King of the World?

This piece is a cautious addition to collection of work exploring the context of the Social Age: within that work i have previously addressed (amongst other aspects) questions of citizenship beyond nations, identity in online spaces, modes of belonging, the evolution of work, future visions of democracy, and the rise of the trans-national organisation (latterly the Socially Dynamic one).

The reason for the caution today is that this is a speculative piece, to try some new ideas, as i consider Elon Musk’s potential aquisition of Twitter, in the context of his broader economic and social authority, in the wider context of the Social Age.

The mechanisms of the aggregation of power through the feudal, industrial, and digital ages are well understood: control of land, control of resources, control of infrastructure, each of which types of power results in wealth and hence additional modes of power.

Society evolves to serve the dominant power: so patterns of habitation relate to agriculture, industry, education, government, and even recreation. Education systems evolve to feed labour requirements of organisational systems, that in turn feed social needs of earning, belonging, worth, self actualisation, and social safety, through mechanisms of credentials, salary, career, healthcare, and retirement.

This is all understood.

Historically we see individuals having great impact, generating great wealth and influence (Rockefeller), leaving a legacy of philanthropy (Gates), of oppression (Colston), of industry (Ford), of learning (Johns Hopkins), shadows running through culture, even government structures, and into generational power (Kennedy, maybe Trump).

Today what we see is similar, yet different. The techno overlords today (with exceptions) generate wealth an order of magnitude greater than the Barons of old, with influence that stretches beyond physical resource or geography. The potential for scale for the technologists is greater, the leveraged value higher, the resource cost lower, the constraint of technology more fluid, and the market larger and faster.

The rich get richer and a significant number fall off the other end.

This week sees the potential (likely) acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, through a combination of personal wealth and investment funds. The purchase of the ‘Town Square’ by an individual both staggering in his wealth and power, and global in reputation and reach.

The King of the World?

Musk has broad interests: from PayPal, in finance, through Tesla (self driving cards, and associated battery technology for home and industry, into national power systems), Neuralink (human/machine interfaces and enhancement), The Boring Company (national infrastructure and anything that needs a hole), Starlink (digital global infrastructure), OpenAI (artificial general intelligence) and, of course, SpaceX (manned spaceflight, cargo, mission to Mars, and interplanetary infrastructure). And Twitter: the Palace Court.

I should stress that in this piece i am not exploring the political dimension of this, beyond the impact of this on political systems per se.

Historically we could view that there was a contract, between citizen, within the State, with Government, and it ran something like this: pay your taxes, and government will keep you safe, build the infrastructure, and create space for culture.

Today, the picture is different, in almost every way. Whilst we still pay taxes, and ‘live’ somewhere, our ideas are global, as are our connections – so in a very real sense, our capability is increasingly virtual (or in the metaverse, as some would have it)

Culture is not global, but is in large part transnational, through media, but also human connection and dialogue.

The infrastructure we rely on is, in large part and increasingly either virtual, or hybrid, and our sense of belonging is more fluid, and probably multi dimensional, than ever. I wrote previously about being a ‘citizen of Apple in the State of Lego’, and was probably too conservative in my outlook. Things change ever faster.

This is not simply about technology ‘making things better’, or ‘making things worse’, so much as ‘making things radically different’. Today we can access more knowledge, but also more ‘sense making’ capability, we can be effective beyond Organisations, we can be wealthy beyond national currencies, and we can be cancelled without any law.

Musk has relished this, to a degree: a willingness to play up to and beyond the rules, but also with a clarity that ‘rules’ are often blurred in the execution, and another term for that fuzzy edge is ‘opportunity’.

Musk has an empire of incredible diversity and ambition, and it’s getting bigger. Part of this may relate to the move away from labour and into capital: whilst nations and organisations would gain some advantage from human scale, todays emergent and Socially Dynamic organisations are typically smaller, and less structured than their industrial counterparts and predecessors, and their effect is held in digital scale, not simply physical. Not in every case, but for some.

And possibly markets are ill equipped to place value upon these things: just look at the market value of Tesla, which is really a tiny company in the physical domain, and yet a monster in the financial one.

It’s worth remembering that whilst scales weight an absolute value, markets do not: they are systems of belief, and Musk thrives in a belief system.

King of the World?

Maybe. Do the scales ever tip? Nations are still, by precedent alone, defined by geography. But power, today, flows independently of that. Just because there has never been a State without geography before (allowing for some newly created States, or deposed ones), does not mean that there will not be.

I mean, when geography becomes just dirt, what’s to stop it? If you have followers, infrastructure, and belonging, can Organisations also provide safety?

Maybe: whilst none, to my knowledge, has gone to war, they have protected their ‘citizens’, (just look at – after a reluctant start – how Disney is taking on Florida). And of course the tragedy of the war in Ukraine has illustrated how brands are mechanisms of international power – indeed the surprise is that they were so ill prepared in many cases – Coke and L’occitane – to shoulder this power).

When your economy is bigger than a country, when your influence is greater, when you are more closely and broadly engaged in the world, and when people feel that they belong, can you simply buy the land?

Sometimes things are so obvious that we miss them entirely. One of the key lessons of the pandemic so far has been the irrelevance of geography, and yet Organisations obsess about a ‘return’ to the old. Because ‘space’ is ‘power’ and they are reluctant to admit that power has now fled space.

Just because a truth is inconvenient does not make it untrue.

Twitter is interesting because it does not ‘make’ anything, except perhaps belief, or culture, or truth. Perhaps it is a space that creates meaning – or that allows us to do so.

Perhaps it is an aggregator AND an amplifier. Perhaps it is a multiplier.

I had some sympathy for Jack Dorsey’s reported view, that Twitter is possibly too important to be held in any way except in common. Perhaps partly because we are trapped within national structure, we lack the governance structures or vision and understanding of the truly global.

Whilst infrastructure like the internet is ‘global’ in theory, it is nationally controlled and hosted.

Paradigms trap us.

The King of the World – maybe not yet, but never say never.

This is early stage #WorkingOutLoud, part of a broader body of work that explores the context and potential of the Social Age.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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