The current situation on Twitter, which I can only ascertain through the thick walls of my office ever since deactivating my account, indicates either that the savior of free speech has arrived, or the apocalypse is nigh. Whichever side of this discussion you fall on, you might agree that Musk has now grasped control of a big spotlight.
Or, is it a spotlight? Spotlights show us things. This thing he bought, this social media, more broadly mass media, is a dark ray. It creates havoc while focusing everyone’s attention on the havoc to make ad revenue. The dark ray is decentralized, but we can imagine it’s like the superlaser of the Death Star, only with a relay system. If you want to have a dark ray to generate ad revenue for your planet, join the dark ray mesh system and it’s yours, free of charge.
How the Dark Ray’s Focus Works
What does the dark ray do to generate unlimited levels of ad revenue? It has 2 functions: focus, and monetize.
A dark ray (or any of its subsidiary dark rays) doesn’t focus like a spotlight. Spotlights are designed to figure out what something is. Dark rays focus differently. Their focus is on margins. It focuses on things that pull in a lot of attention. Here’s an example:
The wise engineers at Arby’s once proposed a new item with burger buns and sliced meat, a mix between a sandwich and a hamburger. It didn’t quite fit into either category. But like anything, it needed a category, or else the question would remain, “But what is it?” until it would finally be taken off the menu.
Arby’s asked its in-house high priest (or whatever he’s called), “What is this thing?” He would make one of 3 decisions:
- Redefine a category. “It’s a hamburger.” This would mean the “hamburger” category would now include sandwich meat at Arby’s. Would Arby’s consumers accept this new definition of “hamburger?” This could spell disaster if they went to Burger King and asked for sliced meat on a hamburger, or if an Arby’s employee moved to Burger King and messed up someone’s order. Such an idea would cause a total breakdown in fast food communication, with Arby’s being the lymph node. But the Arby’s high priest was wise enough to see he couldn’t single-handedly redefine the hamburger.
- Make a new category. “It’s a sand-burg.” This would demand the humble Arby’s customer rethink food entirely. What exactly is a sand-burg anyway? Who decides? Is there a panel of sand-burg experts? But the wise high priest understood that this would require too much meditation. A solution with less friction was required.
- Conform it to a category. “It’s a sandwich.” The categories are already established. Conforming the Arby’s Roast Beef to the “sandwich” category demands minimal cognitive effort on the part of the consumer. It satisfies the qualifications necessary for this category, or at the worst it can be made to fit with minor changes that don’t change the telos of the new item. The high priest made his decision: it’s a sandwich.
We need categories, into which we place concepts. If a concept exists outside of categories, it sits in limbo. It’s neither this nor that. There will be arguments with family members, blood feuds, and civil wars until the case is decided: do we change the category, make a new category, or conform it to a category? We can’t simply get rid of it. It exists, and so it has to be processed. This thing-in-limbo has become a radioactive idol, and no progress can be made between the parties until it is reconciled.
Shamans and priests are the Geiger Counters of the ancient world. They find radioactive things and step in to be the arbiter on “what it is.” All parties remain obsessed with this thing-in-limbo. We have to agree on something, or else your “hamburger” and my “hamburger” do not signify the same thing. The god you worship is not my god. Perhaps he never was! The priest’s job is incredibly important: resolve the radioactivity.
In a worst case scenario, the priest fails to categorize it properly. He decides to call it… “a hamburger.” Perhaps the cattle lobby bribed him. At any rate, now we have a total breakdown in communication. We start fighting over hunting rights over the wild beef. After much bloodshed, hopefully we have a new border between us, where our institutions can grow separately, along their own lines, guided by our different definitions of “hamburger.”
But in the best scenario, the priest makes a decision we agree upon (“It’s a sandwich.”), and violence is deferred. We have utilized the life-saving power of human language via symbolic conversion (SC). SC is a cultural muscle. The more we do it, the easier it is to convert potential violence into laws, art, institutions, buildings, etc. SC is always preferred. Nobody wants a war.
Sometimes priests prescribe strange resolutions to radioactive things, though. We come to him with our dying grandfather, who’s unresponsive and won’t take fluids, but he’s not dead either. He is in limbo, neither here nor there, straddling the line between life and death. Unsure of how to treat him, we’re in a state of trauma. We all have the uncanny image of some person from the past who was in this state of limbo. It forces us to ask, “What does it mean to be alive anyway? Maybe we need a new term for grandpa’s state? Do we get a doctor? Or an executioner?”
The Bantu had one way of reconciling grandpa’s in-between state: put him in the bush:
When they think that death is approaching, they carry out the sick person into a thicket near the kraal, and leave him to expire alone; for they have a great dread of being near, or touching, a corpse, and imagine that death brings misfortune on the living when it occurs in a hut or kraal.
