The public-facing ideology of Silicon Valley is at once potent and seductive. Through the merger of technology and unfettered markets, or so the story goes, a culture of ceaseless hustle and radical risk-taking drives endless innovation. Such innovation, in turn, brings with it better consumer products, new everyday conveniences, and, of course, new opportunities to create wealth. In its most utopian form, however, the ultimate promise of Silicon Valley is more revolutionary — offering nothing less than a kind of secular transcendence that will see our species escape the confines of its planetary existence and, perhaps, even the confines of our mortal bodies as well.
The main ingredient in this futurist cocktail is typically said to be a rare breed of exceptional individuals who rise to the top through a combination of eccentric genius and personal grit. The rise of these übermenschen contributes to the betterment of humankind, and their unfathomable wealth represents a reward commensurate with the social value they’ve created.
In an age of stagnant politics and growing anxiety about the future, it’s an attractive and even comforting story. It’s also one that few figures have leveraged quite as successfully as Elon Musk — who has, for years, projected an image of promethean genius that countless millions have found singularly compelling. Given Musk’s actual behavior, his cringeworthy social media presence, his company’s incessant product recalls (the latest being this very week), and his litany of grandiose pronouncements that have amounted to nothing, it can sometimes be difficult to get your head around. Nonetheless, the roughly one-month period that has elapsed since his takeover of Twitter has probably done more damage to his image — and to the fraudulent and self-serving myths of Silicon Valley it draws on — than any of these things ever could.
By all appearances, Musk’s business strategy for Twitter has so far been about as generic and unimaginative as they come. Faced with declining revenues at a company that hasn’t turned a profit since 2019, he immediately adopted a two-pronged strategy of monetization and cuts — roughly the first-year business school equivalent of “buy low, sell high” in its level of sophistication. In cruelly laying off thousands of staff and cutting benefits for those who remain, while seeking to charge users for the privilege of verification, Musk evidently hoped he could create a new revenue stream while reducing operating costs.
Among other things, it’s deservedly been a public relations disaster. But the hilariously chaotic rollout of the revamped “Twitter Blue” almost managed to hide the fact that in the first place only a sliver of users even decided to opt in (a “Blue Verified” subscription service, costing eight dollars a month, is ostensibly set to debut on November 29). Amid the chaos, marquee advertisers — including Chipotle, General Mills and United Airlines — have begun to jump ship, an obvious problem for a company that generates 90 percent of its revenue from advertising.
In a strictly quantitative sense, we don’t know exactly how bad things at Twitter have become — among other things, because the company is no longer required to submit financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. But, as a recent analysis published by the Wall Street Journal makes clear, things certainly aren’t good for the company or for Musk personally. His own net worth has dropped by billions and elsewhere the value of Tesla stock is down by nearly half since Musk first floated the idea of buying Twitter in April.
And even if we were in possession of more detailed metrics, they would probably still pale in comparison to the actual spectacle of Musk’s leadership itself. Thus far defined by impulsive decision-making, abrupt shifts in policy, and a transparently incoherent definition of free speech, Musk’s management style is bound together by the fifty-one-year-old’s embarrassing attempts at posting through the chaos.
At a certain point, even the most devoted Musk sycophants will have to ask what the master plan is beyond erratic public behavior and lazily trolling the libs. Eventually, a few may even arrive at the same conclusion skeptics reached long ago: that there’s no great promethean genius, elaborate game of multidimensional chess, or modern day philosopher king hiding behind the Mars talk, product recalls, and epic bacon memes. All that exists behind the curtain is a garden-variety capitalist doing the kinds of things that capitalists have always done — in this case very badly.