Welcome to Galaxy Brain—a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology, media, culture, and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. This is a free edition of the newsletter, but you can subscribe to The Atlantic to get access to all posts. Past editions I’m proud of include: A 10-Year-Old Nuclear-Blast Simulator Is Popular Again, The Bad Ideas Our Brains Can’t Shake, How to Spend 432,870 Minutes on Spotify in a Year, and Confessions of an Information Hoarder.
Quick bit of business: Roughly 500 of you sent in amazing, thoughtful recommendations about where to eat in Chicago and honestly it blew me away. Thank you all so much. I was in Hyde Park and ended up at Medici thanks to a reader. I'm going to keep soliciting recs and maybe we'll compile a Galaxy Brain eater's guide one of these days.
Everyone’s talking about Elon Musk right now. I have two stray thoughts and a newsletter so here we go:
- We’re stuck caring about pseudo-events.
I woke up yesterday on the West Coast already hours behind the news that Elon Musk was trying to buy Twitter. Now it is my professional duty to know and care about this sort of thing but, if I’m being honest, my mind was blank beyond one thought: This is dumb.
Of course, just because something is exceedingly dumb doesn’t mean it’s not news. When the world’s richest man embarks on a ten-day saga to take over a publicly traded company that, for better or worse (worse!), has a profound influence on our media and politics, in order to rebuild it to fit his unsophisticated vision of free-speech maximalism, it is decidedly newsworthy. And yet other than his grand gesture, most everything about the Musk news is speculative. Musk, just yesterday, hinted that he might not have secured the funding for this particular bid. A Wall Street Journal story also suggests that it would be exceedingly hard for Musk to unlock the money he has from shares in Tesla and SpaceX in order to fund the purchase. It’s also entirely possible not only that Twitter rejects the bid, but also that the company makes it more difficult for him to purchase more stock in the company. Also, prominent Twitter shareholders are already out there tweeting rejections of his offer. So this entire circus may be nothing more than an attention spectacle.
I realize it’s trite and exhausting to compare Donald Trump and Elon Musk, but both men seem to be unrivaled when it comes to commandeering vast amounts of attention via rash, trollish, and ultimately speculative statements and posturing. That’s not to say the pair doesn’t also do things (Musk has followed through on some of his grand plans with regard to Tesla and SpaceX; Donald Trump, despite being a sloppy and lazy troll, actually ran for president—and won). But both men also seem to love to float chaotic trial balloons (often on Twitter) and watch the world scramble to react. Both men have, in their way, dominated Twitter as a platform, which is also to say they have managed to harness its power to act as an assignment editor for the press and a larger cultural conversation (I realize that I am, as always, part of the problem).
Other people can exercise this power in fleeting moments, but Musk and Trump both excel at creating a particular type of pseudo-event—one that is concerning and important because the men are either rich (Musk) or powerful (Trump, as president) but that is ultimately quite speculative. Trump threatening North Korea or Iran is an extreme example of this behavior; perhaps a less extreme example was his threatening to veto a defense bill if Congress didn’t repeal Section 230. It is outlandish behavior that is certainly newsworthy and yet often it is bullshit bravado coming from a man who gives zero thought to what comes out of his mouth. Musk, too, is unreliable and loves to shitpost, stir up controversy, rally his legion of fans, and insert himself into large cultural news events. I’ve watched Musk whip up numerous frenzied news cycles (remember his promise to send a submarine to rescue those lost cave divers?) only to see him not follow through on his proclamations. Musk commandeers the attention, legions speculate, but ultimately we end up where we started. The only winner is Musk.
We pay attention to these pseudo-events, though, because many feel they have to. Because, in the case of these two men, they do (or did) occupy positions of power that we cannot often ignore. Not only do they theoretically have the ability to follow through on their bullshit, they’ve also amassed enough adoration to create some kind of popular support for their bullshit. Both men seem to be living in an alternate reality at times, but they seem to be able to bring others into that world, and that’s worth paying attention to. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that, intentionally or not, they occasionally do follow through with their threats. And so we keep having to pay attention.
