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Zuck vs. Musk?

Big Tech unleashes a new feudal system

A photo collage of Mark Zuckerberg at the VivaTech trade fair in Paris, France, on May 24, 2018, and Elon Musk at the opening of a Tesla factory in Gruenheide, Germany, on March 22, 2022 Photo by Gerard Julien /AFP via Getty Images; Patrick Pleul/Pool Photo via Associated Press, file

Zuck vs. Musk?
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For the last few months now, social media has been abuzz with rumors of a coming duel—a cage fight between the two titans of tech, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere idle boasting to grab headlines were the headlines not taking place against the backdrop of an intensifying war for market share. After years of relatively peaceful co-existence between Facebook and Twitter, Zuckerberg broke the truce by launching a direct Twitter rival, Threads, and Musk retaliated by rebranding his platform as X and promising that it would soon offer a vastly expanded ecosystem of services.

The idea of a good hand-to-hand battle to settle the score between the two online overlords has a quaintly medieval feel, like a good jousting match or perhaps sword duel between two rival barons seeking to defend their honor and vindicate their claims. Even the bluster about when and how and even whether the fight will take place evokes the ritualized boasting, taunts, and negotiations that preceded many medieval showdowns. Now, as often then, the stakes are clearly high but vague. Neither man has promised to hand over a portion of his digital domain to the winner, but if either were to lose face by backing out or losing, it would be a symbolic blow to their leadership in a business that is all about status.

The medieval metaphor, on closer inspection, turns out to be far more illuminating than we at first realize. By opening up a massive terra incognita of unclaimed and ungoverned virtual real estate, the digital revolution has turned back the clock to an earlier stage of economic and political development, one in which feudal lords rather than police forces and law courts enforced order and dispensed justice. In the digital world as in the premodern, ownership is a much fuzzier and complicated concept than we had come to imagine in the well-regulated 20th-century market state. Each of us “farms” a piece of digital real estate for views and influence in the new attention economy, but must share the gain with the lord of whichever digital domain we settle on—Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.

Such platforms are thus political as well as economic, providing protection and order for their users in an unruly digital world. The relationships among users, and between users and the platforms, turns out to be much more intimate than the arms-length business dealings of customer and retailer, and the stakes are accordingly much higher. If we’re going to be peasants in this new metaverse, we’d rather occupy the fief of a lord we can trust, or at least admire. No wonder, then, that the leadership structures of these entities have taken on an intensely personal dimension, defying the trend toward impersonal bureaucracy in modern business and modern politics.

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have increasingly come to represent not merely different leadership styles, but very different political and cultural ideals.

Indeed, in an age starved for brawny, gutsy leadership, an age in which politicians and CEOs hesitate to take a single step without consulting their risk-management teams, our eyes instinctively turn to the new tech barons as models of how to take charge and project power in an unruly world. Many of them have risen to meet these lofty expectations, using their prominence not to propose new business plans but to project grand visions for social renewal, and using their platforms to model different theories of governance and ideals of justice.

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have increasingly come to represent not merely different leadership styles, but very different political and cultural ideals, turning the battle between Meta and X into something much more than a contest for market share. It is a symbolic struggle between political power-brokers, something more akin to the war of the House of York and the House of Lancaster.

Of course, such grand metaphors can only be applied with a rich dose of irony. It is hard to take seriously the braggadocio of two computer nerds promising to stake it all on a live-streamed cage fight. There is little chance that the “cage fight” ever takes place.

As our familiarity for the humdrum terrain of conventional politics breeds contempt of its bureaucratic mazes, legal maneuverings, and untidy compromises, we are investing more in the realms of private companies—and private governance. We now look to market actors not just to provide us with goods and services, but with a vision of the common good—and the teeth to implement it. It is not hard to imagine a world ten years hence in which Musk and Zuck square off as rival presidential candidates—or perhaps, more radically, a world in which they don’t even have to, as the White House itself becomes a sideshow to the real titans of the metaverse.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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