I wear an exceedingly large chip on my shoulder from the fact that I’m not a university graduate. Despite familial (and self) expectations that I would follow paternal exemplars and study medicine, I instead dropped out of high school and became an electrician. Go figure.
That chip on my shoulder has been the impetus for a few different things. One of those included a foray as a Paramedic in an unsuccessful attempt to get the medical monkey off my back. Another was a short lived (all of one year) university career during which I started studying towards a law degree.
And while my legal career was equally as short-lived as my medical one, there’s a few things that did penetrate. One was a legal system lecture by the colorful and theatrical lecturer, David Round. Round teaches legal history and public law and a simple Google image search will show just how theatrical he looks. His everyday get-up wouldn’t go amiss in a West End production of Richard III.
Despite 20 years having gone past, I recall like it was yesterday the sight of Round bounding up to the lectern to quote the famous words by Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Baronet, who is oft-quoted as saying:
Power corrupts, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely
I’ve been thinking of David Round and, by extension, the good Lord Acton, recently since the news broke that Elon Musk, famed founder of PayPal and famed man behind Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company and Neuralink has decided to add to his anything but leisurely list of roles by acquiring the social networking platform, Twitter.
Readers will be well aware of the details but suffice it to say that Musk is holding up the USD40+ billion deal as one of public service. Apparently it’s not about the money (Musk is, after all, the world’s richest individual) but rather about upholding free speech and protecting what he declared to be the world’s town square.
Where to start?
Hubris is probably a good place but Musk has a couple of defenses for his tendency towards hubris. Firstly he is open that he has Asperger’s syndrome – making his self-awareness and understanding of social cues less than well developed. Perhaps more relevantly, however, is the fact that Musk is part of the greater Silicon Valley tech bros brigade. What that means is that alongside other luminaries like the founders of Facebook, Google and Amazon, there is seemingly no expectation that he will be humble, will downplay his achievement, or will have anything but unwavering assuredness of his God-given right to both know what is right for humanity, but also to enact the same on us all.
So putting aside the hubris, what should we think of this deal? Well, firstly, there is the fact that Musk is so vehement about free speech. This is the guy who used Twitter to suggest that one of the rescuers of the Thai cave victims was obviously a pedophile since he lives in Thailand. It’s also the guy who unilaterally blocks Twitter users who have the audacity to questions his master plan. It’s the guy who sees fit to make puerile comments about his company’s stock price alluding to 420, frat-boy code for Marijuana.
Critics have looked at this history and, quite naturally, opined upon what the future might bring for Twitter. Prognostications that hate-speech will have a new place to flourish have been heard. Suggestions the great orange one (otherwise known as President Trump) will find anew his place to rant about Mexican rapists, fake news and stolen elections are not hard to come by. Musk’s penchant for eking out his own style of revenge for slights (like Microsoft founder Bill Gates shorting Tesla stock) look set to be part of the TwitterFuture.
But critics don’t need to predict aberrations of a future nature to take aim at this deal. No, the reality is far more real and present. Should someone worth a quarter of a billion dollars really have control over a platform that serves half a billion people? Should an industry, already full of people who believe they should have the tiller of society rather than democratically elected governments, be in control of societal values? Should this much power, be concentrated on one individual or group of individuals.
Lord Acton knew nothing of the internet, social media or Twitter but it’s a fair bet that, were he around today, he would be the first to be dragging out his most famous of quotes as a timely reminder of the perils of concentrated power.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s been expressing big opinions on Twitter for 15 years.
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