Elon Musk had good reasons to feel unfulfilled enough to buy Twitter for US$44 billion. He had pioneered online payments, upended the car industry, revolutionized space travel, and even experimented with ambitious brain-computer interfaces. His cutting-edge technological feats had made him the world’s richest entrepreneur. Alas, neither his achievements nor his wealth granted him entry into the new ruling class of those harnessing the powers of cloud-based capital. Twitter offers Musk a chance to make amends.
Since capitalism’s dawn, power stemmed from owning capital goods: steam engines, Bessemer furnaces, industrial robots and so on. Today, it is cloud-based capital, or cloud capital in short, that grants its owners hitherto unimaginable powers.
Consider Amazon, with its network of software, hardware, and warehouses – and its Alexa device sitting on our kitchen counter interfacing directly with us. It constitutes a cloud-based system capable of probing our emotions more deeply than any advertiser ever could. Its tailor-made experiences exploit our biases to produce responses. Then, it produces its own responses to our responses – to which we respond again, training the reinforcement-learning algorithms, which trigger another ripple of responses.
Unlike old-fashioned terrestrial or analogue capital, which boils down to produced means of manufacturing things consumers want, cloud capital functions as a produced means of modifying our behaviour in line with its owners’ interests. The same algorithm running on the same labyrinth of server farms, optic fibre cables and cell phone towers performs multiple simultaneous miracles.
Cloud capital’s first miracle is to get us to work for free to replenish and enhance its stock and productivity with every text, review, photo or video that we create and upload using its interfaces. In this manner, cloud capital has turned hundreds of millions of us into cloud-serfs – unpaid producers, toiling the landlords’ digital estates and believing, like peasants believed under feudalism, that our labour (creating and sharing our photos and opinions) is part of our character.
The second miracle is cloud capital’s capacity to sell to us the object of the desires it has helped instil in us. Amazon, Alibaba and their many e-commerce imitators in every country may look to the untrained eye like monopolized markets, but they are nothing like a market – not even a hyper-capitalist digital market. Even in markets that are cornered by a single firm or person, people can interact reasonably freely. In contrast, once you enter a platform like Amazon, the algorithm isolates you from every other buyer and feeds you exclusively the information its owners want you to have.
Buyers cannot talk to each other, form associations, or otherwise organize to force a seller to reduce a price or improve quality. Sellers, too, are in a one-to-one relation with the algorithm and must pay its owner to complete a trade. Everything and everyone is intermediated not by the disinterested invisible hand of the market but by an invisible algorithm that works for one person, or one company, in what is, essentially, a cloud-fief.
Musk is perhaps the only tech lord who had been watching the triumphant march of this new techno-feudalism helplessly from the sidelines. His Tesla car company uses the cloud cleverly to turn its cars into nodes on a digital network that generates big data and ties drivers to Musk’s systems. His SpaceX rocket company, and its flock of low-orbit satellites now littering our planet’s periphery, contributes significantly to the development of other moguls’ cloud capital.
But Musk? Frustratingly for the business world’s enfant terrible, he lacked a gateway to the gigantic rewards cloud capital can furnish. Until now: Twitter could be that missing gateway.
Immediately after taking over and pronouncing himself “chief twit”, Musk affirmed his commitment to safeguarding Twitter as the “public square” where anything and everything is debated. It was a smart tactic which successfully diverted the public’s attention to an endless global debate about whether the world should trust its foremost short-form forum to a mogul with a history of playing fast and loose with the truth in that same forum.
The liberal commentariat is fretting over Donald Trump’s reinstatement. The left is agonizing over the rise of a tech-savvy version of Rupert Murdoch. Decent people of all views are deploring the terrible treatment of Twitter’s employees. And Musk? He seems to be keeping his eye on the ball: In a revealing tweet, he confessed his ambition to turn Twitter into an “everything app”.
An “everything app” is, in my definition, nothing less than a gateway into cloud capital that allows its owner to modify consumer behaviour, to extract free labour from users turned into cloud serfs, and, last but not least, to charge vendors a form of cloud rent to sell their wares. So far, Musk has not owned anything capable of evolving into an “everything app” and had no way of creating one from scratch.
For while he was busy working out how to make mass-produced electric cars desirable and to profit from conquering outer space, Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Facebook and Tencent’s WeChat were wrapping their tentacles firmly around platforms and interfaces with “everything app” potential. Only one such interface was available for purchase.
Musk’s challenge now is to enhance Twitter’s own cloud capital and hook it up to his existing Big Data network, while constantly enriching that network with data collected by Tesla cars crisscrossing Earth’s roads and countless satellites crisscrossing its skies. Assuming he can steady the nerves of Twitter’s remaining workforce, his next task will be to eliminate bots and weed out trolls so that New Twitter knows, and owns, its users’ identities.
In a letter to advertisers, Musk correctly noted that irrelevant ads are spam, but relevant ones are content. In these techno-feudal times, this means that messages unable to modify behaviour are spam, but those that sway what people think and do are the only content that matters: true power.
As a private fief, Twitter could never be the world’s public square. That was never the point. The pertinent question is whether it will grant its new owner secure membership in the new techno-feudal ruling class.
Yanis Varoufakis is a professor of economics at the University of Athens, a former finance minister of Greece and the leader of the MeRA25 party.
Copyright: Project Syndicate