Elon Musk is known for his inventions. He’s the founder of rocket firm SpaceX, the CEO of electric car maker Tesla. But with his purchase of Twitter, his proclivity for inventing and using new words and phrases has come under fierce scrutiny.
There’s “hyperloop” (a proposed high-speed, tube-based transportation system), “supercharger” (a rapid electric car charger) and “gigafactory” (a large manufacturing facility for electric car batteries).
These invented words speak to Musk’s supersized ambitions. But they have also had a palpable impact on language. Eight years after it was popularised by Musk, gigafactory is now a common term in manufacturing even among Tesla’s rivals.
Other words such as “cybertruck” (Tesla’s prototype electric truck) conjure up the futuristic images that Musk aspires to with his inventions. Successfully coining words and phrases like this is a sign of the billionaire’s long-term influence.
Language of ambition
When Musk outlined his vision for SpaceX, he suggested that he was not interested in profit but in solving technical problems, sparking renewed excitement about space exploration and eventually developing a colony on Mars.
In an early interview, he said: “The dream of space is an integral part of the American identity. So if people think that there is a way to get to space, they will take that path. We need to show that it exists.”
Spurred on by Musk’s rhetoric, SpaceX has undoubtedly pushed boundaries and advanced human ambitions in space. Musk uses his celebrity status to make enthymematic arguments – arguments in which some premises are omitted as obvious. This works effectively with his many followers, and in fields like the artificial intelligence debate.
Musk positions himself as an expert who wants to solve problems, bypassing the traditional high costs of the car and aerospace industries to come up with effective solutions. To do this, he speaks in sets of propositions that seek to represent common knowledge without providing further information.
This works well for him because his celebrity offers a prestige which appears to compensate for a lack of deep expertise in many of the areas he discusses. This is in contrast to traditional experts such as Nicholas Bostrom (the University of Oxford philosopher with a background in theoretical physics, computational neuroscience and artificial intelligence who has influenced many of Musk’s ideas), who the public typically expects to demonstrate their technical knowledge.
But if the motivation for Musk’s space ventures was supposedly to satisfy public interest, what is his ambition for the recent purchase of Twitter? Musk stated that Twitter is “the platform for free speech around the world”, but that it cannot achieve this “societal imperative” in its current form and “needs to be transformed as a private company”.
A privately-owned Twitter may more readily fulfil its business potential to investors, yet there are doubts as to whether it can satisfy the social potential of users. Here, his words matter again. Musk has pledged that his ambition is for the platform to become “the most accurate source of information”.
Yet the decision by Twitter, as of November 30, to no longer enforce its policy on Covid misinformation (a five-strike system that took action against accounts posting “demonstrably false or misleading” content) suggests Musk’s words aren’t being supported by his actions.
Language of utopia
One of Musk’s grander ambitions is to change the nature of language itself. Through his Neuralink company, Musk aims to enable telepathy via neural implants connecting humans and computers, rendering human language obsolete.
No doubt humans can coexist with artificial intelligence, but a goal of bypassing human language entirely to enable “direct brain-to-machine communication” seems absurd.
A so-called “wordless cyborg future” is concerning because language not only helps us to communicate, but also enables us to infer meaning and explain and elaborate complex socio-cultural concepts. It also inspires us to make emotional connections. Words, alongside ethical behaviour and value judgements, constitute our moral being.
Wealthy entrepreneurs like Musk try to convince us with their words that everything is possible. However, socio-cultural institutions like Twitter need to remain open and free, not subjected to vested business or political interests.
In the era of neo-liberalism, it is imperative to guarantee freedom of expression, independent global public spheres and open civil society, so that we might critically engage with the way political and economic powers seek to manipulate platforms like Twitter.
Whether they realise it or not, billionaires’ language has consequences. Musk should be responsible with the way that he uses his.
Petros Iosifidis is Professor in Sociology, City, University of London.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.