Have We Reached Peak Elon?

Elon Musk
Elon Musk at a Halloween party in 2022. Photo: Gotham/FilmMagic
Baratunde Thurston
December 22, 2022

If there is one omnipresent theme that connects all of our work here at Puck, it’s that change is the single constant in our economy and culture. Silicon Valley, like politics and the media business, follows its own sine wave of hype-driven manias, with investors all piling into the next big thing—Mobile gaming! Gig economy! Internet-of-Things! Self-driving cars! Web3!—only to hit a wall, reset, and resume the journey with just a touch of humility. In that spirit, let me use this last column of the year to make a few predictions about which technologies and companies (and people) were the most overhyped, which still have promise, and what might come next.

I. The Twitter Era is Over

In 2022, Elon Musk brought Trump and Kanye energy to his stewardship of Twitter. He complained about power while wielding an outsized share of it. He trolled from headquarters. He amplified conspiracy theories. Being the mature, thoughtful, adult leader he is, he kicked his critics off the service falsely claiming they were doxxing him. In the process, he exhausted us all. 

I would love to see the Chief Twit fail so badly he doesn’t tweet about it and instead goes quietly into the night, not just from Twitter but from public life more broadly. As Scott Galloway has said many times on Pivot, Musk “brings volatility, not value,” and his behavior as head of Twitter has already begun to infect his other businesses. He’s raided the ranks of those businesses to help him run Twitter, conscripting executives and engineers from Tesla, SpaceX, and The Boring Company. Meanwhile, Tesla stock is down by two-thirds this year and 25 percent since his Twitter takeover. Investors are losing patience with the part-time C.E.O. shtick—which, ironically, is a game that a previous generation of Twitter investors knew all too well.

Perhaps it’s time for him to step back from all leadership roles and focus on his true passions: posting memes, dad jokes, and right-wing misinformation. He’s already indicated he’s ready to hand Twitter off to another C.E.O. Much has been made of his December 18 Twitter poll in which a majority of respondents favored him stepping down. He promised to abide by the results, but like most of his polls, he already knew the answer. On November 16, he told a Delaware court he would find a new leader to run Twitter. He was being sued by a Tesla shareholder who accused him of approving a massive compensation package for himself without board approval, in spite of the fact that he was a part-time C.E.O., and this was well before the Twitter fiasco. 

We should look at Elon in 2023 with the level of contempt we’ve reserved for Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos or Anna Delvey née Sorokin of Whatever-Scheme-She-Was-Pimping. I want us to feel disgust toward him the way we were encouraged to feel disgust toward the invented caricature of the Black “welfare queen” of the 1980s. Presidents should rant against him in the State of the Union. Regulators should pre-emptively harass billionaires on the mere suspicion they might pull an Elon. His name should become a verb synonymous with astronomical destruction of economic value and levels of self-ownership so deep they approach the quantum level. Is it clear how I feel yet? While I want to see all the aforementioned comeuppance delivered to Musk, I don’t expect it next year. He’s a successful white man ranting against “the woke mind virus,” so even if we manage to turn the volume down he’s unlikely to be fully muted anytime soon. 

For Twitter, I want to see the disrespected and cheated former employees made whole. I want Twitter’s landlord to get their rent payments. I want the service to stop glitching. But I don’t expect any of this either. What I expect to see from Twitter in 2023 is a continued decline into commercial and cultural irrelevance. The advertisers will place their bets on Netflix or other fragmented but less toxic social media, and core segments of heavy users will continue to shift their attention toward other platforms that may even include sleep or child-raising or I.R.L. eye contact with other humans. 

Twitter, despite its relatively small user base, reached its heights of relevance because it managed to be a social media home for a diverse ecosystem of people: politicians, journalists, crypto pushers, Black cultural influencers, technologists, academics, right wing meme warriors, and government services, to name a few. Twitter also became a news ticker and wire service, a weather service and political organizing venue, a 24/7 infomercial channel and book club all at once. Like a biological ecosystem, it held together due to the diversity of species that called it home, but now that balance is forever broken. I should say that in an active voice: Elon Musk has broken that balance, and I don’t think anyone can restore it. Journalists are taking their chatter elsewhere. Black Twitter is starting to splinter into Black Mastodon and other places, including a new service called Spill which, get this, is a social media platform founded by Black people! And the crypto kids, well, for some reason they’ve gone quiet of late. 

I expect Twitter might technically exist, but the days of it being the de facto water cooler for political, technological, and cultural conversation is over. I expect Elon Musk will still technically exist, but like Kanye and Trump, his fan base will substantially shrink to a smaller, more committed niche. He is clearly not an overall business genius, though it does take a certain special talent to make Twitter feel worse at the end of 2022 than at the beginning. 

II. A.I. Becomes the New Crypto

At the beginning of 2022, it was common to hear brands, banks, content companies, and individual creators talk about figuring out their “web3 strategy.” I was one of them! It was just assumed that if you wanted to be relevant you had to think about how you’d play with NFTs. If you wanted to make money, you needed a crypto strategy. But, as my wife often said about this space, no one really wants to talk about blockchain or non-fungible tokens or “web3.” With the collapse of exchanges, the tanking of the NFT market (Trump couldn’t save it), and the decline in cryptocurrency prices, it’s pretty embarrassing to associate yourself with these labels without a lot of caveats.

