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Elon Musk’s Twitter opera exposes hazards posed by tech sector

Karlin Lillington: If Musk were competing in some billionaire version of The Apprentice, he’d have been fired by now for incompetence

As the strange opera that is Elon Musk’s Twitter continues to reveal its latest you-must-be-joking plot twists, we can at least be thankful for one thing.

Never has a single action by one individual done so much in such an astonishingly short period of time to expose so many of the ethics and talent-constrained technoboys of Silicon Valley and the powerful fiefdoms ruling the tech sector.

In jig-time, Musk is demolishing the myth of the brilliant billionaire, usefully demonstrating just how much luck, plus cash from family or Valley tech investment poohbahs (or, why not both?) determines big-stage success. And not, say, business acumen.

Musk tweet-attacked Apple chief executive Tim Cook for limiting ‘free speech’ this week for apparently cutting back on Twitter advert spending

Because if ever there were a spectacular bonfire of personal vanities put on vainglorious display, the Musk over-priced purchase and ongoing destruction of $44 billion worth of social media wealth are certainly it.


If Musk were a competitor in some billionaire version of The Apprentice, he’d have been fired by now for incompetence, even by as dubious a fellow as alleged billionaire businessman Donald Trump.

By wiping out most or all of the teams dedicated to managing the exact difficulties already plaguing Twitter’s viability, Musk’s crapshow has been a daily reinstitutionalising of all that has been most problematical at the platform.

This, ironically in the name of a new “hardcore” work ethic, is followed by leisurely Chief Twit tweet rants, causing wary advertisers to rush for the exits.

What few promises were made at Musk’s start — the creation of a Facebook-like content advisory board, a pause in decision-making on banned accounts, a vow to make the site a welcoming place for public discourse — were all promptly defenestrated and for no apparent reason except that chaos seems a more interesting route towards wealth-destruction for a tech bro.

The boards, investors, lawyers and accountants of Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company must be increasingly anxious as their joint chief executive tweets away the day from Twitter HQ in San Francisco.

Take last Monday, a particularly noisy day for Musk, when he tweeted about two dozen comments, memes and images, including a snapshot of his guns — so reassuring during a week of horrific US mass shootings.

Wherever does he find the time? A “heavy” Twitter user is categorised as someone who posts four to five tweets a week. Most company bosses would be concerned about the focus and productivity of any employee spending their working hours firing off a month’s worth of heavy tweeting in a single day.

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Meanwhile, like one of those irritating, self-admiring children we were forced to endure at some bleak point in our schooldays, Musk won’t take responsibility for his bad decisions. Instead, he indignantly blames Twitter’s perma-meltdown on others.

These include “activists,” Tim Cook, or Twitter engineers told to print out their code and lay the paper reams before the boy king in a ritual that might have meant something in the days of the daisy-wheel printer but which now is as anachronistic as the mace of office brandished by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. All for show.

Just as surreal was Musk’s accidental disclosure that he is both thin-skinned and no tech whiz. Musk fired an intrepid Twitter engineer who countered a code (and engineering) criticism tweeted by Musk, by tweeting back a correct analysis of the process.

Then news emerged of many other engineers fired for criticising Musk on internal company discussion boards, just months after Musk tweeted: “I hope even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Oh yes, “free speech”. Was ever a two-word phrase required to do so much heavy lifting? Musk cited the unleashed speech of the “vox populi” as a reason to reinstate controversial accounts after his Twitter polls, in which only a minute fraction of Twitter users voted.

And, Musk tweet-attacked Apple chief executive Tim Cook for limiting “free speech” this week for apparently cutting back on Twitter advert spending and threatening to remove Twitter’s app from the Apple Store. Musk forgot that exercising his own free speech does not restrict others from responding to it.

But here’s where the whole corporate tech facade crumbles. Although it’s not a new argument, Musk’s complaint about the power Apple holds over what we see and do on millions of tech devices goes to the very festering heart of tech corporate capitalism and power. As does the problem of Musk or any individual owning Twitter.

As does the conundrum of the most powerful companies the world has ever known acting as the gatekeepers of our data, our private lives, our activities, our health and our interests. Add in the warped venture capital structures that consolidate funding power in the hands of wealthy, mostly white, often libertarian-to-right-leaning men — men who gave billions to Musk to buy Twitter without requiring even the most basic due diligence or proof of a credible business plan.

The public exposure of these mouldering connections might ultimately prove valuable to the rest of the world, though, if we grow wiser and warier, create better corporate checks and balances and require sturdier training wheels on any society-affecting vehicles that billionaire man-children decide to buy in future.