing as a public sphere. Just entertainment and consumption.
Moreover, there can be no public sphere if there is no truly private sphere. I’m grasping for a way to phrase this in a good way, but if people have no real private space to form their ideas and their convictions independently, then any sort of meaningful public agency, which inevitably must build on that sort of cognitive independence and freedom of the individual, simply has to go.
And in that case, freedom of speech or freedom of the press doesn’t matter in the least.
Of course, we could also get into the intelligence service background, the repressive capabilities, and the various complex propaganda roles of the digital media systems. These remain in place as a function of the basic structure of the technologies as such, and will not be affected by stock changing hands.
So what I’m getting at, is that this Twitter takeover inevitably will amount to something like a rebranding and little else.
A bunch of radical totalitarians and bootlickers will naturally cry and wring their hands a little bit because “Elon Musk is unleashing the nazis”, but while they strain their gnat, the much more problematic (and quite immutable) structural effects of these technologies will remain.
And Twitter, with a reputation currently somewhat tarnished by overt censorship, iron-fisted repression and blantant propaganda operations, will go through a valuable rebranding through this inconsequential transfer of formal ownership. Elon Musk, with his patented anarcho-capitalist cowboy image rides in and saves the day, reforming the operation under the flag of liberty and progress, while the dystopian consequences of the entire technosphere horrorshow continue on unabated.
A digital platform that’s “maximally trusted” sounds like a really dangerous idea.