"HEEDLESS mogul tries to buy addictive menace.” It wouldn’t be hard to riff negatively, for many hours, about the news that Elon Musk is attempting to take over Twitter.

The guy who aims to “colonise” Mars, neuralink your brain and monopolise the battery market for electric cars, now wants to own a piece of software that nearly helped Trump take over America in a coup, sells your intimate thoughts to advertisers, and foments social polarisation for profit. Monster covets mess (while there’s a European territorial war on). Next story please.

I’d say: hold on. Both Musk and Twitter, and what it means that they might merge into each other, are worth more consideration than that. The most honest place to begin is with my own humble tweetage. And I’d have to admit: some of Musk’s reasons for wanting to own and reshape the platform overlap with my personal usage and interest.

Musk said in his TED Talk a few days ago: “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square ... My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important.” To this end, Musk also suggested Twitter’s source code, and its decisions to screen and block content, should be made fully public.

If Twitter is the world’s town square, then it is cacophonously rammed with criers. I’ll admit I use Twitter’s own tools to select and sample particular voices – to tame the chaos. Their “lists” function now makes automatic/algorithmic prompts as to who you should next follow, based on the experts you’ve started following.

So for me, that’s generated a Russia/Ukraine list that feels closer both to on-the-ground reporting (sometimes with disheartening atrocities in the mix), and also to the takes of engaged experts and commentators. Yet the level of trust I’m placing in Twitter’s software, and its recommendations, is enormous. Musk’s request that some of these processes be made more transparent feels reasonable.

I also consciously use Twitter as a network of chosen peers, on topics like indy and technology and geopolitics. But I also see Twitter, quite stupidly (though probably automatically), quietly populating my feed with people that I’ve recently read, retweeted or liked. Whereas the very point is that I’ve curated my mix of people, precisely for the diversity of their input! Not the same faces, please!

So there are aspects of Twitter that need to be less, not more sophisticated – and that probably goes for a lot of other social media, creeping us out by digitally anticipating our behaviour.

One thing I truly don’t agree on is Musk’s desire for us to be able to edit our old tweets. Twitter posting often feels very close to the old 18th-century idea (and ideal) of the public sphere – filled with pamphleteers committing their opinions to print, ready to defend them against oncomers.

The increase in each Twitter post to 280 characters was welcome to me, as well as the rise of “threading” (where tweets are strung together to make up a longer argument). All of which seems to simulate, genuinely for me, the feeling of exchanging substantially at a broad table. And if you want to throw attackers or destroyers out, the mute or block is a wonderfully simple device.

Twitter is, in many ways, a simple device – a stage for performance (of intellect, news, moods). And by means of that crudity, it has a certain power – like a termite hill of tiny publishing houses. Being able to go back and correct your speech seems to undercut Musk’s own concept of it as the “ultimate town square”.

And who should own a “town square”, anyway? Shouldn’t it belong to the citizens, most of all? Again, it doesn’t seem coherent for Musk to make a private ownership bid, in order to preserve Twitter’s civic virtues and openness. If he was truly committed to the latter, he’d be taking advice from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

Wales set up a crowdfunded foundation to guarantee the probity, and monitor the integrity, of the Wiki site. They aim to deliver a service, not a profit, and expect voluntary work to execute most of the encyclopaedic labour. Would Musk be willing to grant tens of billions for Twitter to operate as a trust, foundation or commons, with a distance from (or even a mandate against) shareholder return?

Otherwise, if the mogul is successful in his private bid, the usual rules of capitalism will require some kind of percentage return on investment. Might not Musk’s commitment to “free speech” slide easily, under shareholder pressure, into an even worse turbo-charging of debate? Where advertisers are hungry for mindshare, yielded up as a result of ever-more-acute polarisation?

Something does seem amiss. The first era of print, and then broadcast media, eventually produced a public and civic complement to private provision. Book subscribers were converted to public libraries; public-service radio and TV were established in lockstep with commercial providers.

Yet there is no parallel provision when it comes to the digital era (other than a BBC-net constantly defined negatively, as a correction to “market failures” elsewhere). Few will remember this – but before Channel Four’s current travails as a public broadcast channel, it ran a public digital investment fund called 4iP (which was shut down in 2020).

There was raised the spark that a UK public stake could be taken in new digital platforms, instead of always the Bay Area. We should try to raise that into flame again, if we ever get the chance (under indy) to design and build a Scottish public digital media system.

SO let’s see what the next feverish few days will bring, out of what the Scottish futurist Hillary Sillito described to me the other day as “the Kingdom of Money”. The rest of Musk’s TED interview in Vancouver this week was the usual mix of goofiness and tech-bro bravado. But there were also some interesting vulnerabilities, and even philosophical/deep-science speculations.

Musk agreed to talk about his Asperger’s, which disables him from recognising everyday human cues. But his condition made him “obsessed with truth”, leading him to study physics first of all.

“What questions should we ask to the answer that is the universe?” mused Musk, revealing his commitment to the radical scientific proposal that information is even more primary than physics. “My driving philosophy is to expand the scope and scale of consciousness that we may better understand the state of the universe.”

So far, so TED conference. And Musk might also consider “expanding his consciousness”

to respond to workers in his giga-factories who complain about their safety and work hours, and who would like him to stop viciously breaking up their unionisation efforts.

But from the Frankenstein who wants to make you a brain-implanted cyborg, so you can relate to those coming mighty thinking machines that will threaten your unique humanity, acquiring Twitter would be just another act of consciousness-expanding.

What to say about this, from this wee perch on the world? (Maybe not so wee: the Edinburgh fund managers Baillie Gifford have reaped tens of billions, betting early on Tesla’s future success.) Simply, that there are many ways to shape the world, expand consciousness and understand reality. And some of them can be about a new democratic state, a vibrant culture, a sense of national mission.

The mega-powerful of the 21st century put on their tinsel show, much as the birkies always have. However, with your independent mind, you can look, laugh – but also present alternatives – to a’ that.

Pat Kane tweets as @thoughtland (www.twitter.com/thoughtland)