Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Review: The Twittering Machine

 [Richard Seymour. The Twittering Machine. London: The Indigo Press, 2019.]

There is practically an entire industry devoted to churning out think-pieces, studies, books, and articles expressing concern about the impacts of social media and the broader spectrum of information technology of which it is a part on our lives and our world. It comes in lots of flavours, many neither convincing nor useful, some downright eye-roll-worthy, though others identifying real problems even if their analyses are often ultimately unsatisfying. But the fact that so much of that writing fails to say much that is useful does not negate the fact that there are lots of reasons to be concerned about the impacts of social media. This book, I think, is a useful preliminary step in developing ways of thinking and talking about social media – or, the social industry, in Seymour’s terminology – that begin to capture, in materialist ways, what it is all actually doing.

A key element of this book’s approach that I think is a great insight and that also meshes well with ways of thinking about the world that I already hold is his analysis of the social industry as being primarily about us writing. Yes, we consume endless amounts of online media, but that is part of the bait or the reward, and it is our writing that the system really wants. Some of this is writing in an easily recognizeable sense – the data about ourselves that we give up each time we update Facebook or even send an email, for instance – but it also includes every mouse movement, every checked box, every click, every filled form that we do not necessary think of as writing, but that gets stored away on some distant harddrive. Creative or not, comprised of words or not, all of those are enduring inscriptions, and we give them up to institutions that, in all sorts of ways, rule us. Which means that ruling regimes know far, far more about us today than even the bureaucratic systems of the 20th century, and so mechanics of ruling are shifting accordingly. The book also explores themes recognizeable from other work on social media, smartphones, and so on, like the way in which the social industry deliberately cultivates our addiction, the way it has created frightening new opportunities for collective cruelty, related changes in our knowledge and our knowledge systems, and shifts in our politics. (He argues that it is much too early to pronounce in a definitive way on how all of this will impact our political systems, but certainly lays out plenty of evidence that those of us on the left are no doubt mostly familiar with that the early returns are far from encouraging.)

I don’t agree with everything in the book, of course. It is careful in how it words such things, but it seems to me like it under-values the role of some manifestations of collective online rage as forms of speaking/striking back at power by oppressed people. I am also not a huge fan of psychotherapy-derived theory, which some on the left seem to like, and while there isn’t too much of that in here, there is a bit. I also think there is a lot more to say about the ways in which different organizational forms in movement contexts have used the tools presented by the social industry, with varying levels of success – I can’t help but think Seymour’s Trot past might have something to do with his scathing take on horizontalist forms, for instance, for all that he does make some excellent points. I could probably flip through the book and find lots more that I would quibble with. But while I might differ on specific details, overall I think the book is thoughtful and very useful. As well, I have always enjoyed Seymour’s writing, and this book was no exception. So I would say that it is definitely worth a read if you are trying to think about social media and the ways it is shaping our world. And I think I may read it again in a couple of years – it is relevant to a writing project that I have been vaguely contemplating, and if I do end up committing to it when I’m done writing my current book, then I will come back for another go at this one.

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