What We’re Missing With Musk

Elon Musk is now the self-proclaimed “chief twit”. His acquisition of Twitter has sparked strong reactions on the right and left. One question concerns both sides: will Donald Trump tweet again?

I’ve been researching conspiracy theories and disinformation, particularly in the American church. And I’ve seen these two responses to Musk: elation and caution. But I think these responses reflect an outdated framework which fails to realize our actual situation. Our situation is much worse.

Failed Framework: Fascism vs. Free Speech

Some believe Musk has secured a generational victory for free speech. This is misguided, but Musk certainly capitalizes on this image. He tweeted “the bird is freed” not long after his $44 Billion acquisition went through.

The belief on the left is that Musk’s Twitter will give rise to disinformation. This is also telling half the story. Though Musk seems to confirm this fear when he spent the weekend tweeting disinformation regarding the Pelosi break-in. So why is this not enough?

His image on the political right as a champion of free speech, and on the left as a purveyor of disinformation masks an operative logic of profit, not the logic of politics. Fascism or other anti-democratic forms will grow from a more primary objective: profit. And these anti-democratic weeds are to Musks advantage.

But we’ll never see this by our present framework of “fascism or free speech”. The framework says more about us. Instead, we need to look at Musk’s Twitter through his other companies, like Tesla and SpaceX. Next, we need to see this bundle of commitments through the lens of what Shoshana Zubroff calls “Surveillance Capitalism”.

Surveillance Capitalism isn’t about Big Brother. It’s more Don Draper. Surveillance capitalism uniquely reveals how Musk’s championing of free speech is paradoxically what makes his Twitter acquisition anti-democratic. Not for reasons of fostering fascist power, but for reasons of economic profit and control.

Musk the Surveillance Capitalist

Surveillance Capitalism is a new form of capitalism oriented around two principles: the extraction principle and the predictive principle. Surveillance capitalists like Google and Mark Zuckerberg and now Musk aim to extract as much data from users as possible. This data is then made available for purchase in a new market of behavioral futures.

Twitter is, in this sense, an extraction operation. Much of our interaction with digital technology takes place along these lines. Twitter is like Google and Facebook in that it extracts and analyzes the “breadcrumbs” of data. It stands to profit by interpreting these interactions and making them available to the highest bidder.

In this market, new players—like political campaigns or auto insurance corporations—trade on our own behavioral futures. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2015 is one example. Players in this new market pay to know our experience. This experience is made “readable” by the combination of our apps, wearables, and smart devices together with powerful machine learning. Our human experience is used to offer products at the right time, in service of their aligned goals.

The logic of surveillance capitalists means that not only must they create endless ways to extract and predict human experience but also find ways to control behavior to maximize profit. I don’t mean this in the traditional paranoid sense related to the State. Instead, I’m talking about control in a way that follows the logic of capitalism: more profit.

Surveillance capitalists follow an economic logic that always scales the extraction process. This is why Musk paid an astounding $44 billion. It’s why some of his chief investors are from Saudi Arabia. Twitter is profitable, but not in and of itself. It is profitable in relation to its extractive and predictive potential. Some may also invest in surveillance capitalism precisely because of its anti-democratic nature.

The more access Musk has to user data, the more he will seek to build an architecture around the human experience which can yield greater accuracy to their predictions, and make more profit. Musk’s commitment to space travel is not so much colonizing Mars as it is creating the extraction architecture through satellite networks like his Starlink internet. The same principles are in play with Tesla’s automated vehicles. Musk’s Twitter is perfectly aligned with his interests in relation to surveillance capitalism.

Being Human As The Frontier of Theology

In the end, it’s not enough for surveillance capitalists to extract data from human users. They must be able to predict and control human behavior itself. This is where the fascism/free speech discourse fails. This is because—Zubroff argues— we have yet to grapple with the new boundless, anti-democratic power of surveillance capitalism. We need to position theology on this frontier. Not as some paranoid theological load bearing for conspiracy theories. But as a generative enterprise for being human in light of God and the world we live in.

The logic of surveillance capitalism means that Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is cornering a new extraction point for data to be sold and applied to Musk’s other technologies. Every retweet, every viral post, every tracking capability of the Twitter app, can be exploited, analyzed, and applied to Tesla technology. It can also be sold as predictive data. And ultimately, it can be used to modify behavior.

Let’s say Musk brings back Donald Trump. Corners of American society will champion Musk as a herald of free speech. But what Trump’s return to Twitter really means is the return of more users to Twitter whose behavior can be logged, traded upon, and exploited to predict and modify—all for profit, not political power. Somewhere in all this are exploitive “pirates” of surveillance capitalism, chaos agents and adversaries, like Russia or China, making the most of this new market.

This commitment to profit by surveillance capitalism is corrosive to democracy. But it’s also a threat to our human experience. Zubroff makes this point, again and again. Theology must situate itself at this new frontier.

Musk can champion free speech for human liberty, but the capitalism he practices is itself insidiously anti-democratic. Not because it seeks the tyranny of the State, but because it sees the State as a threat to its economic logic. For Musk, “free speech” means greater extraction potential and greater predictive and modifying power— for profit.

Democracy poses an existential threat to Musk’s surveillance capitalism, just as Musk’s latest acquisition poses a threat to democracy. We need new logic and new categories for these sort of acquisitions. Recognizing surveillance capitalism helps make the stakes clear.

For the church, an apocalyptic and conspiratorial fear of big brother, and senseless fears of “Big Tech” actually keep us from analyzing the threats to democracy and human experience emerging in novel, deviant forms like surveillance capitalism.

Musk is not committed to a free speech which gives the church space to “survive” and preach the gospel. He may champion such a vision. But his economic logic and commitments will erode and corrupt the very orders he claims to protect, not for power but profit. This means the church must be less captive to vague conspiratorial paranoia and more committed to producing a theology at the frontier of human experience. We must know our challenges if we are to take the responsibility of our faith today seriously.

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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