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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Don’t Fight Elon Musk in the Las Vegas Octagon

Dear Mark … Are you really going to fight a mixed martial arts cage match with Elon Musk? It sounds like the plot of a bad ’90s cyberpunk novel or an outtake from Idiocracy. I have to believe this is a massive troll by the two of you—my bullshit detector is screaming like a banshee. But there are disturbing indications this isn’t a joke.

This week you were training with UFC champions. According to The New York Times, you and Musk have been in touch with Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to set up the bout, most likely in the Las Vegas Octagon. “It will be the biggest fight in the history of combat sports,” White said.

If the matchup happens, it would also lower the bar for what passes as civilization in our society. Just in case this is real: I implore you, don’t do this.

I can see that you have become a fitness nut, Mark. You recently aced the Murph challenge, which involves a whole lot of calisthenics and sweating. Instagram posts have appeared with images of your swole bod. Last month, you told your favorite podcast interlocutor, Lex Fridman, that the bulk of your training goes toward fighting and that you have recruited friends and Meta colleagues for an informal training circle, like a middle-aged nerd version of the after-school training camp in The Karate Kid. Hey, whatever works to relieve the pressure of running Meta! I understand.

But this Musk thing isn’t a respectful bout in the grand tradition of Zen or Jedi masters. It’s a distempered twist to a failed business relationship turned nasty and personal. Remember, Mark, I was there when it started! That was in Nigeria, when you learned that Musk had put your satellite on a rocket before the testing was finished, and the whole thing exploded. You were steamed—and things haven’t been great between you since. More recently Musk learned you were planning to launch a competitor to Twitter, which he bought for $44 billion but has since watched plummet in value. That’s when Musk issued the cage-match challenge, which you rashly, tragically accepted.

You and Elon have indicated that some of the pay-per-view funds from this battle royale will go to charity. Sorry, you don’t get to sugarcoat this so easily. You and Elon are among the two richest people in the world. With a swipe of your phone you could divert a few billion dollars to any humanitarian cause you choose, including your own Zuckerberg-Chan Initiative, which seeks to eliminate all disease. Charity is a wonderful expression of humanity’s best qualities; this battle would be nothing less than a reversion to the basest impulses of our species.

In any case, leave it to Elon to say out loud the real subtext of this glorified schoolyard scrap. In a tweet this week, he suggested that he and you should have a “literal dick-measuring contest.” That’s the level of sophistication this rivalry sits at now. Instead of defining yourselves by your historic technological and corporate achievements, you two are striving to settle disputes like cavemen.

Here’s what’s even more alarming: Hand-to-hand combat is an idea that’s catching on among the super rich. During this week’s mega-elite mogul-fest in Sun Valley, Marc Andreessen, a longtime member of Meta’s board, reportedly endorsed the Elon-Zuck bout and, according to Puck’s report, went further, calling for a “return to how humans have historically defended themselves.” He went on to urge parents to “train their children in martial arts in anticipation of an increasingly violent and uncertain world.” (All this is kind of odd coming from a billionaire. In my observation, the ultra-rich usually travel with private security that dramatically lowers the odds of some tech-hating Bruce Lee wannabe laying on them with fists of fury.)

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This atavistic view of humanity by a prominent thought leader is horrifying, especially considering that actual violence in our streets comes not from choke holds but gunfire. Wouldn’t money spent on protecting kids with martial arts training be put to better use helping elect politicians who might regulate those deadly weapons?

Something else about this worries me, Mark. You, Elon, and your buddy Marc are among the few people in the world who are building or shaping the huge artificial intelligence engines that may soon produce most of our prose and images. Just this week, it came out that Meta will be releasing a commercial version of its large language model LLaMA. And Elon announced that he has started an AI company to build his own “truth-seeking” AI. Andreessen recently penned (maybe with ChatGPT’s help?) a rhapsodic vision of AI “saving the world,” and he’s spending billons to fund AI companies. If the people backing the future of AI are resorting to violence to resolve disputes, and urging others to go down that ugly road, it becomes more likely that such assumptions will be reflected in the training sets of LLMs and the advice they give to humans. As alignments go, this would be catastrophic.

And, Mark, here’s the biggest irony of all: With the success of your new social media product Threads, you have already achieved a satisfying resolution of your spat with Musk. With 100 million users in just a few days, Threads may well be a Twitter killer, or at least capable of leaving Musk’s $44 billion purchase battered and bloody, like Jake LaMotta in his pathetic final bouts. It was exquisite jiujitsu—albeit non-violent—to time your Twitter clone to the moment where users were most fed up with your rival’s handling of the once-beloved original. Dude, you whipped his butt! After that, do you really need to make him submit to you in a cage fight too?

