Friday 01 Dec 2023
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This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 30, 2022 - June 5, 2022

Technology entrepreneurs are rewarded for being able to see what is coming before everyone else does. On this front, Block Inc CEO Jack Dorsey seldom comes up short. Dorsey, who is the brains behind Twitter and Square, was an early investor in Instagram and pushed Twitter to acquire Vine (an American short-form video hosting service) in 2012, years before TikTok took over the world of social media. 

Speaking at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, Dorsey predicted Bitcoin would eventually replace banks and become “the native currency for the internet”. He pledged to dedicate his life to a single mission: making Bitcoin accessible to everyone. 

Midway through his speech, Laura Loomer, an activist, stormed into the hall. “How can you say that this is a currency for everyone in the world when you are the king of censorship?” she demanded. “Bitcoin is about decentralisation, and you have no right to be here today speaking about this.” 

In 2018, Loomer famously handcuffed herself to the doors of Twitter’s New York office after she was banned from the platform. Dorsey praised Loomer after the incident, describing her as “brave”. “I love activists. I love protest,” he said. “It’s questioning the system, not because you hate it but because you want to make it better.” 

But when Loomer reappeared at Bitcoin 2021, Dorsey looked visibly shaken. Barely half a year later, he resigned from Twitter. 

Most saw this as a sign that Dorsey was getting serious about replacing the financial system with Bitcoin. Bloomberg described Dorsey as “Bitcoin’s Spiritual Leader, gazing into the future with laser eyes”.

Musk, who is attempting to buy Twitter, wants the platform to make more of its money from users

A vote of no confidence 

But what was Dorsey’s exit really all about? There was some logic in Loomer’s protest, after all. How could Dorsey champion decentralised crypto assets, while running a centralised communication platform?

According to Stephen Wolfram, a prominent computer scientist, Big Tech platforms are essentially “automated content selection businesses”: They aggregate user-generated content, then use artificial intelligence (AI) to choose content to deliver to a particular user at any given time. 

The big question is: To what extent are these AI algorithms designed to “optimise the user experience”, and how much of it is optimised to extract advertising (ad) dollars? “There’s also an increasing suspicion that, somehow, the AI is biased in what it’s doing — maybe because someone explicitly made it be, or because it somehow evolved that way,” Wolfram says. 

Today’s Big Tech companies can amplify certain voices and viewpoints — by selectively authenticating some users with “verified” labels, for instance. On other occasions, users can be portrayed as proponents of misinformation, harming their reputations. By limiting or increasing a user’s potential audience, platforms control not only speech but also reach. 

This reflects an underappreciated conflict of interest. Social media platforms earn most of their revenue not from users, but from advertisers. 

This is why Elon Musk, who is attempting to buy Twitter, wants the platform to make more of its money from users. Being reliant on ad cash means “the power of corporations to dictate policy (on Twitter) is greatly enhanced”, says Musk. One way to achieve this is by making Twitter a WeChat-style super app, which jives well with Musk’s plans for a Tesla ride-hailing network. Beyond that, Musk wants to “authenticate all humans”, not just those Twitter deems as relevant. Together, these actions mark a dramatic shift. It would redistribute power to the majority of its users, and away from a subgroup of insiders.

But perhaps Musk’s most ground-breaking proposal is his plan to open-source Twitter’s algorithm.

Big Tech’s inner workings have always been something of a black box. When Musk asked Twitter to explain how it calculates the number of fake or spam accounts on the platform, the firm claimed to have “this complex methodology that only they can understand”. Musk has also questioned how Twitter chooses to “shadow ban” certain tweets, while increasing the prominence of others. “Is it the algorithm, [or] did someone manually intervene?” 

Musk is betting that building publicly, collaboratively and transparently will help Twitter gain more users, without needing to demand their trust. The goal is to attract bright minds from around the world, who can pry Twitter apart, build on it and make it better. 

This is exactly how Bitcoin and its progeny have grown into a trillion-dollar asset class. Bitcoin’s open-source, decentralised ethos is a big reason millions of people are investing their time and wealth in the world’s most disruptive financial experiment. 

To be clear, under Musk, Twitter will not be fully decentralised. But unlocking the black box is a big step in the right direction. Importantly, Dorsey understands why Musk is “questioning the system”: not because he hates it, but because he wants to make it better. 

All this explains why Dorsey is a major backer of Musk’s Twitter buyout. “[Bitcoin] demonstrates a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity,” Dorsey says. “This is what the internet wants to be and, over time, more of it will be.”

Andrew Vong is chief future officer of EquitiesTracker Holdings Bhd

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