The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, October 31, 2022

"The Bird is Free." Will Elon Musk Become Grand Duke of Mars?


The news of the day is that Elon Musk took control of Twitter and promises to abolish censorship. At the same time, the platforms most plagued by censors, FB for instance, are taking a bloodbath in the market (Twitter is doing much better!). It is part of the evolution of the Web, an entity much too complex and structured to be controlled by dumb creatures such as "fact checkers" and their AI henchbots. We don't know what Musk has in mind: he may plan to become the next US president or maybe to rule Mars as Grand Duke. In any case, he seems to understand better than many others how to use social media as a communication tool. 

It is said that the Grand-Duke, of Tuscany, Cosimo 1st, (1519 – 1574) used to sit, unseen, behind a low window of his palace to hear what people passing by were saying. He wanted to know what his subjects were thinking of him. He needed to: it was part of his ruling method. He used an iron fist when needed, but he also used a velvet glove to turn enemies into friends. For instance, the masterpiece of statuary, "Perseus and Medusa," was cast by a former enemy of his, Benvenuto Cellini, whose skills Cosimo admired. 

The "Perseus" is still standing in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. With it, and with other pieces, Cosimo 1st was carrying out a propaganda campaign where he presented himself as the "monster slayer" Perseus: a stern, but just, ruler. But he needed to know how his message fared with its targets. In this case, the citizens of Florence themselves informed him by commenting aloud while looking at the statue (probably knowing that the Duke was listening from the window, nearby) and writing their comments on small pieces of paper that they glued to the pedestal. We don't know what they said and wrote, but, apparently, they thought that the statue was too much on the "stern" side and too little on the "just" one.  The Duke was disappointed enough that he never paid Cellini for the work he had done. I told this story in detail in an earlier post

There are many ways to operate a propaganda campaign. In ancient times, of course, they didn't have the technologies we have nowadays, but the problems were the same. Rulers could not reach citizens individually, but they would "broadcast" their power by means of impressive imagery and buildings. Then, the people had a certain capability of sending messages back to the rulers. And some enlightened rulers, such as Cosimo 1st, knew that a ruler who doesn't know what his subjects think doesn't survive for long. But, to hear what the citizens say, there is a need for a certain level of freedom of expression. It was a good way of ruling: Cosimo was a true Renaissance Man, who patronized art and science and did not oppress his subjects too much. He reigned for 32 years and started a dynasty of Grand-Dukes that lasted up to 1737. 

In time, propaganda evolved. The "mass media," first the press, then radio and TV, started being fundamental during the 20th century. They are great broadcasting technologies, but they are extremely poor in terms of two-way communication. With the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, people were receiving messages from their rulers, but they could not talk back to them. The only way for governments to know what people were thinking was to rely on spies, but that was usually overdone. In the Soviet Union, in Iran at the time of the Shah, and in many other places, what you said to a friend could end up being reported to the police, and you risked disappearing in the night, forever. Soon, people lost all interest in expressing their opinion to anyone. 

The problem with totalitarianism is that it is rigid and inflexible. Rulers tend to think that the fact that nobody criticizes them means that nobody disagrees with them, they get absorbed into their internal squabbles, and they soon lose track of what the real problems are. That's one of the reasons why totalitarian states are not usually long-lived. A good case is that of the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, in Italy. One of the most totalitarian states of its times (and perhaps in known history), the total control of the media by the state was matched only by the total incompetence of the government. And it ended with the great leader hanged upside down, as it was perhaps unavoidable.  

How about our times? By the end of the 20th century, Western propaganda was a sophisticated machine that worked on the principle that "the devil's best trick is to convince you that he doesn't exist" (Baudelaire said that). It was structured in such a way that it gave the citizens the impression that they were free to express themselves. It was obvious, though, that opinions contrasting with those of the government would always remain confined to spaces occupied only by visionaries and crackpots. It was a form of "invisible totalitarianism." 
But technology always changes things. The Web and social media were the equivalents of a monkey wrench thrown into the works of the smooth Western propaganda machine. The elites soon realized that they could hardly control the system when anyone could use it at a low cost. And anything could go viral on the Web, out of control, no matter how subversive. That led to a scramble to take control of the Web. 

So far, the action has been mainly with the search engines: those who control them, control the Web. If you have experienced "shadow-banning," you know how effective it is, and how defenseless you are against it. In more recent times, we saw soft banning supplemented with true banning. A large tribe of so-called "fact-checkers" appeared on the main social platforms, cracking down on whoever said something that their employers didn't want to see diffusing on the Web. With the idea that social platforms are private spaces, it was argued that the 1st amendment does not hold there, The account of a former US president on Twitter was canceled, and even top-level scientists were censored. Sometimes, just linking to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals could lead to your account disappearing in the night, forever. 

Some people absolutely love censorship. But many (perhaps most) users of social media didn't like to be watched from over their shoulders by those overzealous nannies who pretended to know better than them what is true and what is not.  That generated criticism, and some attempts to rein in the censors. But, so far, we only saw censorship increasing its reach and becoming more pervasive.

Except for the news of the day: the bird is free! Elon Musk bought Twitter and promises to eliminate censorship.