As the smoke clears in 2023, we won’t hear the terms “crypto” or “NFT” or “web3” nearly as much, but some problems may actually be solved by distributed ledger technology, scarce digital assets, or increased community ownership of their own economics. There’s still value to the idea that content creators should own more of their I.P. and their fan relationships than was possible in earlier eras of technology and business. That stuff will just happen in the background, like the Hypertext Transport Protocol or the Simple Mail Transport Protocol helping deliver this message to you. And the end of that hype cycle is a good thing. Scammers and speculators are much less likely to flood the zone when the line goes down, instead of up and to the right. 

Another well-hyped area is artificial intelligence. In 2023, I want to see us interrogate the way we build predictive models and generative systems. I want to say that 2023 will bring about an ethical awakening for automated systems built on cloning previously-monetizable human labor. Or that we will pause to ask ourselves, “Who is asking for this?” whether referring to self-driving cars or self-writing essays. But what I expect to see in 2023 is that the investor frenzy previously surrounding crypto and web3 will shift toward A.I. It’s just so very Silicon Valley to invest in automated profit-making schemes. 

I do think there will be a mild ethical awakening about bias in the data and discriminatory predictions made by these systems. Remember in the mid-2010s when the Google Photos app identified Black people as gorillas? Today the company touts its “Real Tone” technology in the Pixel camera as specifically designed to better capture darker-toned skin. There was also the scandal of search engine results for “C.E.O.” disproportionately returning images of white men, and that’s still a challenge. Now we’re having those revelatory moments with generative A.I. systems. For example, the popular Lensa tool oversexualizes women. These tools, which are sold as accelerating our journey into a better future, often end up copying and pasting biases from our past, now with cloud-based networks of supercomputers! I predict that next year, we will see increased scrutiny and calls to pause the deployment of these systems, because none of us are new to the harms at this point, and it’s too late for companies deploying this tech to plead ignorance.

In the meantime, I think we’ll see less flashy deployments of A.I. into our everyday creative and production workflows. Think of a tool like Grammarly but turned up to 11. I’ve already seen previews of A.I. tools embedded into note-taking apps and web browsers. Betaworks is a venture studio I spent years collaborating with and still stay connected to. I recently saw a set of companies they’ve invested in under the theme of “THINKcamp” (think of it as tools that help you think), and they are worth glimpsing as a more practical preview of how A.I. might affect us next year. 

III. The Metaverse Will Have to Wait

In 2022 most of us didn’t invest in virtual land, attend virtual-reality concerts or strap heavy goggles to our faces 10 hours at a time, and we won’t do that in 2023 either. Meta, the company, wants us to, but we won’t, possibly because the company so desperately wants us to. I expect more modest build-outs of immersive worlds for us to spend experimental amounts of time with. Gaming is still the most metaverse-like experience available to most of us, and that will remain the case. From in-app digital asset purchases to the integration of real-world athletic player stats into the game (hi FIFA!), this model of deeper immersion will continue. 

But most virtual and augmented reality activity in 2023 will be focused on vertical or industrial uses. Think real estate (AutoCAD on steroids) and manufacturing (supply chain simulation). Even if Apple launches its long-rumored mixed-reality headset, the expected price point of $3,000 means it won’t have any mass market impact. 

I need to acknowledge some humility in predicting the success or failure of any technology, especially hardware. The iPhone seemingly came out of nowhere. We had cordless and portable phones for decades. We had internet-connected screens. We didn’t really have both those things in one pocket-sized device before the iPhone, though. It was a case of the right breakthroughs at the right point in the business cycle with the right leadership. The Segway scooter, on the other hand, has not revolutionized urban transportation or urban planning as promised. That device has been relegated to groups of tourists we all clearly want to avoid. Meanwhile e-bikes and electric scooters have delivered much more on the Segway promise without any truly “revolutionary” breakthroughs required. 

The idea of a headset-powered interface to the digital world is easy to mock when Mark Zuckerberg is poorly selling it. Google Glass was easy to mock, too, but it did get some things right, namely giving us a heads-up display to enhance our experience of the physical world. I think we’ll get there, eventually, because we will want and benefit from a more seamless integration of our digital and physical selves and worlds. We’ll come to rely on audio comms in our ear the way high level security operatives do. Instead of fetching reference material such as recipes or assembly instructions through a voice command to a nearby screen, we’ll pull it up in overlay mode on the I.R.L. scene in front of us. Or the system will anticipate our needs and not rely on finger taps on a screen or voice prompts to a smart speaker. 

All of these products—heads-up displays, smart speakers, etc.—already exist individually. But successful integration of these technologies into an iPhone-like mass-market device will require the coordination of physical interface, software interface, audio and visual systems, A.I. systems, and slick marketing at an affordable price point. I don’t know when that will happen, but it will—just not in 2023. 

I feel comfortable predicting that Zuckerberg and Meta won’t be the company to deliver it to us. And whoever delivers it won’t just bring us into a single remote space called “the metaverse”; they’ll allow us to connect to multiple verses, like our existing online and offline lives allow for already. We’ll have the “verse” associated with the fictional worlds we already inhabit, like Marvel or an Electronic Arts gaming ecosystem. We’ll have the “verse” connected to our work lives and one integrated with our civic and neighborhood selves. 

My own hope for the metaverse, and technology more broadly, is that we can use them to help us to better co-exist in the physical world, together. To that end, I’m going to continue building out my Baratunde-verse in 2023. We’ve completed just about all our interviews for Season 4 of my How To Citizen podcast, which will be launching sometime in February. And my fingers are crossed for another season of America Outdoors, my PBS series, where I hope to deeply engage in the immersive, photorealistic environment that is Earth. 

Of course one prediction I can make with 100 percent confidence is that I’ll keep sharing my thoughts with you here and wherever else Puck goes in 2023. To the Puck-verse! 

Happy New Year!