Jared White Photo of Jared

Expressively publishing on the open web since 1996.
Entranced by Portland, Oregon since 2017.

The Elon-gate’d Man

This isn’t actually an essay about Elon Musk. It’s about the fact that we keep trusting these people. And by “these people” I mean the people who look, talk, and behave like Elon Musk. Perhaps it’s time to bust the myth of the Silicon Valley-style boy genius once and for all, and instead look to egalitarian principles to ensure the health and safety of our digital future.


#Twitter #Fediverse #journalism #politics

Let’s just get this one out of the way: there has only ever been and can ever be one Steve Jobs. Or Bill Gates. Or [fill in the blank magnate from the early days of tech]. Unfortunately, the myth of the (usually white-presenting, usually male) college dropout who has a Big Idea and a Stalwart Passion to “Change the World” and a Cunning Plan to Reinvent Everything…has come back to bite us in the ass. Big time.

It’s really quite astonishing how many falls from grace there have been in the tech sector over the past decade. Honestly one might say it’s a who’s who of former media darlings heralded as innovators bringing us the “next big thing”. And even now, perhaps I might begrudgingly agree with the notion that we needed at least some of this raw, albeit problematic energy at the dawn of the digital age, just like in ages past. Yes, Thomas Edison too might have been a real jerk, but hey, we got electric power, the lightbulb, and movies!

But here’s the thing. The tech industry has matured. It must mature. Digital devices are a crucial part of our everyday lives. Internet communications define many of our waking moments. We pay for things with our smartwatches, and talk to people on video calls (!!) with our smartphones. We unlock our e-cars/bikes/scooters with Bluetooth to head off to work or a store or church, and we plug them in at night.

And with this maturity has to come broader awareness that Big Tech can’t simply act like 21st century echoes of the robber barons. Either the tech sector must demonstrate its ability to police itself and show good corporate governance and a willingness to let bottom-up creativity and entrepreneurship flourish in the marketplace of ideas, or we must call for increased regulatory scrutiny on all fronts. Scrutiny into how social media platforms try to consolidate all online collaboration and information flow around themselves, shutting out competing tools and protocols. Scrutiny into how app stores attempt to monopolize all digital commerce and control access to goods and payments. Scrutiny into how tech companies operating in traditional sectors like transportation try to leach off of generous government funding one day, only to behave the next day like spoiled brats wanting their whole cake while eating it too.

And for the love of all that is holy, we must rid ourselves of this absurd myth that a single person just shows up one day with a skip in their step and a spark of genius in their brain to change everything overnight. Never again should we fall for an Elizabeth Holmes. Never again should we fall for an Adam Neumann. Never again should we fall for a Sam Bankman-Fried. Never again should we fall for a Mark Zuckerberg.

And then, there’s Elon.

Remember all the people who—prior to the official takeover of Twitter—were telling us that Elon Musk would moderate his behavior and behave more like a grown up because too much money and prestige were at stake? (Hmm, much like a certain former U.S. President once he held office? Look how that turned out!)

Remember all the people who said that because Elon (seemingly) had been unilaterally successful in bringing us fancy new space rockets and fancy new electric cars, he could now bring welcome insight and innovation into a rapidly-degenerating and fractious social media landscape?

Here’s the pertinent question: why do we keep believing this myth? As we’ve seen over recent years and especially recent months, it’s being proven decisively, tragically wrong…over and over and over again.

At this point, it’s not which once-media-darling, VC-fueled tech titan will fall next, it’s which one won’t. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that some of scrappy nerds on the edges of Big Tech who themselves have often taken pot shots at the mainstream industry have gone off the deep end as well. (Just look at the utter tripe being promoted on David Heinemeier Hansson’s blog these days…)

Let’s face it. Clearly the tech industry, taken as a whole, has completely and undeniably failed to rein in its worst impulses. Something is rotten in the state of free enterprise, and one would be forgiven for expanding this out to “late-stage capitalism” in general—but that’s beyond my pay grade. I’m a web developer, not an economist, dammit!

Are we the baddies? (Don’t answer that!)

