Seiler: Twitter goes full dystopia

If you haven’t seen the new adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 novel “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime, it’s highly enjoyable — except for the pieces of the tale that feel depressingly nonfictional.

The story takes place a few years from now in the rural South, where our young heroine Flynne is scraping by at the lower runs of the digital economy. One of her hustles is contract work as a paid virtual-reality gamer, which results in her being hired by a shadowy corporation to beta-test a new game set in a convincingly realistic future metropolis. It turns out that she is in fact being zapped into London about a century in the future, after a set of disasters collectively known as “the jackpot” has left the planet reeling.

Flynne has become a pawn in an espionage war between klepto-aristocrats: one side reaching back into the past in order to play with human history like a heedless child setting an anthill on fire, the other trying to undo that damage and perhaps ameliorate the jackpot to come.

There’s much comedy to be derived from the digital communication between future and past in “The Peripheral”: The London contingent is able to move enormous pools of money around in our time, buying up everything from 3-D printing chain stores to quick-response mercenaries. They refer to Flynne’s reality as a “stub,” one of the infinite number of branching streams created whenever someone mucks with the past.

There is, of course, immense irony in the fact that the TV series is being produced by Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos is one of the world’s richest individuals.

In the case of the man at the top of that list, Elon Musk, we have a character who — based on his name alone — appears to have walked out of a Thomas Pynchon novel before entering a Gibson novel. Musk’s takeover of Twitter is less than 10 days old, and the platform has already been thrust into chaos and uncertainty. As I write this on Friday, Musk has begun laying off what could amount to half of the company’s staff as he attempts to generate the profits needed to pay off what’s been reported as $1 billion a year in debt service.

Musk’s first big revenue-generating idea involves charging users who want the “blue-check” verification level of participation — folks often derided as snobby media elites by lower-tier snobby media elites. Speaking as the editor of a medium-sized broadsheet newspaper, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I have for years been ridiculed by my family for refusing to get verified, and if anyone thinks I’m going to pay $8 a month for the privilege, they’re bonkers.

To borrow a plot point from HBO’s “Westworld” (a show that shares creative talent with “The Peripheral”): Twitter’s business model has never been built around providing a product, because on Twitter the user is the product — sharing ephemera, linking to powerful pieces of journalism, or posting dingbat disinformation about COVID-19 quack cures. If Musk wants to sell more advertising around that pile of stuff to generate more revenue, go for it.

He should, however, bear in mind that fewer people will want to visit the pile if it starts to stink like salmon on a sidewalk. Last weekend, I searched Twitter for the N-word and discovered just how many racists were excited by Musk’s arrival, rendering the word in solid copy blocks and clever graphic styles like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” typing out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I reported a dozen of these accounts for violating Twitter’s prohibition on the use of racial/ethnic slurs; as of Friday, only three of them had been addressed.

Musk has decided to treat the trepidation of advertisers in the way a teenage thug in a leather jacket might respond to a candy shop owner’s concern for his storefront window. “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressing advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists,” he Tweeted. “Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.” Nice democracy ya got there — it’d be a shame if something happened to it.

NBC’s Ben Collins, whose Twitter bio notes that he covers the “dystopia beat” (a phrase that sci-fi can’t outdo), noted on Friday that Musk’s hollowing out of the company could have dangerous effects on Election Day. “The website is built on sticks, and it might fall apart,” Collins said on MSNBC, summarizing what shell-shocked employees were telling him. He said if Musk on Monday starts allowing people to pony up $8 to get verified, the result could be a galaxy of fake accounts — purporting to be candidates, election officials, journalists or just folks — posting garbage as a nation tunes in for facts.

A jackpot, indeed.

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