Elon Musk has played a lot of roles in the drama of the 21st century, but who would have thought that he would also try his hand at the role of populist monarch?
However, the billionaire entrepreneur’s innovative forays into tech governance will only succeed if he gives the past its due.
Musk recently introduced Twitter’s Decision-Making Process This is inconsistent with the bureaucratic and Byzantine procedures of most tech companies. Through polls inserted into his tweets, he made several decisions — including reinstating accounts shut down by the previous Twitter administration.
He even played Caesar, the first de facto Roman emperor. When Caesar jokingly tried to resist the honor of being king, the crowd presented him with the crown again and again during one of the games in his honor. Similarly, Musk asked if he, too, should resign as head of Twitter. The digital crowd turned to him: 57.5 percent of 17 million voters said “yes.”
have Tweeted later“Be careful what you want, if you can possibly get it,” while still in power.
The vibe on Musk’s tweets resembles an ancient Roman game more than metaphor. The site combines verbal gladiator fights with crude slapstick comedy episodes played in the Colosseum between bouts.
More importantly, Musk seems to be trying to refresh Twitter and the decision-making process in the technology world in his unique way. The corporate tech world has long been dominated by two basic models of governance: benevolent dictators, run by well-known figureheads, and black-box corporate bureaucratic machines, run by a few in ways that are opaque to the public.
In truth, as Aristotle said long ago, any government can only be one of these three: a government, a minority government—and a majority government. What our digital leaders may not know is that every type of Aristotelian governance can be good or bad:
- One’s rule can be autocratic (think Mao, Stalin, or Hitler) or legal (think French and American presidents or British kings)
- Rule by a few can be abhorrent (think classical Latin American oligarchies) or meritorious (think Republican Roman senate elected from among those who have demonstrated commendable public service)
- Even a majority rule can be a great (democracy in Switzerland or Athens) or a terrible (great terror of the French Republic)
However, Aristotle teaches us that an ideal political system should combine the three modes of governance, maximizing the merits of each and minimizing all destructive aspects. The U.S. government, with its imperial presidency, meritocracy, and popular Congress, combines these three appropriate forms of governance—and it does so on purpose.
If Musk wants to invent a new kind of technological governance, he should take lessons from those who thought long before him and practiced the art of government. His attempt to combine populism with a voluntary (monarchist) style of governance will only work if two conditions are met.
First, he should understand that for Twitter to thrive and survive his eventual retirement or lack of interest, his role should be that of a constitutional monarch — following the rules he should be the first to follow.
Second, Twitter’s popular governance elements should be representative. His current polls are large but barely representative. At last count, Twitter had 250 million users, many of whom live outside the United States. He got 17 million votes in a poll about his role as head of Twitter. Although one could argue that if a typical national poll predicts the opinion of 1,000 respondents, Musk’s 17 million votes are more representative. However, given the Twitter algorithm, one should wonder whether these individuals are primarily Musk followers. It’s as if the President of the United States would only ask his or her party members if he or she is doing well.
Finally, a future, balanced model of technology governance should consider the proposals of an “informed few” with practical and theoretical experience in decision-making, technology, and business. They are not supposed to be workers, however, who may be influenced by the nature of their jobs, fear losing their jobs, or even try to play their part at will because they trust the bureaucratic machine to vouch for their actions. Twitter needs a Senate of sensible experts who should advise and debate leaders on whether to act.
Of course, this balance of power model may be too soon, too early (or too late) for the tech world to adopt. Yet no one, including Musk, dares to consider them innovators if they can’t at least take into account the wisdom of the past.
Sorin Matei, Ph.D., associate dean for research and graduate education and professor of communication in Purdue University’s School of the Humanities, studies the relationship between information technology, group behavior, and social structure in a variety of contexts. He is a senior fellow at Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Technology Diplomacy.