Just 12 days ago, when Elon Musk sent his letter to the Twitter Board outlining his “best and final offer” to purchase the website, many people termed it one of his jokes. That it was not a joke became clear a few days later when reports started coming that Musk was raising money to make his offer come true. But even then, experts with decades of experience and a billion connections in Silicon Valley believed that Musk would not be able to buy Twitter. There were many arguments. Some thought that no one, not even Elon Musk, would pay something like $44 billion for Twitter, a service considered nonviable in terms of business. Many argued that Twitter Board and management would not like to sell a company and service which casts such an outsized shadow on our world. And some thought that Musk was still joking.
They were proved wrong. Musk is buying Twitter. A deal has been reached. He is paying $44 billion and chances are that by the end of this year Twitter will become a private company, fully owned by Elon Musk.
Yet again, we have seen how little the words of pundits and experts mean nowadays. In the last decade, pundits have failed to comprehend, and are consequently unable to see, monumental moments. A recent example of this is the war in Ukraine. Until the very day when Russian tanks started rolling across the border, most pundits and experts believed that Putin would not start the war. In a similar way, many believed that Trump would never win in 2016. Or that Britain would never vote for BREXIT. Or that there would never be a BJP win in UP in the recent elections. Or that BJP would never return to power with a bigger majority in 2019. Or that financial markets across the world would never flourish in the face of prolonged lockdowns and a raging pandemic.
So, what is going on? Whether experts and pundits acknowledge it or not — and they might not because saying they can no longer read the world would be an end of their careers — the reality is that the world is changing. And because it is changing — and churning — there is a cacophony, a sort of chaos, that makes it impossible to connect dots and predict something by using methods and models that are based on the world of a different, more stable time.
The rules and norms, the expectations of a particular kind of behaviour, that used to keep the world together are going away. And because the old rules no longer apply, it has become almost impossible to get a read on the current world. People believed that Putin would not attack Ukraine because they believed in the world of 30 years ago, the time when it had become almost unthinkable that two Western countries could go to war with each other. Such a war was considered too costly in a globalised, interconnected world. Francis Fukuyama called it the End of History, and while he might have been overenthusiastic in his proclamation because we in the developing world knew that history hadn’t ended in the places where we live, he was not too far off the mark as far as the West was concerned.
Similarly, experts believed that Trump would not win because they continued to appraise the politics of these chaotic times based on their learnings from the second half of the 20th century, which was a time of fulfilled dreams and satiated desires.
Or take the case of India of 2019. In his book Adults In The Room, former Greek Foreign Minister Yanis Varoufakis talked about dealing with his country’s economic troubles in 2015. One measure that Varoufakis wanted to take during a particularly difficult moment was currency control in the country. But Jeffrey Sachs, a pundit par excellence, advised against him. “Jeff Sachs phoned me to say that in all his years of advising governments, he had never seen a surer way of committing political suicide than a finance minister passing legislation that stopped citizens from withdrawing their bank deposits,” Varoufakis wrote. “Politically, it was imperative to avoid them.”
This piece of wisdom, which seems solid, doesn’t apply anymore. India demonetised a major chunk of bank notes (in terms of value) and severely limited people’s ability to take out their own cash from ATMs and banks in 2017. Yet the government that did it was not only praised but was also rewarded with more votes compared to what it got in the previous election.
There is nothing usual about Musk buying Twitter and the manner — a swift and almost publicly conducted sale — in which he is buying it. There is nothing usual about Putin’s war. Or in a resurgent and almost unhinged Right across the world. Or the changing political dynamics. Or the way societies are behaving on both spectrums of ideology. Or the growing gap between rich and poor. Or a tax system that has gone berserk. It’s all very unusual. It’s all very unique. And it all seems preposterous and unimaginable until it happens.
Eric Hobswam, the prophetic British historian, noticed the chaos and confusion the new century had brought. He said in Culture And Society In the 20th Century, a book published 10 years ago, that we live in the age of perplexity. “In the early years of the new millennium (the world) looks forward with more perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and mapless, to an unrecognisable future,” he wrote.
In the first half of the 21st century, it seems that we are now flying blind. If there is any lesson in Musk buying Twitter or Putin carrying out his “special military operation”, it is this: Expect the unexpected and don’t rely on pundits and experts to read the world. The old rules no longer apply. And the new rules are yet to appear. It’s too hazy at the moment, and it is going to be like this until the transition from the old to new is over and we again have solid ground beneath our feet.