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Elon Musk and the (ahem) future of civilization

A Twitter logo hangs outside the company's San Francisco offices.

Elon Musk has a hunch that his Twitter takeover is really important, but he’s having a hard time explaining it.

“I can’t exactly say why,” he told listeners in an online chat last weekend, “it’s just that my biological neural net said it is important to buy Twitter … that if Twitter were not bought and steered in a good direction, it would be a danger for the future of civilization.”

Sure, there’s a brand-building rationale for statements like this — Musk’s “future of civilization” sales pitch is what gives his other companies, like SpaceX and Tesla, a lot of their cachet. But with Twitter there’s a different kind of argument for why it matters, and one that political analysts outside the tech world have given more thought to.

Military analyst John Robb is one of them. Robb, publisher of the Global Guerrillas Report, has spent decades developing frameworks for understanding the ways in which technology shapes political coordination and the contours of war. One common theme: The evolution of digital information networks is having a profound effect on the ways in which conflicts are waged.

Robb brings a unique perspective: He served in the Air Force during the tail end of the Cold War and, during a stint as a tech executive, was involved in the early development of RSS, a precursor to today’s social media platforms. Later he coined the term “open-source insurgency” to describe the conflicts that roiled Iraq during its U.S.-led occupation.

He charted the evolution of similar insurgency dynamics in the online culture wars of the Trump era and testified before the Senate last year about consumer rights online.

Lately, he’s been warning about a new danger he sees to global stability: that a “network swarm” of digitally connected Western institutions — wired together largely via Twitter — could escalate conflict with Russia in a way that is beyond the control of Western governments, essentially fostering a form of groupthink that develops at lightning speed and could lead to catastrophic mistakes.

In Robb’s view, the people who control platforms like Twitter have a responsibility to watch out for the wildfire potential of their platforms. It’s not clear that Musk is thinking along those lines, but Robb makes the case that if he is serious about saving civilization, he should be.

I called Robb yesterday to discuss Musk’s takeover, nuclear Armageddon and the need for a digital Bill of Rights.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What does Twitter have to do with the future of civilization?

Twitter develops a frame for information and events. The fight over that framing, whatever it’s resolved into, ends up as the dominant media frame.

And what you see on Twitter would be ahead of what you see on all the nightly news broadcasts as well as in the major papers.

The same thing with politics. Policy ideas, campaign ideas are floated on Twitter first and foremost. They’re fought over there, and then they’re rolled out. It’s now become part of this new decision-making system.

Great. What could possibly go wrong?

There were three great decision-making systems that we used socially to get things done — tribes, markets and bureaucracies. They took hundreds of years to kind of get into a shape that would not kill us, with all the rough edges smoothed out. Limits on what markets can do and circuit breakers and ethics codes for bureaucrats and things like that.

But that takes time. We’re just in this initial phase of learning what to do with networks and network decision-making.

We’ve seen dangerous groupthink develop before. What’s different about a digitally connected network?

It can mobilize a lot faster. It can also be very effective at generating collective empathy. We process that differently through the online medium. It is much easier to trigger. We don’t have the kind of defense mechanisms we’ve built up in the offline world to prevent that from going overboard, And that can cause you to see things in much more extreme frames.

And these things aren’t led in a traditional sense. If a news organization started calling for extreme measures, it would be possible to stop that with a couple of phone calls. You can’t stop the network unless you stop the entire network.

Tell me about this concept of the “network swarm”?

The political response to Jan. 6 created this one entity. As of early 2021, the corporations pretty much all were in alignment with this view that you should constrain public debate and minimize frames and ways of looking at information that could potentially be dangerous.

On Jan. 6 there was a violent assault on the Capitol. What’s wrong with prioritizing safety?

As always happens in this kind of situation, the constraints get bigger and bigger and more widespread and cover many more topics. You end up with a very constrained network decision-making system that’s upstream of media and policy and politics that is relatively stagnant, and eliminates much of the dissent or alternative ways of seeing things that could be useful in some future situation.

It’s different from the kind of thing that ended up collapsing the Soviet Union, which was that there was a centralized decision-making system, and then anything that was not possible by that central committee was ignored, or not taken advantage of.

It sounds like “the swarm” puts society more at risk of a slow decline. Why are you concerned about a sudden catastrophe?

It’s great at mobilizing and creating enough pressure to disconnect even the most powerful person in the world at the time, the sitting U.S. president. It took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a triggering moment and it accelerated and deepened that war, disconnected Russia and brought us up to the edge of nuclear war.

Most of the people doing the analysis of this were traditional Cold War types. They were used to operating within the confines of nation-state actors and their decision-making. They were completely oblivious to the fact that we had tens of thousands of companies disconnecting Russia across the board, companies that didn’t need to, and then individuals taking action and hacking Russian systems, providing economic and other kinds of support to Ukraine, like Musk and Starlink.

Aren’t these network participants just helping the government and our national priorities?

The network led everything. The measured responses that [Western governments] had in motion in terms of embargoing Russia were completely overtaken by the network forcing or cajoling or influencing corporations to do it. It was way ahead of what the Biden administration did. And also the rhetoric, in terms of framing this as a war against evil, a war against authoritarianism, an existential threat, came on the network first. Months later it was reflected in the Biden administration’s rhetoric.

Why shouldn’t digitally connected networks guide foreign policy?

A network doesn’t have a sense of mortality. It doesn’t mesh well with the traditional global security system, which was a nuclear peace. It required a sense of mortality, so that you wouldn’t get into a situation that would result in the end of the world. The network doesn’t attack with any sense of proportionality.

So, in some ways, are you more in agreement with those who want to disconnect people from these networks and impose more limits on expression?

You’d only put broad limits on things when there’s a danger of spinning out of control. I’m looking at it more like when algorithmic trading drives a market through the floor. Online discourse is different than what was protected under the Bill of Rights. There needs to be some new form of digital rights, largely because of the leverage you get from being online and the proximity and closeness we have when you’ve got thousands of people flowing into your smartphone.

What’s wrong with the way online expression and decision-making are managed now?

Right now we’re see-sawing between a monarchic approach with Musk, it’s up to his internal reasoning to figure that out, or we have a bunch of bureaucrats in trust and safety, working based on theories or ideologies that not everyone supports. I’d rather have it in the open.

Musk has reinstated former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Was it a mistake to kick him off in the first place?

There is a rationale for disconnecting Trump, but my worry was that we haven’t set down that rationale or agreed on it as a group.

The level of disregard for external power structures in disconnecting a sitting U.S. president who hasn’t been charged with a crime was a precedent that we didn’t want to necessarily live with long term.

If you push for disconnection now, you might not be as happy if that power structure changes.

What’s your advice for Musk?

Figure out what the circuit breaker is for extreme mobilization and work on digital rights. Make things formal and see if we can get other networks to buy in, to have it become a standard.


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