The Great Consolidation: Elon Musk's Quest for Tech Dominance
Elon Musk has developed and acquired technologies with groundbreaking potential. But without proper checks and balances on his endeavors, we endanger the reliability of the technologies we depend on during both times of peace and of war.
In case you were blissfully oblivious to the big news out of Silicon Valley over the past week, everyone’s favorite IRL Tony Stark announced his $43bn bid to buy social media giant, Twitter. Elon Musk shared his news just days after becoming the platform’s largest shareholder and nearly joining its board of directors. At time of publication, the board is still considering his bid.
Much can be, and has been, written about Musk’s possible acquisition from the perspective of platform regulation, given his vocal opposition to Twitter’s content moderation in the past. But not enough has been said about the international security concerns of a man adding a platform like Twitter to his portfolio of space travel, brain implants, self-driving cars, satellite internet, and “not-a-flamethrower” companies.
We have only too recently experienced the kinds of threats to international security that occur when powerful men, unfettered by traditional international rules-based systems, exact their whims on the public domain. And I would argue, much to the chagrin of some, that Twitter forms a cornerstone of this space. Think of how the former President of the United States taunted North Korea with American nuclear capabilities in a series of tweets, or how he played anti-China and anti-Democrat politics rather than responding to a highly contagious virus in the early days of the pandemic.
These events were able to threaten our international security despite safeguards that have been built to constrain state actors from engaging in dangerous, megalomaniacal behavior at the global level. But the international system falls glaringly short when it comes to reigning in non-state actors, not least when it comes to mercurial billionaires who own the technologies that govern our lives.
It is in the governance of non-state actors where domestic, national regulation is meant to shine. Domestically, we elect individuals to government to enact policy and pass legislation in our interests. The international system, however, is one of anarchy, governed not by government but rather by a set of systems and norms that define the rules of the game. But these rules were shaped with the interests of state actors in mind, and under the assumption that states would prefer to be a part of the international order rather than not. We have seen how the international system, in recent years, has failed to find ways to respond to security crises caused by those not considered as part of the system’s initial conception. Increasingly, domestic systems are failing in their intended aims, too.
Elon Musk has developed many revolutionary technologies, but a series of policy failures has allowed him to transcend from a successful entrepreneur to the world’s wealthiest person. This has enabled him to position himself at the intersection of so many consequential technologies and outside the legislative and regulatory systems established to make our lives safer and more equitable. From sub-par tax regimes to his ability to open a Tesla showroom in Xinjiang just weeks after U.S. President Biden signed a bill blocking imports from the region due to allegations of forced labor of the Uyghurs, Musk embodies the failings of a regulatory system struggling to keep up with the rapid flow of capital and innovation. There is no denying the groundbreaking potential of the kinds of technologies Elon Musk has developed and acquired, but without effective checks and balances to ensure certain values are upheld in the pursuit of profit, we not only risk further consolidating wealth in the hands of a few but so too the reliability of the technologies we depend on during both times of peace and of war.
After Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in February, which included attacks on key telecommunications infrastructure, Musk sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine after being prompted on Twitter by Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov to serve as a telecoms stop-gap. But in the days that followed, the ego-driven billionaire challenged Russian President Putin to “single combat” – a seemingly innocuous tweet were it not for the fact that Ukrainian telecommunications, and now largely also Ukraine’s military drone use, depend on Starlink. Whether or not President Putin saw this tweet is beside the point; what this example highlights is the potential threat caused by one man creating a target out of an entire technology framework because of a tweet. Democratically-elected leaders have issued calls to violence over less.
Students of IR will know that change at the systemic level is slow and painful; we should not expect that the international system will keep us safe in the short-term from a vocally anti-establishment, self-interested billionaire whose own worldview dictates how he engages in business no matter the cost. Instead, in our ever-connected, globalized world, we must recognize that the acquisition of Twitter by a wealthy individual is not just business as usual but rather has far-reaching consequences impacting the state of our international security – not least in a world where Twitter also serves as a public record of war crimes, for example.
For all its flaws, the advent of Web 2.0 (or social media for the lay folk) has been a net positive. However, as the popular adage goes: “with great power comes great responsibility.” What we need is more effective collaboration between private and public sectors in this space, not its Tony Starkification.
*Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Tesla operates a factory in Xinjiang, which is in fact a non-manufacturing showroom. Tesla’s Giga factory is located in Shanghai.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.