Utopia & Dystopia: Online Capitalism
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. Here I return to part one of a review of The Twittering Machine, first published November 29 2019.
We need something to long for, the better to devise grander escapologies. We need the ‘intercalary gush’ of Catholic poet Charles Péguy, a moment of rupture in our daily habits through which to escape not only the Twittering Machine but the unnecessary burden of misery that it successfully monetizes.
When I was first interested in the harms of social media I turned to Katherine Ormerod’s Why Social media is Ruining Your Life. Ormerod did a merely-okay job conveying the fallout of the technology (its addictions, depressions and pathologies), however, she did nothing to explain the roots of the problem and offered only dispiriting self-help solutions.
Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine is the book I wanted.
Seymour is not confined to charting the harms of what he dubs the ‘social industry,’ but theorizes the phenomenon through a Marxist lens. Indeed, even by naming it the social industry he offers a conceptual outline, alluding to Theodore Adorno’s notion of the homogenized ‘culture industry’.
Nor does Seymour stop at rehashing old claims for the new medium; he observes that whereas ‘Hollywood production-line showed more variation than Adorno admitted’, in contrast, the social industry ‘has gone much further, subjecting social life to an invariant written formula.’ In responding to this new sociality, Seymour’s touchpoints are a cognitive theory of addiction (rejecting behaviorism) and a critique of techno-utopianism, not in opposition to utopias or technology, but as a recognition that human agency and meaning must be centered.
It is therefore apt that he begins by relating the book to the genre of horror, which is all about crises of meaning (of cognition) and society: ‘The Twittering Machine is a horror story, even though it is about technology that is in itself neither good nor bad.’
That Twitter is bad, without being bad in itself is due to the simple, humanist fact that technology can only be bad by ‘exploiting and magnifying problems that are already socially pervasive.’ That is, the reason social media (and the internet’s) ‘techno-utopianism returned in an inverted form’ (i.e. openness as post-truth, anonymity as trolling, connectivity as addiction) is because society was already dystopic. And the reason this techno-dystopia appears intractable is the selfsame.
The name of this dystopia is capitalism: ‘The social industry has created an addiction machine,’ writes Seymour, ‘not as an accident, but as a logical means to return value to its venture capitalist investors.’ Commodity production and attendant rent-seeking drives the social industry, and makes it awful: ‘We write to the machine, it collects and aggregates our desires and fantasies, segments them by market and demographic and sells them back to us as a commodity experience.’ In answering this technology, the left must then look beyond its symptoms. For example, we have ‘vastly exaggerated the role of social media in popular uprisings’ and downplayed its darker sides as a tool of the political power of capital, and this book is a corrective to these mistakes.
Unlike Ormerod, Seymour concerns himself primarily with how technology has changed society in line with the values and needs of existing social relations. He looks to a set of seemingly distinct social phenomena concentrated in richer countries and asks what is going on. This includes declines in alcohol and nicotine consumption, lowering violence rates (including sexual violence), and declines in the frequency of sexual encounters overall. Putting these together, he observes that ‘they all show a decline in sociality.’ This is accounted for not just by the social industry as such, but the isolating and exploitative character of its addiction and the needs it answers.
For this addiction, Seymour uses an interesting term: ‘We are, abruptly, scripturient — possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.’ The book is at its best grappling with what it means to be scripturient, talking of the embodiment and disembodiment of our writing (supplemented by impersonal but simultaneously intimate emojis and memes) that create a strange alternative reality, ‘immense, impressive, playful, polyphonic, chaotic, demotic, at times dread-inspiring.’
Indeed, this virtual space goes so far as to give rise to a ‘new theology’, the singularity, ‘that the universe is fundamentally digital, and that reality is in some very real sense generated by a Universal Computer.’ Whereas Ormerod was tethered to surfaces, Seymour grapples with what is still coming into being, including its weirdest aspects. It is, unfortunately, difficult to conceive of a new basis for forming communities on the online world Seymour describes; instead, he leaves us with impasses and seemingly intractable problems. In this sense, The Twittering Machine not only extends and improves Adorno’s arguments on the homogenised culture industry, but takes insights from elsewhere to show that the nightmares of the past fifty (plus) years of left thought are coming to fruition.
