Musk’s fascination with the letter ‘X’
The letter can be a meaningful signifier or a generic stand-in. Why is it so compelling? This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here. Elon Musk has a long history with the letter X . What does it signify? First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic : Solving for X A few months ago, at the start of an unintended streak of reading novels with characters named X, I started to become curious about the letter. First, I read Richard Fords The Sportswriter , in which the novels protagonist calls his ex-wife X as he narrates his version of their shared past (in the next book in the series, he refers to her as Ann). Soon, I spotted X again: In Fleur Jaeggys Sweet Days of Discipline , the unnamed teen narrator refers to herself at one point as Miss X. And I recently started Catherine Laceys Biography of X , in which a widow digs into the hazy past of her late wife, an artist known by the time of her death as X. These characters are all shot through with ambiguity; they are people who both invite and resist projection. But they also have nothing to do with one another. Why do they share the same name, or, really, the absence of a name? X can be a hard concept to pin down. It can be a meaningful signifier Wrong answer! and a generic stand-in. The letter is associated with such varied contexts as Christian symbolism, middle-school-math equations, gender neutrality, pornography, a kiss. X both reinforces absence and electrifies objects with meaning. It is sacred and profane. X is also, as of last weekend, the new name of Twitter.com. Elon Musk, less than a year after becoming the owner of Twitter, changed the sites name and logo to X. He has started removing bird branding in and around the office. He is reportedly projecting X in Twitters cafeteria and renaming conference rooms eXposure and s3Xy. The rebrand, Musk has said, is a step toward transforming Twitter into an everything appalong the lines of the Chinese app WeChat. Linda Yaccarino, the sites new chief executive, posted on Twitter (on X?) that X is the future state of unlimited interactivitycentered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking. (Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) The letter X is both rich with connotations and ambiguous, which may be part of its appeal for Musk. When I saw Elon Musk use [ X ], I thought, hes definitely a semiotician, at least in spirit, Marcel Danesi, an emeritus professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto, told me. X reverberates with all kinds of meanings that are intuitive, unconscious, and archetypal, he said. Jamin Pelkey, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the author of The Semiotics of X , told me that X is both an empty signifier and a signifier of everything ... You cannot pin it down or say it means this and only this . History is marked with X s, signifying presence and portents: Solitary X marks from more than 10,000 years ago have been found on cave walls in Spain, Pelkey told me. In the Middle Ages, X circulated as a warning symbol, a sign of the cross, and a way for people to seal letters, Danesi said. Muska member of Generation Xhas a long and loaded personal history with the letter. In the 1990s, he co-founded an online bank called X.com. When X.com merged with a company that owned PayPal and Musk became the CEO of the new entity, he reportedly attempted to phase out PayPal branding and replace it with X . At the time, in the early 2000s, Musk argued that the name was novel, intriguing, and open-ended, as Jimmy Soni wrote in his book The Founders . But X.com apparently reminded people too much of porn . Soon, Musk was ousted from the company. He has since used X in both his brands and his personal life: He runs the company SpaceX, has created corporate bodies called X Holdings and a start-up called xAI, and named one of his children X A-12. If X is Musks personal white whale, his interest in the letter also aligns with broader trends in branding. X was especially hip at the dawn of the millennium (think XBox, X Games): For marketing purposes in the 1990s, X had a certain cool, Stella Bugbee wrote this week in The New York Times . It conferred a rejection of authority. In the years since, X has retained cachet in Silicon Valley, where Googles X (formerly Google X, domain name: x.company) uses the letter to demarcate its secretive moonshot projects. A start-up accelerator associated with Stanford is called StartX. Indeed, hundreds of other companies , including Meta and Microsoft, have intellectual-property rights to X which means that Musk and company could be facing lawsuits over the name soon. X s ambiguity is what makes the letter so compelling. And, Pelkey noted, thats part of what makes it a good fit for Musks troublemaking, boundary-pushing style: The X mark is for extremes. Related: Todays News Evening Read America Already Has an AI Underclass By Matteo Wong On weekdays, between homeschooling her two children, Michelle Curtis logs on to her computer to squeeze in a few hours of work. Her screen flashes with Google Search results, the writings of a Google chatbot, and the outputs of other algorithms, and she has a few minutes to respond to eachjudging the usefulness of the blue links shes been provided, checking the accuracy of an AIs description of a praying mantis, or deciding which of two chatbot-written birthday poems is better. She never knows what she will have to assess in advance, and for the AI-related tasks, which have formed the bulk of her work since February, she says she has little guidance and not enough time to do a thorough job. Curtis is an AI rater. She works for the data company Appen, which is subcontracted by Google to evaluate the outputs of the tech giants AI products and search algorithm. Countless people do similar work around the world for Google; the ChatGPT-maker, OpenAI; and other tech firms . Their human feedback plays a crucial role in developing chatbots, search engines, social-media feeds, and targeted-advertising systemsthe most important parts of the digital economy. Read the full article. More From The Atlantic Culture Break Read. The staff writer Ross Andersen reflects on J. Robert Oppenheimers 1949 plea in the pages of The Atlantic for hope. Watch. Survival of the Thickest (streaming on Netflix) stars the comedian Michelle Buteau as a brokenhearted stylist wrestling with the indignity and joy of starting over after a breakup. Play our daily crossword. P.S. For a look at the life of another man surrounded by symbols and signifiers, I recommend reading Patrick Radden Keefes article on the art dealer Larry Gagosian in this weeks New Yorker . The profile charts Gagosians rise from hawking posters in Westwood to brokering deals worth tens of millions of dollars. It also looks at the part Gagosian played in accelerating the role of private interests in art, and in reifying fine art as an investment category. Keefe reveals some of the inner machinations of an industry that, in spite of its prominence as an asset class, remains largely unregulated. Lora Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter. When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic .