The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour, Verso, 2020, pp. 250, ISBN: 978-2-78873-928-3
Writing towards the end of the 20th century, researchers Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified a unique ideology – dubbed the California ideology – which arose from the convergence of telecommunications, computing and media. “A bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of the Silicon Valley” underpinned the infectious optimism that ran through the ’90s about the potential of the digital age. The internet was to fulfill the libertarian dream of such extreme-right wing politicians as Newt Gingrich and others, who raved about the internet’s ability to empower the individual, enhance personal freedom and diminish the power of the nation-state. Social relations premised on class and interconnectedness were to be supplanted by relations between autonomous individuals, each with the ability to be an entrepreneur in their own right in a digital free market. This, of course, ignoring the fact that the very technology that they swore by would have been impossible without massive state investment and the inequalities, racism and exploitation that was and continues to be required to sustain it.
Richard Seymour, a UK-based researcher whose previous notable works include The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso 2012)and Corbyn (Verso 2017), has written a harrowing account of the promise of the digital age as represented by the social industry – a medley of platforms that are capable of objectifying and quantifying social life in numerical form. He likens the industry to Paul Klee’s The Twittering Machine, in which a group of birds sit on an axle connected to a hand-crank below which lies the abyss. The birds lure their prey with their joyful song, only to distract from the pit, representing a nightmarish vision of the deceptive nature of technology.
Ostensibly, the book is a critique of the digital platforms and their impact on our psychological well-being. However, Seymour’s analysis does not focus on the hardware and software of the technology but follows the insight of Sandy Baldwin, who notes that everything we see on the internet is essentially writing, albeit digital and one that does not follow phonetic rules. As Seymour says, “we are constantly writing and being written.” By engaging in a mass industrial process of writing, we unwillingly feed the proverbial machine, which in turn structures our interaction with it, changing our social relations, moods, dreams and prospects to fit its needs. Much like the Cybernetic Hypothesis of the anarchist collective Tikkun, Seymour suggests that human and machine behaviour follow programmed and re-programmed feedback loops, constituting our lived simulacrum, signifying the real that it is not. Analyzing this simulacrum brings Seymour to structure his chapters around different pathologies that it birthed, in which he offers a trenchant psychoanalytic critique that only at times mentions the underlying capitalist imperative. And ultimately, since technology reflects society, Seymour unearths the social malaise that gives rise to the digital.
The social industry, as Seymour dubs all digital platforms, emerged out of the cybernetic appropriation of the lived experience. Platforms became integrated into our daily lives and eventually supplanted the analog. Now, our friendships, self-worth, desires, and even directions are increasingly dependent on an app, which makes us all addicts. “Addiction is all about attention,” says Seymour, and our interaction with the social industry is structured so as to ensure our maximum interaction with it. The “like” buttons, reactions, comments, limited character count, notifications and all are designed to keep us coming back for more. The information that is spewed out is never selected for its content because we simply cannot process the sheer quantities of writing that are generated but for its affective value. The affect is the reward we seek, which floods our brain with dopamine. Eventually, our actions form a self-reinforced habit. In relation to the social industry, this “self-reinforced” habit is seen everywhere you look. On the bus, on the train, while being physically alone, or, as Seymour notes, even while having sex, we reach for the device and start scrolling. Like true addicts, we attribute to the social industry a fetishized power of agency and through it feel empowered; we feel “social” again. The more we use it, the more it colonizes our lives. But, “we prefer the machine when human relationships have become disappointing.” The more we give to it, the less we have left for ourselves.
Seymour sees the social industry as filling in for a profound societal degradation. The digital promise of erasing class, race, nation and other relational markers of distinction and hierarchy is merely another way of portraying the American Dream, where everyone can make it if only they work hard at it. It promises to give everyone a shot that they, too, can be a celebrity. But just like the pit below Klee’s Twittering Machine, this promise conceals the deep abyss below. Instead of giving voice to the voiceless, the social industry has given rise to trolls and cyberbullies. Each time we post on the social industry, we invite the world to judge us and our actions. It is a gamble that can result in death, termination of employment and broken friendships; all it takes is communal disapproval. Instead of enhancing visibility for the marginalized, it has developed a homogenized esthetic and a clear set of actions one needs to undertake to attain the status of a celebrity. Our idealized representations of ourselves online are necessarily our attempts to fashion our own celebrity status. It is an attempt that, as Seymour rightly states, is “always striving for, and never finding, the ‘right distance’ from the moving object of our identifications.”
The failure of the cybernetic levelling of the society gave rise to the emergence of right-wing cultures. However, it would be wrong to claim that the internet caused its rise. It merely facilitated what was already gestating in the society. Similarly, the much-vaunted Twitter revolutions in the Middle East merely represented organizing that preceded it. However, according to Seymour, the social industry’s patterns and protocols cohere perfectly with the imperative of trolling, which seeks to induce a response to affect a change of behaviour. Commenting, infuriating, outraging and offending is a way to capture attention, which forms the backbone of the social industry. Therefore, the industry can monetize hate, which also accounts for the dismal record of upholding its “community standards.” In turn, online trolling has the potential to amplify cultural shifts in the “meatspace” as the industry becomes ever more integrated into our daily lives. That is why the recent spate of extreme right-wing racist, xenophobic, sexist attacks find its inspiration in the online sub-cultures – the most notable example of the latter being “incel” attacks around the world. Online is informed and, in turn, informs the offline.
While Seymour’s analysis mainly deals with the negative effect of the social industry on individuals and society, he does acknowledge that it can have a potentially useful function in spreading socialist ideals by highlighting US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the media to spread left-wing ideas. However, this anecdotal evidence is eclipsed by commentary that suggests that the primary beneficiaries of social media are fascists. His intervention should not be seen as a dismantling of the idea of fully automated luxury communism or other strands of left-wing cyber utopianism, nor does it suggest that social media is inherently fascist. It is definitely not a nostalgic argument based on faux-moralism that often informs the debate on the internet. The Twittering Machine offers psychoanalysis of the individual and the collective in a capitalist society by examining how that interaction is reflected online. It is a societal critique by way of the society’s reflection in the social industry. To claim that the digital can be harnessed to counter fascism and promote progressive ideas is to attribute to it the same agency it does not have and abdicate responsibility. Changing the digital requires changing the society first.