Citing the French Situationist Guy Debord’s spectacle, ‘the mediation of social reality through an image’, Seymour observes that the image has proliferated as it has been ‘devolved to advertising, entertainment and, of course, the social industry.’ The result, borrowing from Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, is ‘a panopticon effect, with anyone being potentially observed at any time, any person can suddenly be isolated and selected for demonstrative punishment.’ Likewise, Seymour compares the ‘smart city’, the urban environment linked up to the social industry, with Giles Deleuze’s ‘control society’ whereby ‘reality is rewritten to exclude behaviors that the system finds intolerable.’
That eclectic but critical approach to left theory illuminates what is ongoing and its continuity with earlier capitalist tendencies, any one of which appears intractable. In aggregate, filtered through this technology, such tendencies are massively exaggerated. The conclusions of the book are therefore necessarily bleak.
For example, acknowledging that social media ‘can be empowering for those who have been traditionally marginalized and oppressed,’ Seymour also notes that ‘the production and maintenance of these identities [becomes] imperative, exhausting and time-consuming.’ His engagement with identity, celebrity and the left is an area on which I somewhat diverge from his ideas (and will be the subject of a follow-up essay on the internet’s fascist proclivities), but his point about the costs of online identity formation are well made nonetheless. And in large part, this is because of how much this process detracts from our offline lives.
Seymour describes our current reality as creating a situation in which ‘we are both lonely and threatened by intimacy.’ The online world offers us the worst aspects of solitude and of being with other people, such that parts of our lives can become dysfunctional as, for instance, ‘we develop ways of simulating conversational awareness while attending to our phones, a technique known as “phubbing”.’ This is the most grievous wound inflicted by the social industry — the attack on our ability to attend to reality, and to each other. ‘It can take over half an hour to recover full attention once distracted,’ Seymour observes. Moreover: ‘The state of distraction that we idealise as “multitasking” is a form of squandering. To pay attention is to diminish the attention that one has available; to pay attention in this distracted fashion is to waste it.’
At the heart of The Twittering Machine’s thesis is a conception of addiction. Seymour argues that any reduction of addiction ‘to chemistry[…] is to bypass what is essential to it: its meaning.’ Stressing the social context of addiction, he asks what role social media performs for people and concludes that it ‘has as much to do with what we’re avoiding as what we find when we log in — which, after all, is often not that exciting.’ It is precisely the squandering, the delimitations of screen time, that the meaning of this addition is located: ‘Traditionally, casinos have blocked out daylight and banned anything that conveys the sense of time passing: no windows, no clocks, and a constant supply of refreshments rather than timed meals.’ For Seymour, social media (like casinos, alcohol, etc.) offers a false escape hatch from a preexisting suffering it also exacerbates. This theory of addiction rejects the pop-science and folk model (used by Ormerod), namely that addiction is rooted in an essentially biological and deterministic process. Here, Seymour is especially convincing:
Marc Lewis, a former heroin addict and neuroscientist, has written movingly about his own escape from addiction, and contributed enormously to the science of addiction. In his book, The Biology of Desire, he argues that addiction is not about taking this or that substance. It is the ‘motivated repetition’ of a thought or behaviour. The thought or behaviour might initially be motivated by the prospect of a high, or by the wish to avoid depression. But once it has been repeated often enough, it acquires its own motivation.
That is not to say that Seymour believes there is absoletly nothing to neurochemical (or other reductive) models. Indeed, he acknowledges that the ‘“like” button is the pivot of the ‘Skinner Box’ model — the administration of rewards and punishments — in the struggle for the attention economy.’ And, furthermore, that dopamine plays a role, but even in conceding that much, goes on to make the point that dopamine ‘doesn’t work quite the way it was assumed to’. That is: ‘According to the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, the latest research finds that it is linked not to pleasure, but to appetite and anticipation’.
