by Oliver Bateman
Monday, 19
December 2022
Analysis
08:33

Is Elon Musk just another Silicon Valley CEO?

The Twitter boss perfectly embodies Ayn Rand's rational egoism
by Oliver Bateman
Vox Deus. Credit: Getty

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.” 


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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.

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

What an uninformed article.
Almost uniquely Musk is not driven by greed – he is driven by a need to succeed and within that, if you follow him over years, it is also evident that he driven by a need to ensure the survival of humanity. He doesn’t even own his own home fgs.
Unfortunately, he is surrounded by loud mediocrity, egos wanting to joust with him and pure corruption. They know he is coming for them and indeed, he went for them – I saw a shift when his son’s security was threatened and I think that was a turning point. Even then, the flatliners quoted absolutely rubbish about the truth of that particular situation.
Even his banning of journalists lasted a very short time to make a point and to those of us with a vaguely working brain served as a timely reminder that Twitter 1.0 silenced people (and journalists) forever. That fact is completely forgotten.
Unfortunately the left (who appear more and more illiberal and quite frankly stupid), created the most noise.
I will be very sad if a true maverick genius and disruptor is silenced.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

Maybe Oliver doesn’t know some of what Yoel Roth tweeted… I do. It is indefensible.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

Mulling… I think he has chosen a CEO already…

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 month ago

‘…and alleged that the company’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth (whose Ph.D. dissertation involved participatory Grindr research)…’

As someone in STEM it never ceases to amaze me how far you can go with a Mickey Mouse degree.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

Vanishingly few human beings are genuinely altruistic. But that’s not the problem.

The problems arise when we pretend to ourselves and others that our motives are selfless when in fact they are entirely driven by narcissism or greed. Or both.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Vanishingly few are *purely* motivated by altruism. Yet a large majority of humans are motivated by altruism in at least some of their actions. (And it’s very common for people to have both selfish & altruistic motives for the same action .) As you say it can be a problem when evil doers mask their actions under a veil of goodness, though if I know my social science, that’s been a universal issue throughout history, and societies have all sorts of ways of dealing with it.

A relatively new problem arose over the last 3 centuries, esp. the 20th, where a minority who dont themselves feel much altruism at all, were able to successfully project their ego driven rationalism onto others. Such randian / ‘rational choice’ / “greed is good” nonsense was largely discredited by the turn of the century and esp. after the 2008 crisis. Sad to see it might be making a comeback as the article suggests. I think there’s more to Musk, but he certainly seems at least influenced by such thinking.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 month ago

No, he isn’t

Simon Segall
Simon Segall
1 month ago

A true devotee of Rand would not accept a dollar of government subsidy. Tesla has made a fortune off governments’ subsidies for buying EVs.

Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago

And the point of the story is …?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

Good question. Rambling, unstructured articles like this one with no obvious premise or conclusion are becoming more and more prevalent on Unherd. Is it that hard to find writers who have something useful and thought-provoking to say, rather than casting their own particular biases on a complex character like Musk?
I’m not 100% convinced by Musk’s motives, but, flawed genius though he is, we need more visionaries him like who are prepared to show us alternatives to our broken model of society. And as for the title of this piece, he has absolutely nothing in common with other Silicon Valley CEOs.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rocky Martiano
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 month ago

Musk’s a very nice chap

Last edited 1 month ago by Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 month ago

I slept in the office (not a home office either) between 2016 and 2019. I had a stake in the company, so the motivation was there. But Musk expects people with no stake in the company (or just some pathetic fob-off options) to do likewise. Does he not appreciate the gaping hole in his logic?

Terry M
Terry M
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

The Bay Area is littered with millionaires who cashed in on those “pathetic fob-off options” btw. Musk is asking his people to make an investment of their time for what is potentially a significant payoff. He isn’t forcing anyone to stay.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I worked very long hours for many years with a long commute. It would have been fabulous to have a place to nap every now and then. Lately they are called nap or sleep pods – the ones I saw at Twitter HQ are luxe bedrooms and not pods.

Last edited 1 month ago by Lesley van Reenen