Actually, Mark, Elon is not your main or scariest opponent. Do you think that Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan hasn’t noticed that the world’s dominant social media company has created a runaway success by leveraging its existing roster of billions of users? And in the process probably shut out several promising Twitter-esque startups that now face much higher odds of success?

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True, Khan recently suffered a TKO in her attempt to block Microsoft from buying Activision. (She’s appealing.) But Khan still runs a powerful agency and has a dangerous left hook. While you’re training to take on a 52-year-old man who boasts that his dong is bigger than yours, the success of Threads might lead Khan to more action. Pinning the FTC chair to an actual mat in a combat arena won’t solve that problem. And along those lines, not even a tag team of your martial arts friends will deter the European Union from its relentless counterpunches to your business operations. (Apparently, Europe's regulatory zeal is why Threads hasn’t launched in the bloc yet.)

Seriously, Mark, I don’t think that you really want us to thrust us into a Hobbsian culture where push kicks win out over engineering and the rule of law. I listened to every word of your 161-minute blabathon with Fridman, and you gave thoughtful answers about content moderation, free speech, VR, and AI—when you weren’t talking about running a combat dojo for your executive team.

So, Mark, instead of participating in a lurid combat spectacle with Elon, look to your better angels—the ones who don’t practice choke holds. Or listen to Maye Musk, Elon’s mom, who wants a stop to this silliness. Instead ask yourself one question: Is cage-fighting your business rival the best example to set for your three daughters? My guess is that when you think of what they will accomplish in their astronomically privileged lives, you aren’t envisioning them as punching bags in a combat arena. In fact, I bet that you and Priscilla would be mightily proud if they grew up to become prominent because of their ideas, not their fists, like … Lina Khan. Think about it.

Your friend, Steven

Time Travel

As I mentioned above, I was on-site at the root of the Zuckerberg-Musk feud. I was accompanying the Facebook CEO on his first trip to Africa, launching the reporting for my book Facebook: The Inside Story. For days, Zuckerberg had been telling developers and officials in Nigeria about how his company’s satellite, soon to be launched by Musk’s SpaceX, would provide internet access to underserved people on the continent. But the satellite never got off the ground—because Elon Musk wanted to save some time by putting it on the rocket before all the prelaunch testing was completed. Here’s how I described the origin of an animus that now threatens to wind up in a cage match.

On his fourth, and last, night in Nigeria, Zuckerberg invites me to his hotel room. It had been a long day, up at 4 am to board a private plane to Kenya … by late afternoon he and his entourage were back on the plane. It was then that Zuckerberg learned that the SpaceX rocket, the one carrying the satellite he had been gleefully touting as an internet savior for the struggling continent, had blown up on the launchpad, a day before the scheduled blastoff. Facebook’s satellite had been in place during the test—a time-saving measure—and was lost in the conflagration.

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Zuckerberg was furious with Musk … Overruling the advice of his PR people, he rage-posted a story that would wind up in the news feeds of many of his 118 million followers:

In the hotel that evening, though, Zuckerberg is jolly … But upon the mention of Musk’s name, he goes silent for a second. Well, closer to a minute. “I think I’ve gone through the five stages of grief,” he says. “Well, maybe not acceptance.” Has he spoken to Musk? Yet another pause, this one longer and darker. “No,” he finally says.

Ask Me One Thing

Stewart asks, “When everyone has a dozen disposable friends and girlfriends in their pocket, how will humans maintain intimacy with each other?”

Thanks for asking, Stewart. I assume you also envision boyfriends and nonbinary companions in pockets as well as girlfriends! But your question is quite timely. Here is the nub of it. People are who they are, and even the most compatible pairs have rough edges that can grate a partner. Part of what makes intimacy so valuable is that the person we share it with voluntarily yields their singleness to merge with ours. That’s what makes those private, merged moments so special, either in unforgettable instants or during a lifetime of companionship.

AGI bots promise something else—the thrill of a compelling, ongoing, and even flirtatious interaction without those rough edges. For those who have difficulty attracting partners and close friends to begin with, it would be easy to stop trying to make human connections and instead fill the gaps with the amazing chatbots of the future. And, as you suggest, even those who do have sustaining relationships with friends and lovers might welcome, and even prefer, friction-free bots who are hopelessly devoted to their owners.

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My hope—and maybe it’s just that—is that ultimately we’ll get tired of large-language-model versions of actual humans. We’ll realize that however clever and sexy, interaction with those bots is like sucking on an adult pacifier. We’ll put those bots back in our pockets and instead engage with flesh-and-blood people we bring into our lives, even if they drive us crazy and sometimes want to make us kill them. If the robots don’t kill us first.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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