Dreaming of Cybernetic Brains, Part 2

This is the second of two posts on the idea of Twitter as a “cybernetic super-intelligence”. You can read part one here.

In my last post, I argued Elon Musk’s erratic behaviour at Twitter makes more sense when seen as being ideologically-driven. However, I also argued that the transhumanist gubbins Musk sometimes comes out with in interviews is a distraction.

This is because Musk’s “ideology” is actually nothing particularly new. As Matthew Claudel and Matthew Shafer argue, Musk’s transhumanism “must be understood as a contemporary development of the ideology of neoliberalism.”

Musk’s conception of Twitter as a “cybernetic super-intelligence” is just warmed-up Hayekism; neoliberal ideas of “spontaneous order” given a techno-utopian gloss.

Cybernetics (and “cybernetic brains”) significantly influenced the work of Friedrich Hayek, one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism.

As well as economics, Hayek was also active in the field of psychology, publishing The Sensory Order in 1952, in which he argued that the human brain is itself a cybernetic, decentralised spontaneous order.

Building on his work on the human brain, Hayek saw markets as a form of collective intelligence (or cybernetic brain). The strongest argument against Elon’s claim that Twitter is a “cybernetic super-intelligence” is the clear and obvious stupidity of Hayek’s market brains.

As we’ve learned since the 1980s, emphasising “spontaneous order” and the “invisible hand” means de-emphasising human agency, choice, and political alternatives. It dehumanises individuals by viewing them as mere deterministic “neurons” in the collective super-intelligence of markets. It leads to stagnant economies, degraded environments, growing inequality, and the cynical capture of wealth and opportunities by the wealthiest in society.

These are all ideas that Adam Curtis has explored in his films (particularly All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace). By giving up decision-making to spontaneous order and collective intelligence, we close the space for old-fashioned politics, and we relegate elected politicians to the role of mere technocratic managers of the status quo.

Twitter Will Never Be a Free Market Brain

Gavin Wilde, a senior fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently wrote an excellent article touching on the conception of social media as free markets for truth. Wilde cites researchers at Cambridge University who argue that what is commonly referred to as the “marketplace of ideas” is in actuality a:

“market[place] for rationalizations, a social structure in which agents compete to produce justifications of widely desired beliefs in exchange for money and social rewards such as attention and status.”

Or, as Paul Rosenberg puts it in an article for Salon:

“The goal of most social media users is not to engage in reasoned debate and convince others about their views. It’s instead to gain status, often by taking down people from the other side.”

Or, as Joe Bak-Coleman argues in a Business Insider interview:

“Elon’s tweet [on Twitter as a ‘cybernetic super-intelligence’] is basically espousing the invisible hand of social behavior… We just connect everyone and the invisible hand of collective intelligence will usher in a utopia with free speech and no violence? That would maybe play well on Joe Rogan’s podcast to a stoned listener, but it’s no different than the claim that the economy will just work itself out.”

Furthermore, since taking the helm at Twitter, Musk has regularly intervened in the “collective intelligence” of Twitter to moderate content he personally doesn’t approve of (most recently by briefly banning several prominent journalists).

As the free speech campaigners quoted in this NY Times piece put it, Musk is a “giant hypocrite” who arbitrarily supports “free-speech absolutism until he decides he doesn’t like something”.

As Jaron Lanier points out in this 2021 interview, proponents of “collective intelligence” always, ultimately, end up intervening:

“People who really, really, really want to believe that the invisible hand is infinitely smart screw up their economies terribly. You have to recognise the economy as a subservient tool. Everybody does when it is to their advantage.”

Transhumanist Realism

I don’t think Musk is going to transform Twitter into a “cybernetic super-intelligence”. The reality, I’m afraid, is likely to be much more mundanely depressing.

I think the future of Twitter will most likely resemble other ideologically-driven projects of recent years. The abortive premiership of Liz Truss springs to mind, though Brexit might be the most apt comparison.

If he succeeds, I doubt Musk will be remembered as the saviour of humanity. He may, however, be remembered as the first of a new generation of social media barons.

By serving the “will of the people” and standing up to “the elites”, and by focusing on content that pulls in huge numbers by appealing to our “primal drives”, Musk could end up as a cybernetic Rupert Murdoch for the 21st century.

Or Musk’s ideologically-driven project could implode spectacularly (possibly taking down Tesla and SpaceX too) and he could be remembered as another Sam Bankman-Fried… or a transhumanist Liz Truss.

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