Barnabas Shaw: Memorials of South Africa (London, 1840), p. 357
Catching the last breath of the dying is another way of categorizing the limbo state into a ritual, moving it from traumatic to cognitive.
These prescriptions certainly reconcile the undifferentiated state between alive and dead. Another way of reconciling limbo states can be seen in Día de Muertos, which is a suspension of category, merging the living and dead for a brief moment in the year. Saturnalia is a similar merging (or reversal) of slave and master. It’s a temporary radioactive period, followed by a withdrawal period including fasting, penance, vomiting, etc.
In short, the object that straddles two categories is radioactive and demands our attention. The priest or shaman determines into which category it goes. If he fails, he basically fires a neutron at a Uranium-235 isotope, causing massive violence and eventually resulting in separate stable groups with their own identities. But if he succeeds, then symbolic conversion (SC) results and the object is no longer radioactive. Uranium-235 has been carefully stored away until the next crisis.
The dark ray functions much like the shaman or priest, as it too is a Geiger Counter. It can sniff out radioactive breakdowns in categories quite well. Those breakdowns take the form of Twitter wars, in our present case. Is it a sandwich? Or is it a hamburger? A good priest or shaman would step in and pronounce a judgment.
But not the dark ray. The dark ray has no interest in reconciling the radioactive component into a category. The dark ray wants to keep everything radioactive. By focusing attention on the hamburger-sandwich debate, all parties jump into the brawl. Whether you’re a sandwich, hamburger, or sand-burg person, your attention is on this radioactive thing. The sandwich people are obsessed over this issue even off of Twitter. They hold town hall meetings and complain about the crazy sand-burg people. They petition congress. They write books. The sand-burg people complain about the reactionary sandwich people. All parties point to the Twitter thread.
Meanwhile, the dark ray sells ads like hotcakes. The more radioactive, the more all parties come to the thread, and the more impressions and click-thrus. The longer the thing is radioactive, and the more cheering and complaining, the more ad revenue.
I’ve made the mistake in the past of calling the people running the dark ray a “priesthood.” A priest would make a decision to render the radioactive object inert. The people running the dark ray cannot have this. They’re not priests. They’re just operators.
Any person, any potential shaman or priest, who attempts to assign the radioactive thing to an existing category, redefine a category, or do anything to reduce the radioactivity of the thing, is de-prioritized by the algorithm, warned, suspended, banned, or doxxed. Such accounts draw attention away from radioactive things, and draw attention away from ads, and an ad platform cannot be sustained if this happens.
Musk’s New $44,000,000,000 Message Board
Musk’s goal is to end Twitter’s subscription to the dark ray. This will work. It will have fewer speech prohibitions. It will have good moderators. It will become a huge message board about everything. It will be a great website, where priests will step in and categorize things really quickly (most of them will probably be German as they always are). Ad revenue will not do so well here. Maybe Musk is fine with that. Maybe it’ll be subscription, or non-profit. All these sound great.
But that website costs $5000. Musk has paid $44B for the same thing. The people receiving it are dark ray operators, who can now go and start a bunch of new dark ray relay stations to expand its mesh network.
“What about free speech?” you ask? Indeed, Twitter will become a beacon of “online free speech.” People will now be free to complain about government this, climate that. Complaining about censorship will be the most common topic. A $44B message board will probably be a nice place to hang out.
Perhaps Musk thinks he has control over Twitter’s dark ray and he wants to turn it against his opponents. But if Musk operates this dark ray, he will also make things radioactive. It’s a tool of destruction in his hands of devils and angels alike. This is the mistake everyone makes with the dark ray: once you open a dark ray relay station, either you become an operator, or you stop relaying the dark ray.
Why would anyone stay on Musk-Twitter? To proclaim, “It’s a sandwich?” Arby’s will happily do that for you. And priests are everywhere in the real world who will categorize things for us. The only place where they’re not allowed is where there’s a dark ray. If Musk wants smart people on Twitter, he’ll have to shut off the dark ray.
Avoiding the Dark Ray
2 years ago I gradually closed my social media profiles, first Facebook, next Instagram, then Twitter, and soon LinkedIn. Someday I’ll figure out a way to get off YouTube. Every time I shed one of these platforms, it’s like a parking space opens up in my brain. I become less concerned with the hamburger-sandwich debate. I realize I never liked Arby’s anyway. I can make small groups offline to make our own commentary around radioactive issues. Off social media, I don’t have to live in radioactivity, no more than the Bechuanas or Chinese did.
Musk seems to want to turn the dark ray around and attack its source using its own distribution channels. This is like setting up a toll booth in Tijuana to squeeze some money out of the Sinaloa Cartel. The Tijuana road is the distribution system of the Sinaloa, Twitter and social media the distribution system of the dark ray. The dark ray is a mesh network, so its power depends on its relay stations. The more relays, the stronger the dark ray. Musk might have eliminated one relay station, at the cost of his cash spawning a million more.