"Magnify the power of vox populi by 8 billion and what do you get?"
When they had 250 million users Twitter had 1000 employees. Why employees grew tenfold thereafter while user growth actually declined is a bigger mystery. Instagram and TikTok both ran larger user bases on a fraction of Twitter’s workforce. Once you’ve built the platform, the algorithms run themselves. To Musk’s view, it was just lard, and an opportunity to buy and trim, but there is more at work here. Musk is not Warren Buffet.
Elon Musk was 24 when he founded Zip2, a web search engine, which he sold for $300 million the year after Google debuted. He invested his money to launch X.com, an online system that eased the process of transferring funds digitally, with no need for the traditional banking infrastructure. A year later X.com merged with Peter Thiel’s software company Confinity to become PayPal, which then sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. Elon used his windfall to acquire or start SpaceX (2002), Tesla (2004), Solar City (2006), OpenAI (2015); Neuralink (2016); The Boring Company (2016) and now Twitter.
Prediction: Within two or three years Twitter will be the premium transnational payments company. Musk is going full circle back to his roots, but this time he’ll have three decades of experience in paradigm-shifting new industries. Were he not already the richest man on Earth, I might predict he would become that. He is planning to replace money, using his own back pocket.
The Asian Model
Before Covid struck Wuhan in 2019, I had been making frequent visits to China where I was training permaculture teachers, biochar makers, and ecovillage creators as emergency planetary technicians. As I traveled from Chengdu in the West to Jinzhou in the Northeast to Hangzhou in the Southeast I could not help but notice one ubiquitous app that was unlike anything in the West. Yes, you can pay for your soy mocha latte with your Apple Watch at Starbucks, but can your watch loan $5 to your friend in line so they can take an Uber later that day? WeChat did that, although in China the Ubers were called DiDi then. WeChat was the Swiss Army knife of apps. Order, pickup and pay for your pharmacy prescription. Send a selfie with a panda to your BFF. Read a sutra from Hui Neng. It spread all over Asia, minting WeChat spinoff unicorns.
Musk plans to fill in a frictionless payment system where PayPal, Facebook, Google, Apple, EBay and Shopify have all left a gaping opportunity. Twitter will monetize audio, still, and video short- and long-form content for creatives at a better ROI than YouTube, Instagram or TikTok, but more importantly, it will make secure payments that used to require hard currencies, checkbooks and credit cards. Those will now be done by voice commands or ring-finger taps.
As Twitter takes you through your day from first cup of coffee to late-night screen viewing, its largest revenue stream will be munching and crunching your data, running it through Musk’s AI farms, and selling market mapping services to businesses. Musk may take a fraction of a cent from each transaction, but your data will be his dragon’s gold. All of it will happen sooner than self-driving cars or colonies on Mars, and in fact, all of it may pay for those other Musk fantasies.
During the two weeks of COP-27 in Egypt, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a popular narrative circling the globe that was completely opposite to the shared experience of many of us attending in person or virtually. The dominant meme was that this conference, like all UN climate meetings before it, was doomed to fail and did not disappoint. One sub-theme of this narrative holds that the UN process itself is flawed because it operates by consensus and only makes advisory decisions rather than anything actually enforceable. That sub-theme is both silly and incorrect. I would compare it to trying to use a hammer to unscrew a bolt. You’ve got the wrong tool and you are complaining about how poor it is working for you.
If you have 200 sovereign countries, none of whom would ever surrender control of their purse strings, armies, or executive prerogatives, you cannot expect some one world government in blue helmets and arm bands to come along and command 100% obedience. Sovereigns don’t surrender their prerogatives to the majority vote of foreign governments or the dictates of global overlords. Short of losing a war, that simply never happens.
Consensus and advice are all that multilateral fora will ever accomplish. They are the right tool for that. If you want something that can be enforced, you need a different tool, like a central bank or a court of international trade. Some of the best decisions coming from COP-27 involved these other organizations, not their UN host that arranged the chairs and laid out the complimentary buffets.
Of course, the critics were right about most of the outcomes of COP-27. They were watered down or weak from inception. They lacked ambition. There is still no common system for monitoring greenwash. Countries and companies are all using different criteria and shifting baselines for their targets. Calls to phase out all fossil fuels (not just coal) and to peak global emissions by 2025 were shot down by oil-exporting nations (the same ones that will host COP-28 next year in Dubai). COP27 did produce an agreement to create a fund that would address loss and damage — it was the only way they could vote and go home — but like the two funds that have preceded this one, it does not provide any funding mechanism. It is yet a third empty bank account.
There are other examples of popular memes that are flat-out wrong. Elon Musk is sinking Twitter into oblivion. Nuclear power is staging a comeback. Ukrainian Defense Forces are on the verge of taking back Crimea. Just because these tropes are popular to the point of conventional wisdom does not mean they reflect reality.
There is a 700-year-old proverb, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (the voice of the people is the voice of God). This is often misread to connote some kind of infallibility of popular opinion. It was not true in Roman times, when 99% of the population was uneducated, and it is even less true today, when mass media, new media, and nefarious algorithms meld popular opinion to purchased ends.
The Latin phrase came into English not from a Roman philosopher but from the Archbishop of Canterbury Walter Reynolds who charged King Edward II with treason in 1327, quoting vox populi in his sermon. He conveniently overlooked the historic context, which came from an advisor to Charlemagne, urging the Emperor to resist dangerous democratic ideas: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” (“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”)
One need only look at the crazy candidates recently voted into high positions in the US, Sweden, and elsewhere; Brexit; MAGA; the insane tribalist cults. Audiendi qui solent dicere. This way leads to the guillotine: Salem 1692; Rwanda 1959; the Beer Hall Putsch 1923.
When you magnify the power of vox populi by 8 billion, you can get some really nasty butchery. A better way to go is to improve education, as Finland does. Stop burning books that make didacts uncomfortable. Spend less time obsessing about what celebrity influencers are feeding your mind; they are probably being paid to do that and it’s not for your benefit.
Be more selective about what you feed your mind. That you have stopped by here to read this is a good sign you are on the right track. Don’t cancel your Twitter account.