What's happening? There are several possible interpretations, but at least something is clear: those who rule us are not a monolithic entity, as the Communist Party was in the Soviet Union. There are several would-be world rulers who are vying for power behind the scene. Musk may actually be smarter than most of them and able to understand that you gain nothing by silencing those who disagree with you. Suppose he wants to become the next US president, or maybe the Grand Duke of Mars, then he has to think like the Grand Duke of Tuscany did. He needs to know what people think because he can rule only if people agree that he is the ruler. Ruling by force and oppression is inefficient and, often, the ruler ends up hanged by the feet. So, Musk may well understand that he needs to leave some space for people to express themselves. The bird may not be completely free, but it has to be able to fly

We seem to be in a transition moment (we always are). The Internet is under pressure by the attempt of controlling it by the powers that be, turning it into a tool for a totalitarian government (in China, the government may have succeeded at that). But, at the same time, some members of the elites are realizing that the Internet is a much better tool if used according to its characteristic of a two-way communication system. The Internet may allow us to generate a new governance system that might be more effective and just than the old totalitarian systems. It might be part of a "new Renaissance" that could take some aspects similar to the way Cosimo the 1st ruled in Tuscany during the 16th century. Maybe. But, as always, the future will surprise us. 


  1. I really enjoyed this post. At first glance it seems easy to guess that the story around Musk and Twitter is just another false dichotomy offered by TPTB to lure us in and that free speech is only secondary. Because what good is free speech if people have nothing to say? Or rather, if freedom of expression is just the Overton window?
    This historical approach has the merit of bringing another angle of lighting. Our leaders have every interest in listening to the people because even if our education, our media, serve us a ready-made thought, there always remains an irreducible part of uncertainty and randomness that nobody can control.
    I have experienced to my cost the control by censorship on a so-called "scientific" forum where any criticism of the health policy of the last two years is absolutely prohibited. I have been banned many times for stating what I thought was obvious. I was not the only one, of course, and the result is that this forum has become an outlet for hatred against "deviant" thought. This might be amusing or ironic if it were not so disturbing and revealing of the human soul. So I conclude that loosening the stranglehold of censorship, whatever the intentions behind it, is preferable to the perpetual banning of people who think differently.


      Whatever is happening, I don't think it's what it appears to be, nor should we be naive and let down our guard. But re the above comment by Thierry on health policy and censorship, what I learned this a.m. goes far beyond banning... from an email response by one of my former students: "Yes, it s true. The prosecution office that would regularly be in charge did not commence charges on the ground that they did not see any cause to raise charges.

      However, the superior prosecution office (where it gets political if you want to be there) did not agree and they commenced the proceeding. And sadly enough, the judge in charge allowed the proceeding to commence.

      (Dr. Sucharit) Bhakdi is being charged with „volksverhetzung“ - something you get charged with if you for instance have publicly denied the existence of the holocaust.

      He - as a Buddhist - is now in line with skinheads and ultra right nazis… welcome to the - according to our head of state - best Germany ever…"

    2. "Whatever is happening, I don't think it's what it appears to be, nor should we be naive and let down our guard."
      there is something I would like to add: from what I have read in some forums we have witnessed the return of fanaticism, which I didn't think was possible even a few years ago. People who have been behind the government have suddenly become fanatic. Being in the camp of power has given them the impression that they themselves embody this power and they allow themselves abusive and verbally violent behavior. It is only a step away that this violence can become physical. I now understand better how fascism could be born and flourish.
      So here we are with two camps that no longer speak to each other and even hate each other viscerally, with a docile majority in the middle that is content to follow the directives without asking too many questions. The fact that there is no longer any debate possible between the opposites is problematic and I am not sure that Twitter is the remedy for this. On the contrary, social networks are nothing more than echo chambers where everyone discusses with people of the same opinion. The only purpose of allowing these minority expressions is to prevent them from going underground, where they could develop and then pop up unexpectedly later on. In this case the hype around Musk is indeed a way to prevent the protest from going underground and out of reach of the big ears of intelligence agencies. It is even the only way to channel the disgruntled and make their anger harmless.

  2. I would reccomend to see this Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary .... "our ignorance is their bless" ....and much more....

  3. The DSA, digital services act of the EU, uses fact-checkers to look for hate speech and other forbidden speech. The EU considers any network accessible from the EU to be subject to this review. It appears that a lot of the fact-checking companies are owned by George Soros.

  4. Tesla's long term business plan is to provide transport as a service and the first company that perfects citywide robotaxis passes a singularity where even General Motors may be left behind. (Unsurprisingly, GM pulled ads from Twitter after Elon's Grand coronation.) Tesla plan on selling cars subsidised through post-sale revenue sharing where "owners" loan (?) "their" vehicle back to Tesla as a robotaxi. That should have happened already but, you know, chip shortages, Ukraine, popup bike lanes, EU is Brexit disarray, BLM protestors standing in junctions, Coveni Covidi Covici, all causing problems for any nascent computer vision systems.

    Tesla already has an international network of drones with 360 vision powerful enough for arbitrary outsourced realtime image processing. Tesla can issue commands to their robospies already like "send all images that you think is a stop sign", so presumably they could ask their fleet to report every red Ford Mustang or a specific registration plate.

    But what they don't have is a standardised international ID, payment system, nor robot-to-human digital communication tools. That's what App X is vying for and its likeness is WeChat the Chinese instant messaging, social media, and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. (Interestingly Tencent has the world's most popular game and it conditions children to readily accept the concept of a Universal Basic Income.)

    Coupled with Bitcoin, Twitter could provide these features and more. So could Facebook, but for whatever reason, Anglo America likes to smack Facebook for whatever reason.

  5. He was born in South Africa, so cannot become president of the U.S. (Only people born in the U.S. are eiligible.)

    1. I am sure he can be let to identify as a US born

  6. All over the mainstream media are predictions of Musk's failure, reports of celebrities leaving twitter, mass influxes of trolls and potential problems with regulators. It's like they are willing him to fail even though it's far too early to know what the outcomes of Musk taking over twitter are yet. Thanks for yet again providing an alternative and thoughtful perspective.