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Elon Musk’s Incredible Shrinking Future

Does a “super-app” fire up your imagination? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: James Devaney/GC Images

Elon Musk has had a busy week. His bid to buy Twitter is back on (he says). He reannounced plans to build a humanoid Tesla Bot and debuted a prototype on stage. He dabbled in a statecraft-via-Twitter poll, which ended with him explaining, in a tweet to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, what’s really going on with this whole Russia situation.

He still found the time, however, to share some new plans.

What is “X, the everything app,” you wonder? Why ask questions when you can offer suggestions?

If you had just learned about “X, the everything app” moments ago, maybe something like this would seem reasonable to you. But you’re missing something obvious:

To summarize: Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app. Twitter probably accelerates X by three to five years, but Elon Musk could be wrong.

This sort of sudden, brazen, confusing announcement isn’t out of character for Musk; if anything, it’s a clear example of not just who he actually is but what he represents to his fans. He’s perpetually obsessed with the next thing and prefers to talk in the future tense — not about the problems that his companies have now but about what they’ll do maybe someday.

Musk’s critics are right to point out that he frequently makes claims he can’t back up, that his business practices don’t match his public persona, and that he regularly holds forth on subjects about which he seems to know very little. He really does mislead and misdirect sometimes, but to write him off as a grifter is to fail to engage not just with the scale and influence of his companies but also with how his ardent supporters and casual admirers actually experience him: as a guy who talks about the future in a way that isn’t exclusively depressing.

It’s a low bar, but we live in depressing times. Musk is fluent in cozy and familiar futuristic and sci-fi tropes. Electric cars. Fast electric cars. Self-driving electric cars? Spaceships. Spaceships with people. Spaceships with people going to Mars? A computer for your brain! A brain made out of computers!

Maybe you don’t want these things, but you can usually imagine someone who does. (One way to think of Musk’s endeavors is as things you wouldn’t need to explain to the audience in a movie set in the near future.) Sometimes he delivers. Other times, he’s just telling a story. Tesla’s Optimus robot, which is named after a Transformer, is, in this way, classic Musk. The first Optimus was a guy in a suit. The second one needed help to shuffle across stage. Maybe it’ll go somewhere. But Musk was pitching a robot guy! Everyone’s known about robot guys for at least a century now from comics and radio dramas and movies and games, and everyone also knows they’re still not quite here. Robot guy is a classic. Musk’s playing a hit.

Which brings us back to “X, the everything app”: Musk shared some relevant thoughts in a leaked town hall with Twitter employees earlier this year:

We want to basically address the reasons that people like — why aren’t more people using Twitter? And why do people click away from Twitter? And if we can address those reasons, then they will use Twitter more, and they’ll get greater value from the service. And, you know, if I think of, like, WeChat in China, which is actually a great, great app, but there’s no WeChat movement outside of China. And I think that there’s a real opportunity to create that. You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so useful and so helpful to your daily life. And I think if we could achieve that, or even close to that with Twitter, it would be an immense success.

Musk’s futurism can be gloomy in its own way, of course. It’s product centered and casts human history as a mere accumulation of technologies, culminating with the creation of a superintelligence that will probably just throw us in the trash. Some of his ideas sound risky or creepy.

But “X, the everything app”? An American WeChat, a synergistic social-commerce-payment-rideshare platform, the mother of all social networks, based on Twitter, privately owned and controlled by one man? That’s not fun at all. It’s not even interesting. It’s depressing!

Musk’s pursuit of Twitter has been humanizing for Musk, to put it gently. He’s been drawn into more online feuds than usual. He’s become more politically polarizing and openly political. He’s embarrassed his industry friends and worried his shareholders and, since the announcement, shaved about as much from his net worth as he offered to pay for Twitter in the first place.

Most deflating is that Musk has been preoccupied with fixing Twitter, a social-media site most Americans don’t actually use. He’s become mired in old and miserable and genuinely complex debates about what’s wrong with social media and how to fix it. As big problems go, it’s all very Earth bound and toxic. There’s not much sci-fi here, just a bunch of spammy apps most people feel at best ambivalent about on phones they already have in their pockets.

American tech leaders have for years expressed admiration and jealousy of WeChat; Mark Zuckerberg tried to pivot his whole company toward the concept in 2019. It’s plain to anyone who uses them that the big social networks all want what the others have and more: communication, commerce, control. Among its peers, Twitter has always been the least ambitious about this sort of thing, in part because it’s such a strange and specific service. WeChat initially grew as a messaging app — a vital utility — more than a decade ago in a vastly different technological, political, and cultural context. If WeChatting Twitter is the plan, it probably won’t be easy.

But let’s say you hear about “X, the everything app” and think, If anyone can do this, Elon can. Fine. Again, this is depressing! We’re not talking about Mars. It’s not a fast car or a robot friend or a cheap solar panel. It’s not even a pleasant diversion in the news. It’s not even a new app. 

“WeChat but American” might be a business plan or a pitch for investors, but an “everything app” you “basically live on” because it’s the best way to send money or text people or video-chat or buy a shirt is a pretty boring dream. (How exciting can it be if Zuckerberg has already dreamed about it?) “Twitter but you can’t leave,” on the other hand, is an actual nightmare. To the extent that an escapist fantasy enters into discussions about Twitter, social media, and X, it’s Musk’s, and it’s about being in charge of everything. There are plenty of sci-fi books about that sort of thing too.

Elon Musk’s Incredible Shrinking Future