December 19, 2022 - 8:33am

Elon Musk, who last night turned to a Twitter poll to ask his followers if he should step down as head of the social media company he now runs, has had a busy couple of weeks. He has halved the size of Twitter’s workforce, continually tinkered with its verification and subscription programmes, suggested he might develop his own phone if Apple threatened to pull the Twitter app from its OS storefront, and alleged that the company’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth (whose Ph.D. dissertation involved participatory Grindr research) was endangering child safety

Along the way, he tweeted nearly a thousand times in November alone, on subjects both profound and irreverent, and handed big-name independent journalists Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi an exclusive look at the previous regime’s approach to moderation. He also restored a number of previously banned accounts, including that of former president Donald Trump, offering more than lip service to past statements about being a “free speech absolutist.” 

However, in the face of mounting criticism from the mainstream media — which has covered Musk more closely than any person since Trump in his heyday — he began banning journalists and other individuals who posted information regarding his whereabouts or harsh criticism of his actions.

Bari Weiss, despite having gained tens of thousands of followers and Substack subscribers from her participation in reporting that Musk required her and Taibbi to share first via Twitter, took umbrage with these bans, tweeting that it appeared the “new regime,” like the previous one, was “governed by its own whims and biases.” Musk responded by accusing Weiss of “virtue-signaling to show that you are ‘good’ in the eyes of [the] media elite to keep one foot in both worlds.” 

All of this has galvanised public opinion. Some, like Ariana Huffington, have hastened to label Musk a menace and a fraud. Others, including UnHerd’s Mary Harrington, have suggested that being governed by the whims of one latter-day tech Caesar might be preferable to rule by a group of unaccountable lesser elites. Interesting as these takes might be, they seem to overlook a far simpler answer: Musk is nothing more (or less) than a Silicon Valley CEO speedrunning past a great deal of institutional inertia, relying on a tested model built around premises like “move fast and break things” and “controversy creates cash” to make himself a boatload of money. 

In the short term, Musk has lost a bit of his staggering net worth and received a great deal of criticism from various sectors (including the jeers of a crowd at a Dave Chappelle comedy show). But what he is really doing, as New York Times columnist Kevin Roose noted recently in a column that was largely critical of the CEO, is catering to the “bossist” sensibilities of Silicon Valley. Roose, while critical of Musk’s approach, notes that a number of CEOs and venture capitalists have recently praised Musk. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, went so far as to call Musk “the bravest, most creative person on the planet.” 

Setting aside the question of whether or not it is good that Musk is ridding his organisation of ESG programming and employee resource groups, he is in fact doing something Silicon Valley is keenly interested in observing: radically cutting staff and raising working hours in advance of a potential recession that has already seen tech companies slashing jobs

Musk, who praised objectivist writer Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ back in 2018 while cautioning that its message should be “tempered with kindness,” is clearly putting Rand’s ethical theory to the test. For Rand, self-interest, properly understood, is the standard of morality and selflessness is the deepest immorality. Self-interest, by this standard, entails perceiving one’s life and work as the highest values, while refusing to exist as a servant or slave to the interests of others. 

Such a “rational egoist” ethic has long been synonymous with many quarters of Silicon Valley, and Musk has applied it like few others: everything he does on behalf of Twitter makes news, and all the news he makes for Twitter is for his own aggrandisement. Perhaps he hasn’t yet bought $50 billion worth of free publicity, but he can’t be far off — and once AI has automated the coders, designers, and marketing people he surely doesn’t want to pay, he can sit alone at the top of the mountain.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work