The point is that the old model doesn’t explain what is going on in its totality: for instance, ‘if [social media] was really all about dopamine loops keeping us fixated on the next hit, it would be difficult to explain why random hits of unpleasure would make social media even more gripping.’ Understanding how the problem is, at base, a failure of meaning, helps us see how overcoming it might work too. Returning to Marc Lewis, for Seymour breaking an addiction is ‘a unique act of reinvention’. The ‘psychologist Jeffrey Schaler’, therefore, ‘is right to argue that the problem is we have chosen the wrong addictions. What we call addictions are misplaced devotions: we love the wrong things.’ Because the problem of meaning is in essence a social problem, individual solutions are always inadequate. So it is here that Seymour changes focus to examine how the social industry is a utopia gone awry and how any solution must in some sense itself be utopian (that is, social and political).
As a lover of the literary genre of utopia, Seymour’s engagement with it proves refreshingly knowledgeable. For example, he appropriately begins with Thomas More’s Utopia and draws a clever parallel between the process of primitive accumulation (as Marx dubbed it) in More’s observations on the early enclosures and the operations of the social industry: ‘During the fifteenth century, sheep began to eat people. Thomas More wondered how animals “that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so smal eaters” could have turned carnivore.’ The Twittering Machine goes into some depth about how the social industry emerged out of libertarian silicon valley utopianism, but also from appropriations of a utopian behaviourist psychology: ‘ Radical behaviourism produced bad utopias and bad theory.’ The strange addiction machines of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are what this medley has produced. And to surpass it, as outlined, requires reinvention. To that end, Seymour posits a simple question, ‘if we are all going to be writers,’ then we must address ‘the minimal utopian question: what else could we be doing with writing, if not this?’ Something close to an answer emerges form the largely forgotten almost-utopia Minitel.
Minitel was not exactly like the internet. The terminal was a small, sleek wood-brown box with a keyboard that flipped out to reveal a screen. It was a videotex service, a service that allowed users to access pages of text and images in a computer-like format. It used slightly different technological principles from the internet, resulting in a more limited system. […] The advantage of Minitel was that it was an open platform, guaranteed by the public sector. Anyone could offer any service or promote any idea. All one had to do was register and pay a fee.
While ultimately this system’s ‘technical basis was not kept up to date, and it relied too much on a national telecommunications infrastructure using circuit-switching’, while it lasted it was a radical alternative to the ‘libertarian’ internet. And what was key to that was rooted in the fact that what ‘wasn’t commercialized was the infrastructure itself. There was no way to make money from taps and clicks, and therefore no technological incentive for addiction, celebrification, trolling and the regular moments of explosion around aggregated sentiment that characterize the Twittering Machine.’ Seymour is clear that it ‘was not, however, a leftist utopia.’ What it was, however, was more conducive to the left, and otherwise more authentically neutral than the internet could ever claim to be. Indeed, so much so that left-theorists were early enthusiasts, ‘Félix Guattari, a participant[…] looked forward to the vanishing of “the element of suggestion”, and the emergence of a “post-media era”.’
The idea, here, is not that Minitel can be reproduced, but rather that the online reality that so benefits a ‘tax-evading, offshore wealth-hoarding, data-monopolizing, privacy-invading silicon’ dystopia is not inevitable as ‘the brief flourishing of Minitel shows us that other ways, other worlds, other platforms, are possible.’ This leaves us with a speculative thought: ‘given that there’s no way to reverse history, how can we actualize these possibilities’? Seymour is correct, in the best of the Marxist tradition, that the value of utopia is not in the production of blueprints, but in an openness to counterfactual futures that explode the diminishing logic of Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism and Thatcher’s there is no alternative. ‘Addicts who quit, says Marc Lewis, do so “uniquely and inventively”. They don’t merely plot a path to abstinence; they learn an entirely new way of being.’ What are some of the new social ways of being that the left, even under hostile circumstances, can give rise to?
The solution does not lie in self-help or in any particular stance the left can take in isolation. In 2018, Jacobin released two debate-style articles on this problem, one entitled ‘Log Off’ by Benjamin Y. Fong, the other ‘Unfortunately, We Can’t Log Off’ by Meagan Day. Fong uncritically cites the sort of self-reported social research and reductive models of addiction Seymour critiques, arguing even a socialist society could not harness anything like social media by ignoring that such research studies only the internet as it exists. This demonstrates his failure of utopian imagination. Day, on the other hand, pleads that popularist social democrats such as Bernie Sanders require social media to beat establishment candidates. She recommends instrumentalising our approach to the medium and treating it as a mere propaganda tool: ‘we must maintain a strong and vibrant social media presence, but we can’t allow the medium to atomize us, as it’s designed to do.’ This is strikingly naive, as it suggests that leftists transcend the social circumstances in which they are embedded without any suggestion as to how. As with Ormerod’s self-help approach, Fong’s opting out and Day’s instrumentalisation offer no way forward.
In contrast, I would urge that we look to Chris Bateman’s The Virtuous Cyborg and and Nick Srnicek’s essay ‘The Political Economy of AI’ from John McDonnell’s anthology Economics for the Many. In the latter, Srnicek argues that corporate online platforms expand through cross-subsidisation and infrastructural manipulations to take advantage of the self perpetuating nature of network effects, as well as locking consumers into one online infrastructure. Platform capitalism, then, tends to monopolisation and the mass extraction of data on which AI depends to be improved. What is interesting is that he believes there are political solutions, and presents them in a book edited by someone from the UK Labour Party’s leadership. He recommends that Governments should respond along the lines of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but more radically ‘aim for democratic ownership of these monopolies.’ This piece has the advantage of avoiding the kinds of abstractions even Seymour sometimes indulges. Srnicek writes: ‘One can look at platform cooperatives as one example: for instance, the efforts to make Twitter a user-owned platform. We can also look at various municipal projects in Spain, or imagine Transport for London building a platform that superseded Uber and eliminated profit-orientated transportation firms.’
The Virtuous Cyborg, on the other hand, sets out a way of thinking about some of the ethical principles that could underwrite our collective attempts to tame social media and make it a socially beneficial tool. Bateman describes what he calls cybervirtues, by which he means ‘the desirable qualities that a cyborg might possess, and what I mean by “cyborg” is a combination of living being and inanimate thing that acts with a greater range of possibilities than either being or thing can achieve alone.’ Central to this is virtue ethics (the notion that morality is best understood in terms of the good and bad qualities of moral agents) and Chaos Nova, a metaphor for ‘the near-infinite diversification of identities that resulted from the fracturing of traditions’ entailed by the modernist collapse of virtue ethics. Such an analysis will be familiar to readers of Alasdair McIntyre and especially After Virtue, and indeed, that serves as an important touch point for Bateman. I would suggest that by moving beyond just the problem meaning as such, Bateman gives some indication of what to do with Seymour’s diagnosis.
Finally, I would like to add my own Minitel-esque experience in the form of the now deceased social networking website Loowa, on which I have written a semi-satirical Medium essay. Here too was a social media that did not operate on an addiction model, but a community that spontaneously became the kind of healthy and liberating experience the internet was intended to be. For me, as with Minitel, Loowa stands as a partially failed experiment that nonetheless demonstrates the falsity of Fong’s thesis: that is, that the internet’s problems, that its inability to be utopian, are rooted in the profit motive that shapes and structures it.
Whether Seymour’s Minitel, my Loowa, Bateman’s cybervirtues or Srnicek’s radical models of ownership, they all imply that whatever solutions we arrive at must be utopian and therefore also political rather than individual. Moreover, these ideas, failed utopias and policies suggest—rightly, I would argue—that the problem is not technology, the problem is the way technology is used by a broken society.
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