Bonfire of the vanity project
By Mark Hurst • November 18, 2022
Last night, someone projected a moving zipper of text onto the Twitter building in downtown San Francisco. The text “Elon Musk:” was followed by an endlessly scrolling list of alliterative insults. “Bankruptcy baby, supreme parasite, petulant pimple, apartheid profiteer, lawless oligarch,” and so on. It’s as though the steady stream of ridicule Musk was subjected to online had jumped into the physical world, a conflagration of condemnation crawling up the walls of the headquarters itself.
The initial, obvious thought: for this he paid $44 billion?
Admittedly, it’s an obvious take. One could have asked that question – and many people did – the day Musk bought Twitter. Well before Elon launched into his series of missteps, it was surprising to see that valuation. No doubt there are communities that derived some real value from Twitter, but overall, purely viewed as a business, it’s just an algorithm serving up enough outrage and hate-clicks to merit a small fraction of the purchase price.
Just weeks later, things now look a lot worse. After firing a huge chunk of Twitter employees and contractors, then upsetting key advertisers with his “checkmark” debacle, then seeing hundreds quit due to his ultimatum to be “hardcore,” and as he flirts with the possible breach of an FTC consent decree, Musk now faces – to put it charitably – an uncertain future at Twitter. Whether the platform survives or not, the current moment only looks like one thing.
It’s a bonfire. $44 billion dumped in a pile, in downtown San Francisco, and lit on fire. I’ve seen it called the hell site, the dead bird site, the Temple of Blab-Elon. With apologies to Tom Wolfe, I’ll suggest another name: bonfire of the vanity project.
The size of Elon’s ego was already no secret in 2021, when Tesla filed a Form 8-K to notify investors that Musk’s title was changing to “Technoking of Tesla.” I wrote an entire column (May 13, 2021) on this folly and others within his empire. Since then they’ve only grown – the empire, and the ego – leading to Creative Good Forum posts like 🔒 What happened to the monkeys with Elon Musk’s brain implant and, with revelations about China’s role in the Twitter purchase, 🔒 What Elon Musk is really up to with Twitter. This is all to say that Musk’s vanity was well established before he decided to blaze it up on Market Street.
It’s hard not to see some parallels between the Twitter mess and the collapse of FTX, the crypto exchange founded by Sam Bankman-Fried, who not that long ago was being hailed by the venture capitalists at Sequoia as “obviously a genius.” (See the Bloomberg review and the archive of Sequoia’s puff piece.) For both Musk and SBF, a massive amount of wealth either caused, or exacerbated, a dangerously arrogant self-image, leading inevitably to a wreck. Maybe the only surprising aspect of the Twitter and FTX stories is how quickly things went south. But then Silicon Valley always did optimize for speed.
More broadly, taken with the recent layoffs at Facebook, Amazon, and other tech companies, Musk’s behavior shows the results of a grossly consolidated industry. The sooner we can switch to non-Big Tech tools – as I’ve listed on Good Reports – the sooner we can build a more just and civil internet that works for citizens, not just the oligarchs.
For now, we’re stuck with a tech industry – and thus an economy – in thrall to a handful of deeply, shockingly, inadequate and irresponsible leaders. The lack of competence, the near-total absence of integrity, have left us all vulnerable to a host of new problems, whether we use these tools or not. This was my topic on Techtonic this week: see the episode page for Lurking dangers of tech. (Bonus: scroll down on that page for Twitter memes.)
For more reading
A helpful corrective to those risks is the Creative Good Forum, where several new threads cover these important topics:
• 🔒 FTX and the crypto crash, surveying the FTX wreckage: how SBF pulled it off, why people were willing to believe in him, and who played a part – Jimmy Fallon, Tom Brady, Gisele Bündchen, Larry David, and others. (Bonus: a prescient-as-always Onion article from April, Man Who Lost Everything In Crypto Just Wishes Several Thousand More People Had Warned Him.)
• 🔒 Mastodon server recommendations: Which Mastodon server should you join, if (or when) you leave Twitter? We discuss options.
• 🔒 As the world goes cashless, all transactions are tracked: Just in case the finance bros succeed at some point and we all use digital currency, this is the future we’re headed into. (For now, it’s illegal in New York City.)
• 🔒 Space junk, from Musk’s Starlink and others, is out of control: Elon Musk’s Starlink is contributing to the exponential rise in objects orbiting Earth – resulting, as you’d expect, in high-speed collisions and explosions. We discuss what’s happening, and what’s next.
• 🔒 New and improved surveillance: In this ongoing thread we’ve recently discussed facial rec at airports, Google being sued over location surveillance, Google getting access to hospital-patient data, and in New York City, surveillance “tokens” being inserted into trees on the sidewalk.
• 🔒 More Musk reading: Several posts about “the death of the boy genius,” “Musk’s midlife crisis,” Paul Graham’s defense of Musk, a glimpse of “space Karen,” and the Irish wake that was Twitter last night.
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Until next time, I hope you’ll join me on Creative Good Forum.
Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
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