Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Perspective | Elon Musk is a boy’s idea of a rich man


The year 1994 was a good time to imagine the concept of wealth filtered through the eyes of children. Hollywood brought us not one but two films on this theme — I am speaking, of course, of “Richie Rich” and “Blank Check,” two classic works exploring exactly how many limousine drivers a 12-year-old boy will debase when he finds himself in possession of more money than God. The year 2023 is also a good time to imagine this concept, because the mediated attention economy has brought us Elon Musk.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, I logged onto Twitter and discovered, as did lots of other users, that the bulk of my feed was now composed of tweets by Musk. The news website Platformer later offered an account of why this might be so. Musk, according to Platformer’s reporting, was irritated that his tweet about the Super Bowl had received less engagement than President Biden’s tweet about the Super Bowl. Twitter’s engineers allegedly were ordered to manipulate the site’s algorithm, boosting their boss’s posts by a factor of 1,000 percent.

Let’s pause for a moment. If you had the power to seize the attention of millions in an instant, what would you use that power to do?

Okay, now, what would a 12-year-old boy do?

I’ll tell you which Musk tweet showed up uninvited on my feed on Tuesday morning: a drawing of a circle labeled “Earth,” overlaid with a cartoon sketch of a man. At one end, the man’s head was an Easter Island statue; at the other end his toes were Stonehenge. In the middle, lewdly protruding from the man’s pelvis, the Washington Monument.

The second richest man in the world had used his platform to make a penis joke.

“There are no coincidences,” Musk added by way of commentary.

The amount of time I have spent speculating over the psychology of Elon Musk is time I will never get back, worthless time, especially since it’s becoming clear just how much I was overcomplicating things. Does Musk actually believe humanity is imperiled by “woke mind virus,” or has he just figured out a button you can press to get the little ants to do their little ant dance? Does he really believe he is changing the world for good, or does he just want a playground for his billionaire friends?

The theory I’ve come around to is the simplest one: Musk is a boy’s idea of a rich man. That idea is an Aqua Teen Hunger Force-themed Trapper Keeper’s worth of giddy, hormonal, four-soda fantasies: Fast cars, spaceships, pretty women, phallic jokes, dog memes, superhero costumes, adoring fans, rich and/or famous friends, “hardcore” underlings.

Hesse: I don’t think ‘hardcore’ means what Elon Musk thinks it does

Many of us, if given the chance, might redo our adolescence from the billionaire POV. Alas, the process of adulthood is learning how to compromise, to be discerning, to lose gracefully. It requires admitting when you are wrong, if not because you believe yourself to be wrong then because you need health insurance and you don’t want to be fired. The world provides guardrails against our juvenile impulses, particularly the ones we continue to drag behind us as we fishtail into our middle years.

Freed of such guardrails, and surrounded by people who don’t want to be fired, it would appear that Elon Musk has gone full “Blank Check,” so to speak. Grab the limo driver, we’re going to Sharper Image and buying a robot bartender and an automated laugh track.

Elon Musk reinvents Twitter for the benefit of a power user: Himself

This isn’t an altogether revolutionary framing. Since purchasing Twitter last year, Musk has made headlines for his propensity toward the audacious, the breakneck, the glib. In December he posted a poll asking whether he should even remain CEO, promising to abide by the results (57 percent of respondents said he should step down, which he has said he will do once he finds a replacement). Being a billionaire has long meant having the ability to purchase carelessness.

But Musk isn’t purchasing carelessness so much as he’s purchasing the ability to care about childish things — like whether enough people see the joke about how the Washington Monument is like a penis — long past the age when you’re supposed to let that stuff go.

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