2. This is meme-stock/Robinhood investing, but for the uber rich.
This might not actually be true, but it at least feels like the world of finance has been extremely weird since the GameStop saga of January 2021. When the meme-stock craze took hold, with Redditors and Robinhood retail investors going head to head with hedge funds, there were endless arguments about whether we were witnessing an exciting populist uprising and the democratization of financial tools or something more concerning: the rise of a tech-driven casino mentality that exposes the most vulnerable investors to extremely volatile markets and catastrophic risk, paired with an authority crisis, in which disenchanted people try to destroy institutions.
Either way, there was a feeling that this new dynamic would increase the overall chaos not only in the stock market, but also in people’s conceptions of what finance actually is. There will always be gatekeepers, but there was (and maybe still is) a sense that the traditional rules of who can (and can’t) participate in and move markets can and should be broken. There’s a very simplistic logic to the meme-stock stuff that suggests that a community of people should do things simply because they now can, and because doing so is chaotic and there’s something fun about that.
I saw similar emotions from a different group of people today after the Musk Twitter news broke. You had some investor types tweeting stuff like this:
Justin Sun is a blockchain entrepreneur who I know mostly as a person that fake crypto scam accounts loved to impersonate back in 2018. (I also think he lost a bid for an expensive Beeple NFT back in the halcyon days of … last year.) Today Sun stated that he wanted to “move Twitter offshore” and turn it “into a more open and decentralized Web3 framework that is open source and friendly to developers.” I don’t really take his attempt to outbid Musk seriously. But some, like Mark Cuban, see Musk’s move as a troll that might also open doors to more chaos:
The comparison is not perfect (and lord knows Musk himself has pushed meme stocks before in big ways), but the plays for Twitter by Musk and others remind me of Robinhood investing, only this time for the superrich. Musk seems to have very little actual vision for Twitter (as evidenced by a TED Talk interview he did yesterday, where he and his interviewer, Chris Anderson, tripped over basic concepts of free speech and hate speech). Many of the changes Musk says he wants to make to Twitter are actually things Twitter currently does (though maybe not with the consistency he desires).
I take Musk at his word that he doesn’t love the way Twitter is run, but ultimately what he’s trying to do is more about exercising power than anything else. In a piece about the GameStop saga, the New York Times’ Kevin Roose quoted theorist Martin Gurri, who suggested the behavior of Reddit investors was “a kind of vengeful nihilism, an urge to burn down the establishment without a clear sense of what’s supposed to replace it.” To me, Musk’s attempt sounds quite a bit more in line with Gurri’s quote than a bunch of Redditors logging into Robinhood.
Musk and his admirers and contemporaries in Silicon Valley refuse to see themselves as part of any establishment (despite the fact that they very much benefit from the thing they now wish to tear down). Take this tweet from investor Keith Rabois that seems to delight in the idea of Musk taking over Twitter and quite literally punishing the employees that disagree with him politically.
This is a power trip and a revenge fantasy that mirrors some elements of the rise of the newly empowered app-powered retail investor. In both cases there’s an important community element (with Musk, it’s the legion of Elon fans and Silicon Valley contrarians who delight in the fact that somebody with their same contempt for the status quo can acquire enough wealth and power to threaten or upend the traditional ways the system operates). In both cases the participants feel like there is a David-and-Goliath element at play (Musk has deluded himself and others into thinking that he, the richest man in the world, is somehow David). And, in both cases, there is a sense that the rules no longer apply.
A major part of the appeal of buying meme stocks, apart from the chaos, is that it’s a way to find and then push the edge of what’s possible. That, of course, is what’s happening here. Is it earnest? Is it an elaborate troll? Is it just an attempt to flip some shares and give a middle finger to the SEC? Are we watching something new or is this just a different take on the age-old trope of an insecure yet powerful person throwing their money and weight around? In a way, it doesn’t really matter. For Musk, the right people are scrambling and sweating and grumbling and the right people are rejoicing. A flight of fancy—perhaps the result of a hastily concocted Twitter poll—jumped from Musk’s head to his Twitter feed and now is forcing important people to convene emergency board meetings. Everyone feels compelled to respond, no matter how inconvenient. It’s a shitpost in the form of a 13D SEC filing. What a time to be alive.