Like most of you, I’m fascinated by Musk’s recent doings at Twitter. His behaviour seems weird. Is he playing four-dimensional chess? Is he high?
I guess it’s part of Musk’s whacky public persona. Nevertheless, it all seems rather strange behaviour for the CEO of an extremely debt-laden social media platform that relies overwhelmingly on advertising revenue, no? There are surely more satisfying ways to burn through 44 billion dollars?
Certainly, Musk’s antics have alarmed a lot of people: those advertisers, for example, are dropping Twitter like it’s radioactive; staff (those who haven’t been fired) have been resigning en masse; celebrities have been deleting their accounts; regulators in the US and Europe are issuing warnings. There is even early evidence that Musk’s behaviour is starting to impact his other business ventures, such as Tesla.
What’s going on?
Has Musk Been ‘Twitter Poisoned’?
Jaron Lanier, an American artist and computer scientist (and a “father of virtual reality”) has written a guest essay in the New York Times, a summary of which is available here, arguing that Musk has been “Twitter poisoned” by the kind of gamified feedback loops I’ve written about previously.
I’m unconvinced. Social media feedback loops are not mind control. I’m sceptical of the behaviourist concepts Lanier mentions in his NY Times piece, which I think can only work in very specific conditions of power imbalance. Musk is a wealthy, powerful man with plenty of agency. I don’t think he’s being conditioned by Twitter.
I actually think a book Lanier wrote in 2010, You Are Not a Gadget, gives us a better explanation of Musk’s behaviour. In it, Lanier describes a popular Silicon Valley belief in the emergence of a sort of technological “global brain” (you can see a YouTube interview with Lanier where he talks about this here).
Musk’s bizarre actions are entirely consistent with this ideology. I think his behaviour, while obviously erratic, makes a bit more sense if viewed through the lens of Musk wanting to “save civilization”, supported by his ideas about human nature, economics, and a long-termist, transhumanist eschatology.
Which is a problem, as Lanier argues persuasively, because not only are these ideas deeply flawed (i.e. they don’t even work on their own terms), they are inherently dehumanising and destructive.
Musk Wants Twitter to Be a Collective Intelligence
On 3 November 2022, Elon Musk tweeted that he considered Twitter to be an example of a “collective, cybernetic super-intelligence.”
This isn’t the first time Elon has made this point. Back in 2018, when Musk appeared on an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience (yes, the same livestream where he partook of the devil’s lettuce and tanked Tesla shares by 10%) he made a similarly bold statement about collective intelligence:
“Well, I mean, you could argue that any group of people, like a company, is essentially a cybernetic collective of people and machines. That’s what a company is… This is also true of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and all these social networks. They’re giant cybernetic collectives.”
Elon isn’t alone in this line of thinking. His ideas resonate strongly with similar arguments made by others in the tech world; for example, Joscha Bach, a German AI engineer at Intel Labs argues that “corporations are already AIs”, or François Chollet, a French AI researcher working for Google, who tweeted in May that:
“It’s entirely accurate to describe certain collective human institutions as ‘intelligent’ (such as science, a large company, the economy…), as they feature every attribute of intelligence & agentness.”
Chollet goes on to explain that, as he sees it, intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing, and his examples of collective intelligence (science, large companies, the economy, etc.) are different from human intelligence in that they are not conscious entities:
“Now, as far as I understand consciousness, it seems highly unlikely that any of these systems exhibits subjectiveness or consciousness (despite being able to introspect and having models of themselves).
Consciousness is simply not a requirement for intelligence, nor is it an inevitable emergent consequence of running an intelligent agent. It is merely a useful functional feature of a specific kind of agent.”
In fact, Joscha Bach goes further in arguing that consciousness and intelligence are always separate, even in people; he sees humans as like Officer Murphy strapped into the AI-driven robotic shell of RoboCop (“a passenger and only in it for the ride [with] the impression he makes all decisions, all the actions”).
There’s something distinctly Schopenhauerian about the notion that our conscious intellects are driven by a blind, subconscious will (“we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants”). It’s a deterministic view of consciousness shared with the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.
For Joscha Bach, as for Schopenhauer and Freud, consciousness is not in the driving seat. Something else (whether “will”, “instinct” or “primal drives”) is in control.
Projecting Our Primal Drives Online
The deterministic view of human nature helps shed light on Elon Musk’s increasingly bizarre behavior at the helm of Twitter. Like Joscha Bach (and like Schopenhauer, Freud, and behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner), Musk believes human behaviour can be explained through unconscious reflexes and drives.
Musk seems to believe that, in order to be successful, Twitter needs to keep users engaged, which means appealing to our subconscious urges and drives. During Musk’s appearance on the Joe Rogan show, he put it like this:
“Well, you mentioned all those things; the sort of primal drives. Those’re all things that we like and hate and fear. They’re all there on the Internet. They’re a projection of our limbic system… In some measure, it’s like the success of these online systems [e.g. Twitter] is sort of a function of how much limbic resonance they’re able to achieve with people. The more limbic resonance, the more engagement.”
In other words, Twitter is a cybernetic projection of what Musk calls, in a nod to Freud, “our id writ large”. He believes social media platforms are successful if they can channel our most primal urges: our lust, fear, rage, and hatred.
If Musk’s goal is to ensure Twitter has as much “limbic resonance” as possible, then trolling people and behaving outrageously makes a weird kind of sense. The more people are excited, entertained, and outraged, the more they engage, the more “alive” the cybernetic super-intelligence becomes.
This also feeds into some rather far-out transhumanist ideology. Musk has stated on several occasions that he hopes Artificial Intelligence will one day enter into a symbiotic relationship (via his company Neuralink, of course) with our limbic system and cortex, to become a “tertiary layer of digital super-intelligence”.
However, this transhumanism stuff is a distraction from the more immediate challenge. The less fanciful, more depressingly mundane outcome is that Twitter, driven by Musk’s ideological beliefs, doubles down as a toxic social media hellscape, further radicalising politics and society more broadly.
I have a friend who argues the realities of running a business (e.g. see the potential bust-up with Apple’s Tim Cook) won’t allow this to happen… but I think he underestimates how ideological Musk really is.
This post is already too long, so I’ll leave things here and get into where I think Twitter might be heading next time (spoiler: I don’t think it will ever be a cybernetic super-intelligence).
This is the first of two posts on the idea of Twitter as a “cybernetic super-intelligence”. You can read part two here.