So what’s to be done about it? How do we inoculate ourselves from the scourge of Zuckerbergism, Muskism, Kalanickism, and all the rest? How do we disentangle ourselves from the dystopian nightmare that is Silicon Valley? How do we ensure the open web actually remains the open web and won’t just further descend into miserable corporate-tainted bullshit run in large part by a small number of mediocre white men?

We need to pound the table, and pound hard, to (a) sound the alarm that enough is fucking enough—we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take this anymore—and (b) reinforce our crystal-clear, historically-supported obligation to prioritize open standards & protocols over vendor lock-in and open platforms & technologies over closed consolidated silos fueled by greed and paranoia.

We’re seeing this whole scenario play out yet again in real-time with the waitlisted beta launch of Post. This is a startup company being funded in large part by A16Z. Yes, you heard me right: Silicon Valley VC money is being used to “fix” the problems created in the first place by Silicon Valley VC money. You can’t make this shit up.

Former CEO & co-founder of Waze Noam Bardin who’s now creating Post claims that “when I decided to raise money, I spoke to 3 of the top VC’s and A16Z was the fastest in making a decision. Within 7 days we had money in the bank. I wanted a full service VC to help us move fast and A16Z has been great on all fronts. This does not mean that I am a Crypto fan, that I think they should have funded some of the personalities they funded lately or that I agree with every statement of theirs.”

No offense to Noam Bardin—perhaps he’s a decent chap when he’s at home—but I really don’t give two fucks which “full service VC” was able to “move fast” in “making a decision” to pump Post full of quick bucks. As I posted on IndieWeb.Social, “there is no universe in which that’s even remotely a good idea for anything which purports to be a noteworthy replacement for [Twitter].”

We need to loudly and with real finality chase this kind of misguided mindset off the internet for good. We need to shout from the rooftops that we’re done playing at being digital serfs in a neo-feudalist commercial hellscape. No more of it. We are done. DONE!!

While it’s true that corporations run many of the “pipes” and nodes which keep the base infrastructure of the internet up and running, and there’s probably not much we can do about that, we can at least maintain the stance that our primary user-facing vehicles for online communication, identity, news gathering, and creative collaboration should be supplied by systems which are built using principles of multi-party interop, data portability, and—if at all possible—open source software. And those aren’t concepts which companies can “promise” to implement at some unknown future date (as Post apparently has). Those are fundamentals which must be baked into the very fabric of the daily services we use from Day 1.

And I swear to god, if I hear one more person tell me “but most people who use email use Gmail, so centralization is inevitable” I’m going to pop a blood vessel. In the nearly 30 years I have been active on the internet, I have never once used Gmail for my own email (only sporadically as part of specific use cases within other team projects which use Google apps internally). And more importantly, I have never once felt like I was missing out on any crucial internet experience for lack of using Gmail. I’m perfectly within my rights to use alternative email providers, and I do.

Yet choosing to refrain from using Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or TikTok, etc., etc., comes with real cultural and societal costs. These aren’t neutral decisions. People are now being routinely locked out of opportunities and communities—losing real social capital in many cases—by opting to stay away from these platforms.

This is blatantly unacceptable.

The Fediverse, as folks have come to know it, is the only antidote to this terrible state of affairs at the present moment. No new proprietary service, whether Post or Hive or anything else—even a resurgent Tumblr, unless it truly remakes itself as a fully-fledged ActivityPub participant—is an acceptable replacement for Twitter et al. We’re not on the lookout for the Next Big Thing in social media. We’re looking for the very technical underpinnings of the open web itself to de facto provide us with the digital experiences we crave minus the inhumane costs imposed upon us by user-hostile commercially-driven concerns.

Listen, I’m not here to say Down with Capitalism! I’m really not.

But what I am saying is unequivocal: down with surveillance capitalism eroding our trust and access to free and fair online communications.

We can do better. We must do better. And increasingly—thanks to Mastodon, ActivityPub, and other open source projects & protocols recently exploding in popularity—we are.

Photo credit: Avelino Calvar Martinez on Burst


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