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If Mark Zuckerberg wants to beat the shit out of me, he’s welcome to. I will happily take being forever known as the bespectacled Brit who got pulped by the nerdy Facebook dude, in exchange for what I assume would be a spike in subscribers to my newsletter.
Elon Musk — the X supremo whose grand vision for renovating Twitter is still, at time of writing, yet to fully, or partially, materialise — seems less keen to become known as the guy who got beaten up by Zuck. After much toing and froing over the logistics of a possible MMA fight, Musk is in retreat. An injury, he claims, requires surgery, so the mooted fight (for which Rome’s Coliseum was proposed as a venue) seems less likely to happen. After months of baffling decision making, this is finally a good stance for Musk to take: he’s a 52-year-old Diet Coke addict who was likely to be made to look quite foolish by his younger, fitter counterpart.
How have we got to a stage where not only are two of the richest, most powerful men in the world genuinely haggling over a fight, but where that does even feel especially bizarre?
There are two currents here, as far as I can see. The first is a highly cyclical backlash to the aphysicality of the internet era. The fact that my lame, dweebish Microsoft word processing software doesn’t even recognise the word “aphysicality” is a symptom of this. As the 90s turned into the 00s and culture and society migrated online, the slogan “the geeks will inherit the earth” went mainstream. It became the title of a book by Mark Roeder and a song by I Fight Dragons, but, more importantly, it became true. The geeks made a lot of money and became status symbols.
Not since Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe have we seen such a radical reshaping of, predominantly male, attractiveness. Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel is married to Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr, Elon Musk was married (twice) to actress Talulah Riley, Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian is married to tennis GOAT Serena Williams. The geeks inherited the world; and for a while the fact that they couldn’t win an arm wrestle with Shirley Temple didn’t matter.
But these things are cyclical and all the disempowered men who are NOT billionaires and NOT married to supermodels and NOT actually good at anything really, could aspire to something physically that was unattainable mentally. Not to mention the confluence, in recent years, with a male backlash to the progress of feminism and the equality agenda, which has left many doughy (mentally, as well as physically) men to reckon with decreased entitlement to job prospects, salaries or soapboxes. It was sort of inevitable that, when the dust settled, masculinity would reassert itself.
Mixed Martial Arts was always the apotheosis of this trend, and UFC its flag-bearer. Boxing, which had always mixed that raw, athletic pugilism with an almost balletic dancelike, tactical quality, was replaced by something harsher, rougher and, crucially, more violent. (It also makes the homoeroticism of boxing look positively chaste, but that’s for another article…). On the level of the individual, MMA is about reclaiming some autonomy — some sense of power — and at the broadcast level, the spectacle is all about disinhibition, the ruin of societal strictures.
So men were already getting buff and violent. Fine. That doesn’t explain how we ended up in a place where Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg every single day threaten one another, publicly, with physical aggression.
The second issue, then, is partisanship. Humans have always been tribal, innately prone to segregating by way of interests and characteristics. You can take the cavemen out of the caves, but the desire to form small, and frequently adversarial, groups persists.
Product partisanship feels new but really is as old as product itself. I’m sure that in the good old days, there were people who loved elderflower wine and people who loved nettle wine and never the twain shall meet. Certainly, the Ur example of this is the cola wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when Pepsi and Coke went head-to-head in a targeted campaign against their rivals’ customer base. I wasn’t alive then, but that certainly felt like a big social moment — albeit one that was primarily a corporate battle, rather than a user base one. I am not convinced that there were skirmishes in downtown bodegas, as Coke fanatics found themselves mobbed by Pepsi fundamentalists.
But the trend of product partisanship — are you Coke or Pepsi? Nike or Reebok? McDonald’s or Burger King? Ford or Chevrolet? — became more fundamental in the digital era. “Are you Microsoft or Apple?” became a charged question, with all sort of political and economic implications*. Preferences within social media and messaging platforms, equally, became much more profound than what soda you drank. This was about how and where you chose to spend often up to 5 hours a day. That’s basically like choosing a house.
Muskism has become a digital philosophy. It is about the power of technology over ideology. Essentially, his output argues that tech should be harnessed wherever possible, even if it comes at the apparent expense of societal “norms”. This has revolutionised the electric vehicle market where, hitherto, EVs were seen as the reserve of eco-zealots and other do-gooders. Musk successfully argued that an electric vehicle could just offer a superior performance. The environment be damned, he seemed to say, this isn’t about the environment.
Zuckism is really just the anti-Muskism. It’s a sort-of nebbish capitalism, concerned with products that obsess over aphysicality (even whilst their jacked proprietor rails in the opposite direction). From Facebook and Instagram to the doomed Metaverse, tech doesn’t supersede ideology; tech is the ideology. But Zuckerberg, unlike Musk, has never been comfortable propounding these ideas — not least because the way he lives is anathema to many of them. And so, instead, he keeps building product, keeps acquiring new services, and continues to dominate this other world.
When it comes to the two silverbacks bearing down on one another in the Octagon, you are either Team Musk or Team Not Musk. Both men know that, on one level, nothing of any stake can be settled in a physical fight. It will not prove Threads is superior to Twitter X, nor will it prove their intelligence, their skill as innovators or even their competence as fighters. They are in different weight categories and different age categories; the fight is always nonsensical. Indeed, I have said from Day 1 that there was zero chance of it actually happening. Honestly, I thought Zuckerberg would see sense, that he has little to prove and nothing to win, and back out. Now it feels like both men want to continue to posture about its possibility until the last possible moment. Neither wants to back down.
This is partially because there is a deep personal animosity there, but also partly because they are now subject to market pressures. The pressure is not coming from shareholders or board members, but from their respective disciples in the world of tech evangelism. Somehow it is crucially important to Muskovites that their man takes to the ring and shows Zuckerberg who’s boss; and similarly, Zuckerberg is now being positioned as the last hope of tech sanity, the man who can pound some sense into the mad South African.
The idea that sanity can be restored by two CEOs punching and kicking one another is, obviously, deranged. But it is the logical extension of tech buffing up and product partisanship creating a generation of sun-dodging ultras. But perhaps it’s the fact that the stakes are, in a way, so low that makes the idea of the men fighting so appealing to many. If they went head-to-head in a debate about tech innovation (a position that they could both claim to be the best in the world at) that would have some intellectual credibility. Neither men could make the remotest defence of themselves as a world-class or even competitive MMA fighter. And so two men who are arguably brilliant in a similar way, going to toe-to-toe at something they are inarguably not brilliant at… well, it has a strange logic.
The fight won’t happen, but we’ll continue to talk about it. And whilst it hangs there, in a state of semi-realness, it is a reminder not to take for granted the linearity or direction of progress.
*My father, in his mid-70s, wrote in, after I published this, to observe: “the Pepsi/Coke wars in the 60s were political. Coke was Democrat (Georgia); Pepsi Republican (Cal). Pepsi even funded Nixon after he lost to Kennedy in 1960”.
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