Trick or tweet: Musk's thought control trumps population control

Tesla chief's comment on Japan's population is an irresponsible rush of going down the rabbit hole

By Sushmita Bose

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Published: Sun 15 May 2022, 11:09 PM

If I’m not mistaken, Twitter was supposed to have been a news app. I guess it still is, depending on what one’s interpretation of the state of the world is. At a personal level, the kindest thing I can say about Twitter’s drum roll of news is that it’s not clinical… it’s conversational; there’s always a thread one can pick on and tie (and untie) knots with. But I have a problem when everyone gets all hot and bothered under the collar because of a tweet — and the tweet, on cue, with not much effort or exploration, sparks off a “global debate”.

Or more tellingly, “global outrage”, fuelling a turbulent virtual spiral that has very little connect with ground reality.

That’s what happened recently when the richest — and possibly the most disruptive — man in the world, Elon Musk, pressed some buttons, and tweeted, “At the risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss for the world.”

Now we all know Musk may be buying out Twitter (or not, the story changes every day), he believes he has proprietary rights over the brand, but, really, saying ‘Japan will eventually cease to exist’ is an irresponsible rush of going down the rabbit hole.

Here’s the funny thing. Japan has been declining in the population stakes for a long time now. No one, other than anthropologists and FMCG companies, was particularly bothered — or at least bothered enough to be ranting endlessly about it (maybe they were having closed-door meetings in sound-proof conference rooms to thrash out a workable strategy).

But now everyone is tweeting, retweeting, and ranting. Because Elon Musk has tweeted. That Japan — the world’s third-largest economy — will cease to exist because of a population problem. Not “may”, but “will”.

Yet, he speaks of no solutions. There aren’t any, because if we go back to Japan’s “problem”, it’s not something Twitter — or even Musk with all his billions — can solve. It’s a systemic problem; and maybe now it’s an endemic one.

The downsizing started back in the 1970s and was considered a blip; it was only around 1990 that the government realised — and admitted — there was NOT going to be a ‘bounceback’. Things have only gone steadily south in the numbers game.

Today, more and more millennials in Japan are choosing not to get married because their work leaves them with no time to think in terms of starting a family. The economy is on track, unemployment is at around 3 per cent, and there are opportunities galore, but they all fall in the ‘cut-throat’ category, with the steady rise of irregular, contract-based, temporary employment in the job market, that don’t offer the perks of security and health benefits. Raising kids, the new generation of could-have-been parents feel, is best avoided.

While there is some amount of institutionalised egging on happening in the form of tweaks to social settings in an attempt to encourage more “couplings” and ushering in a more open-door policy to get in more immigrants, all these are works in progress. So tweets are definitely not going to work — unless the Japanese government is waiting to get galvanised by social media influence; all they can do is foment arm-chair opinions and analyses.

What I find disturbing is the magnitude of the bogey of thought control… it’s now in the driver’s seat — even if it’s a driver-less Tesla. Musk has been behind this wheel for a while now. Remember the time when, one Friday, early last year, he changed his personal Twitter bio to #bitcoin? Riding on that revelation, the value of Bitcoin shares jumped more than 20 per cent. Reason? Market speculation that he had purchased the cryptocurrency, and therefore everyone else wanted a piece of the piece.

Not the soundest of financial scrutiny, right?

More was to follow. A few months later, Musk’s thought control went the other way when he tweeted he may have ended his relationship with Bitcoin by quoting Linkin Park’s In The End (my favourite Linkin Park song) lyrics in a mashed-up avatar above a meme of a couple breaking up. Strains of Pink Floyd’s “We don’t need no thought control” were effectively crushed by a tweet. Bitcoin’s share price immediately dropped in stock markets even as Twitterati wondered how Musk had suddenly fallen out of love, and “being fickle” trended as a news beat.

Getting back to Japan’s peculiar — and enduring — matter of an impending human resource crunch, there’s something else. The country’s ‘population control’ was, once upon a time, considered a triumph of feminism. Women, it was broadly argued, were being accorded the right to exercise choice. To not have kids — if that’s what they wanted — and pursue careers. There have also been tomes written on how women choosing not to marry, not having the need to have a male breadwinner around, and going it solo were all signs of female emancipation.

Will all those of tokenisms of progress come home to roost now that Musk has tweeted? And what will the feminists have to say to that?

Sadly, things may have come to such a pass that a ‘broken-hearted’ emoji or a meme on social media could be the new sounding board of census — and gender — calisthenics.

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