Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and X (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Elon Musk and your digital soul

Don’t let Musk’s image blind you to his business ambitions

Artillery Row

Elon Musk wants your digital soul. That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. Musk casts himself as a free speech rebel who acts boldly and jokes daringly based on deeply-held libertarian principles, but under his Loki-like surface is a much more strategic and highly ambitious man with big plans for our online future. Using the frequent flak of leftist media hate and easily-won rightist media praise as cover, Musk has managed to move the ball forward on his overarching goal. He is set to revolutionise the way we do business and use social media.

There are certainly arguments that Musk’s October 2022 purchase of Twitter was partly motivated by ideology and his anger over his teen son Xavier Alexander Wilson becoming a transgender “communist. Musk says Wilson’s transition and turn to Marxism were caused by the elite, far-left school that Wilson attended in Santa Monica. Musk moved to buy Twitter partly as a way to stop the unimpeded spread of leftist social forces that promote ideas like child and teenage transitioning. It’s worth noting, for example, that “deadnaming” or using somebody’s pre-transition name on Twitter used to get your account banned, a policy Musk quickly reversed. The left pounced, saying Musk just wanted to have his own version of censorship and “silence marginalized voices.

Wading into social and political issues, yukking it up on the Joe Rogan podcast and posting irreverent memes has helped Musk craft an image as an unpredictable, individualistic rebel who just wants to stop the censorious tendencies of the contemporary left. In a culture and elite class outnumbered by leftists, fans ate it up. Musk has consistently encouraged his rebel defender image, describing himself as a “free speech absolutist” and positioning his purchase of Twitter in the midst of thorny culture war issues and political polarisation.

Deeper investigation suggests, however, that Musk’s ideas for “X” have been developing for several decades. Fitting Twitter into his plan makes a lot of sense, if it wasn’t planned from the start. Musk has never hidden his main goal: to make a WeChat-style everything app. Musk wants a ubiquitous, secure, entertaining and universally useful platform that people can use for almost everything. By month’s end, Musk will reportedly advance his goal yet further, with increased biometric and user data options for X.

Nobody should be surprised at the apparent ideological contradiction of an individualistic, libertarian-leaning man now wanting to get more info on users and link the app to more private data. This is a necessary step to move X into secure financial functionality and launch it into the stratosphere, in terms of its power and capability.

The illustrative lesson here is the ease with which mass public opinion is shaped and moulded. Musk’s public image belies his interest in the rapid centralization and consolidation of financial transactions and general communications.

Millions will believe Musk if he says new biometrics won’t be abused

Net neutrality won’t make a big difference if 70 per cent of people in a country are using the same everything app for most of their daily activities. There’s no need for some big plan to regulate and curtail internet freedom if people voluntarily flock to an easier, centralised place to do their online tasks, share their inner thoughts, and broadcast their news shows and commentary. Musk could step in as a semi-comedic and rebel figure because the cultural left went too far and provided somebody like him a perfect entrance through their excesses. He won’t need to force many premium subscribers to give their biometric data, because they already trust him on a quite real level.

Eventual qualification on the app’s most useful features will be directly linked to our private lives and data, a giant mixture of the private with the public, the personal with the financial. Musk is the perfect person to usher it in — a digital Wild West figure who many millions will believe if he says new biometrics won’t be abused.

As philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han writes in his 2014 book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power:

Smart power cosies up to the psyche rather than disciplining it through coercion or prohibitions. It does not impose silence.

Rather, it is constantly calling on us to confide, share and participate: to communicate our opinions, needs, wishes and preferences — to tell all about our lives.

Friendly power proves more powerful, as it were, than purely repressive power. It manages not to be seen at all.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has sentenced retired teacher Muhammad al-Ghamdi to death for tweets he made expressing his political and religious views. They have also slapped harsh sentences on other Saudis for their posts on X, including a life sentence for a 45-year-old woman last year for trying to disrupt the country’s “social fabric”. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz is the second-largest shareholder in X. You can almost see the free speech gleaming in the dawn’s early light as Musk salutes.

X has just undertaken rolling out “optional ID verification for Premium subscribers”, which may include biometric data like facial scans, fingerprints, account information, and educational and job history. People already do selfie face scans just to sign up for dating apps and open sites with their fingerprint. A social media app centrally and legally linking up your online and offline identity with your financial life and transactions would be a big step forward in the surveillance state.

Alarmism over these changes will only lead to mockery from the many who trust Musk and see him as a rebel and truth-teller. It’s too late to reshape his image in the public eye. Others will drop off, dismayed by X’s turn towards becoming a full-on panopticon with Musk’s hands on the purse strings.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover