The Twittering Machine
BY Richard Seymour. Brooklyn, NY:
I QUIT TWITTER and Instagram in May, in the same manner I leave parties: abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy. This was several weeks into New York City’s lockdown, and for those of us not employed by institutions deemed essential—hospitals, prisons, meatpacking plants—sociality was now entirely mediated by a handful of tech giants, with no meatspace escape route, and the platforms felt particularly, grimly pathetic. Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly unkempt and wild-eyed, each one like the sole surviving astronaut from a doomed space-colonization mission, broadcasting deranged missives about yoga and cooking projects into an uncaring void. Twitter, on the other hand, felt more like a doomed space-colonization mission where everyone had survived but we had to decide who to eat. Or like a drunken 3 AM basement fight club, a crowd of edgy brawlers circling each other, cracking their knuckles, waiting for an excuse. Only, it didn’t have any of the danger, or eroticism, or fun you might expect from a fight club.
It seemed obvious that unless you were passing around a GoFundMe link, no good could come from social platforms at that moment. The main purpose of social media is to call attention to yourself, and it was hard to think of a worse time to be doing so. It wasn’t like you were going to get a job thanks to a particularly incisive quote-tweet of President Trump; in the midst of a lockdown, your chances of getting laid based on your Instagram Story thirst traps plummeted. The already paltry rewards of posting disappeared, while the risks skyrocketed. And yet: people kept on going. Founders and executives at companies with “empowerment” brands posted vague bromides about social justice to their Instagram Stories, unwittingly calling attention to systemic racism and sexism at the companies they oversaw. An editor I vaguely know posted his salary and was swiftly accused of acting like a creep to women he’d worked with; a writer at the New York Times took to Twitter in the middle of a fraught meeting to condescendingly castigate her peers, thereby alienating herself from her workplace to the point of resignation. A student at Brown tweeted a long, excoriating list of the scions of wealth and privilege who had matriculated alongside her, and then capped it off by revealing that her mother is the president of ExxonMobil Chemical—like an aristocrat rushing to the front of a crowd of sans-culottes, shouting “don’t forget about me!”
Rather than wondering ponderously if this is “cancel culture” or whatever, we might ask ourselves: Why the fuck were all these people tweeting? What were they thinking? What were they hoping to accomplish? What was the cost-benefit analysis that led them to think continued participation in social media was a good idea? Liberal and left-wing tech critics like to suggest that we post, even against our own self-interest, thanks to nefarious software design that has been built in service of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry. The right wing has a tendency to blame the incentives encouraged by a hardwired social hierarchy, in which “blue checks” “virtue-signal” to improve their standing within social platforms, even to the point of self-sabotage. Neither answer seems particularly satisfying. Viewing anecdotes of sudden social combustion according to comprehensive, deterministic accounts of neurochemical response, social dynamics, and platform incentives can certainly be clarifying, but such theories are incomplete. After all, Mark Zuckerberg is not pointing a gun at anyone’s head, ordering them to use Instagram—and yet we post as though he is. Perhaps the best lens to examine compulsive, unproductive, inexplicable use of social media is not technical, or sociological, or economic, but psychoanalytic. In which case, rather than asking what is wrong with these systems, we might ask, “What is wrong with us?”
This is the question asked by Richard Seymour in his excellent new book The Twittering Machine, which takes its title from a Paul Klee drawing—a sketch of four stick-figure birds perched on an axle cranking above a fiery trench. In it Seymour sees an allegory for the tech megaplatforms he calls “the social industry”: “Somehow,” he writes, “the holy music of birdsong has been mechanized, deployed as a lure, for the purpose of human damnation.” The Twittering Machine “confronts us with a string of calamities,” among them increasing depression, fake news, the alt-right, and fast-food brands tweeting on fleek. And yet, despite the obvious fact that it’s very bad for us, we, and about half the population of the earth, remain its inhabitants. Why do we stay on—just to pick an example—Twitter, while also referring to it as the “hell site”? “We must be getting something out of it,” Seymour writes.
The writing and thinking emerging from the anti-social-media “techlash” of the past few years has tended to focus on malevolent design choices and business models that supposedly keep users hooked on the big platforms. “The problem,” ex-Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris told Wired in 2017, “is the hijacking of the human mind.” According to tech critics and industry apostates like Harris and former Facebookers Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, the brains of users are overtaken by “dopamine feedback loops” “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to reap profits from an attention-driven business model. But as radical (and conspiratorial) as such explanations of social media’s power might sound, they rely on the same techno-determinism that Silicon Valley’s boosters have been pushing for decades: just as networks would inevitably turn everyone into a liberal democratic subject, they now inevitably turn us into slavering zombies. Fundamentally conservative, this school of thought finds its solutions in narrow technical reformism: tweak this algorithm, move these numbers, ban these users, and everything will be fixed.
It’s not that the accounts of people like Harris are illegitimate—the social industry was designed as a behavioralist casino; it relates to us, even constitutes us, as addicts, “users” whose natural state is devoted attention to the object of our addiction. But such techno-determinism renders all of us passive objects, our very brain chemistry at the mercy of a small handful of Harvard dorks with admin privileges. Are we really captive to our devices in quite so direct or helpless away? Seymour doesn’t buy it, and worries that just-so stories about addiction are disempowering and limiting. “To reduce experience to chemistry”—those dreaded dopamine feedback loops—“is to bypass what is essential to it: its meaning,” he writes. His rejection of determinism isn’t a recourse to personal responsibility, but a warning: regulation will not cure us, and reform won’t save us. If we live in a “horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user.”
This is not a book with an accompanying TED Talk, a ten-step program, or One Weird Trick to Fix Everything. Seymour’s pose here is that of a working analyst, not a confident diagnostician. He draws connections, he sketches notes toward a further diagnosis. You can imagine him steepling his fingers and saying, his brow a bit furrowed, “Isn’t it interesting that . . . ” or “You seem very upset about . . . ” He deploys journalistic narrative and empirical data, but in general writes with a dense, aphoristic energy—“The telos of the clickbait economy is not postmodernism, but fascist kitsch”—that some will find unbearably pretentious. Personally, I found it charming. (And correct: the telos of the clickbait economy is fascist kitsch.)
The Twittering Machine is powered by an insight at once obvious and underexplored: we have, in the world of the social industry, become “scripturient—possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.” Our addiction to social media is, at its core, a compulsion to write. Through our comments, updates, DMs, and searches, we are volunteers in a great “collective writing experiment.” Those of us who don’t peck out status updates on our keyboards are not exempt. We participate too, “behind our backs as it were,” creating hidden (written) records of where we clicked, where we hovered, how far we scrolled, so that even reading, within the framework of the Twittering Machine, becomes a kind of writing. The rise of print, Seymour points out, played a crucial role in developing the idea of the modern nation, not to mention the bureaucratic state and “industrial civilization.” Now that epoch is ending, and a new revolution in literacy is extending the ability to write in public to billions of people worldwide. What will our new digital-writing culture call into existence?
For many years, Silicon Valley’s answer to that question has been freedom, prosperity, and digital utopia—an interconnected world in which progress and interchange wouldn’t be obstructed or censored by the powerful. And, as Seymour acknowledges, our urge to write demonstrates “how much was waiting to be expressed” under the previous regime, during which access to large audiences was sharply limited by powerful gatekeepers, and the vast majority of ordinary people were relegated to the letters-to the-editor page, if they were given a voice in print at all. In practice, however, what we have isn’t a new political order, but a new kind of social life, one that is, in Seymour’s words, “bent around the imperatives of states and markets.” Where the repressive systems built on print media depended on and enforced our silence, the social industry wants us to keep writing—and writing, and writing, and writing, rendering legible, analyzable, and profitable nearly all our basic social interaction. And while massive Facebook server farms whirring away in Scandinavia might be able to make some vague sense of all that data, the rest of us can barely hear over the noise. Each new byte of information adds confusion and entropy, and takes us further away from meaning and consequence. The Twittering Machine “reduces information to meaningless stimuli which it jet-sprays at us”; it “habituates us to being the manipulable conduits of informational power.” In this, Seymour grimly concludes, there is “a fascist potential.”
Seymour is cautious here. As he points out, we’ve only just set aside prophecies of inevitable, internet-borne emancipation, and we should be careful not to make the same confident mistake in reverse, with moralizing, panicked screeds about inescapable algorithmic radicalization. What is scarier, anyway, than the idea that we’re trapped on a collision course with TikTok totalitarianism is Seymour’s insistence that we’re not “trapped” at all—that, in fact, “we are part of the machine, and we find our satisfactions in it, however destructive they may be.” Whatever dark future we hurtle toward, we are copilots on the journey.
It’s for this reason that slavish devotion to the social or biological “incentives” of the platforms is an insufficient explanation of our “scripturience.” If we are compelled to write, it is because of “something in us that is waiting to be addicted”—a lack, a desire, a deficiency that we seek to address. Is it a longing for connection? A yearning for fame? If so, posting is a poor strategy: you are as likely to lose friends as you are to make them, and online celebrity is only ever 240 characters away from online infamy. So why do we keep participating in an activity that acts against our interests and gives us no particular pleasure? “Is self destruction, in some perverse way, the yield?” Seymour wonders. In other words: get in, loser, we’re going beyond the pleasure principle. What if the urge lurking behind our compulsive participation in the Twittering Machine is not the behavioralist pursuit of maximized pleasure, but the Freudian death drive—our latent instinct toward inorganic oblivion, destruction, self-obliteration, “the ratio”? What if we post self-sabotaging things because we want to sabotage ourselves? What if the reason we tweet is because we wish we were dead?
On the one hand, that sounds like Freudian mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, speaking as a frequent user of social media, that . . . seems about right to me. What the Twittering Machine offers is not death, precisely, but oblivion—an escape from consciousness into numb atemporality, a trance-like “dead zone” of indistinguishably urgent stimulus. Seymour compares the “different, timeless, time zone” of the Twittering Machine to what the gambling-addiction expert Natasha Dow Schüll calls the “machine zone,” in which “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process.” You might say that “Twitter is not real life,” a line intended as a kind of cutting warning, serves equally as an advertisement for the platform. But what is at stake here is not “reality.” It’s time. Seymour compares the Twittering Machine to the chronophage, “a monster that eats time.” We give ourselves over to it “because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living,” but we do so at great cost. “Given the time this addiction demands of us,” Seymour writes, “we are entitled to ask what else we might be doing, what else we could be addicted to.”
It has been a good year to ask that question. If the punchy, claustrophobic anti-sociality of platforms in the early lockdown suggested a particularly dark vision of the future, the Movement for Black Lives street uprising of the late spring felt like its joyous opposite—a future in which platforms were responding to and being structured by the events on the ground, rather than those events being structured by and shaped to the demands of the platforms. This was something worth our time and devotion, something that exceeded our compulsion to write, something that—for a moment, at least—the Twittering Machine could not swallow.
Not that it was not trying. As people in the streets toppled statues and fought police, people on the platforms adjusted and refashioned the uprising from a street movement to an object for the consumption and reflection of the Twittering Machine. What was happening off-line needed to be accounted for, described, judged, and processed. Didactic story-lectures and photos of well stocked antiracist bookshelves appeared on Instagram. On Twitter, the usual pundits and pedants sprang up demanding explanations for every slogan and justifications for every action. In these concern trolls and reply guys, Seymour’s chronophage was literalized. The social industry doesn’t just eat our time with endless stimulus and algorithmic scrolling; it eats our time by creating and promoting people who exist only to be explained to, people to whom the world has been created anew every morning, people for whom every settled sociological, scientific, and political argument of modernity must be rehashed, rewritten, and re-accounted, this time with their participation.
These people, with their just-asking questions and vapid open letters, are dullards and bores, pettifoggers and casuists, cowards and dissemblers, time-wasters of the worst sort. But Seymour’s book suggests something worse about us, their Twitter and Facebook interlocutors: That we want to waste our time. That, however much we might complain, we find satisfaction in endless, circular argument. That we get some kind of fulfillment from tedious debates about “free speech” and “cancel culture.” That we seek oblivion in discourse. In the machine-flow atemporality of social media, this seems like no great crime. If time is an infinite resource, why not spend a few decades of it with a couple New York Times op-ed columnists, rebuilding all of Western thought from first principles? But political and economic and immunological crises pile on one another in succession, over the background roar of ecological collapse. Time is not infinite. None of us can afford to spend what is left of it dallying with the stupid and bland.
Max Read is a writer in New York.