Writer Richard Seymour traces the slow destruction of the writing industry in the age of social media
In 1922, the surrealist Paul Klee invented the Twittering Machine. In the painting, a row of stick-figure birds clutches an axle, turned by a crank. Below the device where the voices squawk discordantly is a reddened pit. The Museum of Modern Art explains: ‘the birds function as bait to lure victims to the pit over which the machine hovers.’ Somehow, the holy music of birdsong has been mechanized, deployed as a lure, for the purpose of human damnation.
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. He blamed enclosures. The emerging agrarian capitalist class found that they could do better business rearing sheep to sell wool on the international markets, than if they allowed peasants to subsist on the land. Sheep ate; people starved.
In the nineteenth century, the Luddites exhorted against another paradox: the tyranny of machines over human beings. The Luddites were textile workers, who noticed the way the owners were using the machinery to undermine the bargaining position of workers and accelerate their exploitation. A proto-labour movement, they used the only disruptive tactic available to them: they smashed the machines. But to little avail in the long run, as work was more and more automated and taken under managerial control. Machines operated the workers.
Something similar is happening to writing. Now, like everything else, writing is being restructured around the format of the computer. Billions of people, above all in the world’s richest countries, are writing more than ever before, on our phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. And we are not so much writing, as being written. This is not really about ‘social media’. The term ‘social media’ is too widely used to be wished away, but we should at least put it in question. It is a form of shorthand propaganda. All media, and all machines, are social. Machines are social before they are technological, as the historian Lewis Mumford wrote. Long before the advent of the digital platforms, the philosopher Gilbert Simondon explored the ways in which tools generate social relationships. A tool is, first, the medium of a relationship between a body and the world. It connects users in a set of relationships with one another and the world around them. Moreover, the conceptual schema from which tools are generated can be transferred to new contexts, thus generating new types of relationship. To talk about technologies is to talk about societies.
This is about a social industry. As an industry it is able, through the production and harvesting of data, to objectify and quantify social life in numerical form. As William Davies has argued, its unique innovation is to make social interactions visible and susceptible to data analytics and sentiment analysis. This makes social life eminently susceptible to manipulation on the part of governments, parties and companies who buy data services. But more than that, it produces social life; it programmes it. This is what it means when we spend more hours tapping on the screen than talking to anyone face to face; that our social life is governed by algorithm and protocol. When Theodore Adorno wrote of the ‘culture industry’, arguing that culture was being universally commodified and homogenized, it was arguably an elitist simplification. Even the Hollywood production-line showed more variation than Adorno admitted. The social industry, by contrast, has gone much further, subjecting social life to an invariant written formula.
This is about the industrialization of writing. It is about the code (the writing) which shapes how we use it, the data (another form of writing) which we generate in doing so, and the way in which that data is used to shape (write) us.
We are swimming in writing. Our lives have become, in the words of Shoshana Zuboff, an ‘electronic text’. More and more of reality is being brought under the surveillance of the chip.
While some platforms are about enabling industry to make its work processes more legible, more transparent and thus more manageable, data platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook turn their attention to consumer markets. They intensify surveillance, rendering abruptly visible huge substrata of behaviour and wishes that had been occulted, and making price signals and market research look rather quaint by comparison. Google accumulates data by reading our emails, monitoring our searches, collecting images of our homes and towns on Street View and recording our locations on Google Maps. And, thanks to an agreement with Twitter, it also checks our tweets.
The nuance added by social industry’s platforms is that they don’t necessarily have to spy on us. They have created a machine for us to write to. The bait is that we are interacting with other people: our friends, professional colleagues, celebrities, politicians, royals, terrorists, porn actors – anyone we like. We are not interacting with them, however, but with the machine. We write to it, and it passes on the message for us, after keeping a record of the data.
The machine benefits from the ‘network effect’: the more people write to it, the more benefits it can offer, until it becomes a disadvantage not to be part of it. Part of what? The world’s first ever public, live, collective, open-ended writing project. A virtual laboratory. An addiction machine, which deploys crude techniques of manipulation redolent of the ‘Skinner Box’ created by behaviourist B. F. Skinner to control the behaviour of pigeons and rats with rewards and punishments. We are ‘users’, much as cocaine addicts are ‘users’.
What is the incentive to engage in writing like this for hours each day? In a form of mass casualization, writers no longer expect to be paid or given employment contracts. What do the platforms offer us, in lieu of a wage? What gets us hooked? Approval, attention, retweets, shares, likes.
This is the Twittering Machine: not the infrastructure of fibre-optic cables, database servers, storage systems, software and code. It is the machinery of writers, and writing, and the feedback loop they inhabit.
Extracted and adapted from The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour (Indigo Press). Buy a copy here.