The Twittering Machine

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Richard Seymour
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SKU: 9781999683382 Category:

Demy paperback with french flaps
226 pages
15 August 2019
ISBN 9781999683382
Cover design © House of Thought

In surrealist artist Paul Klee’s The Twittering Machine, the bird-song of a diabolical machine acts as bait to lure humankind into a pit of damnation. Leading political writer and broadcaster Richard Seymour argues that this is a chilling metaphor for our relationship with social media.

Former social media executives tell us that the system is an addiction-machine. We are users, waiting for our next hit as we like, comment and share. We write to the machine as individuals, but it responds by aggregating our fantasies, desires and frailties into data, and returning them to us as a commodity experience.

Through journalism, psychoanalytic reflection and insights from users, developers, security experts and others, Seymour probes the human side of the machine, asking what we’re getting out of it, and what we’re getting into.

Praise

‘Richard Seymour has a brilliant mind and a compelling style. Everything he writes is worth reading.’
Gary Younge, Editor-at-Large, Guardian

‘One of our most astute political analysts.’
China Miéville, author of October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

‘A brilliant and provocative reassessment of a technology that has become apparently indispensable to modern life.’
Daniel Trilling, editor of New Humanist and author of Lights in the Distance

‘If you really want to set yourself free you should read a book – preferably this one.’
Observer, Book of the Week

‘A thrilling demonstration of what [resistance] can look like … everyone should read it.’
Guardian

‘Clever, and alarming … a first tentative vision of what a neo-luddite response to our predicament might look like.’
Spectator

‘Seymour’s compulsively argued book may just be the intervention we all need.’
Tatler.com

The Twittering Machine

The Twittering Machine is a horror story, even though it is about technology that is in itself neither good nor bad. All technology, as the historian Melvin Kranzberg put it, is ‘neither good nor bad; nor neutral’.

We tend to ascribe magical powers to technologies: the smartphone is our golden ticket, the tablet our mystic writing pad. In technology, we find our own alienated powers in a moralized form: either a benevolent genie or a tormenting demon. These are paranoid fantasies, whether or not they seem malign, because in them we are at the mercy of the devices. So, if this is a horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user: a category that includes me, and probably most of the people reading this book.

If the Twittering Machine confronts us with a string of calamities – addiction, depression, ‘fake news’, trolls, online mobs, alt-right subcultures – it is only exploiting and magnifying problems that are already socially pervasive. If we’ve found ourselves addicted to social media, in spite or because of its frequent nastiness, as I have, then there is something in us that is waiting to be addicted. Something that social media potentiates. And if, with all these problems, we still inhabit the social media platforms – as over half the world’s population does – we must be getting something out of it. The dreary moral-panic literature excoriating ‘the shallows’ and the ‘post-truth’ society must be missing a vital truth about their subject.

Those who enjoy the social media platforms tend to like the fact that they give them a shot at being heard. It weakens the monopoly on culture and meaning formerly enjoyed by media and entertainment companies. Access isn’t equal – reach is bought and paid for by corporate users, PR agencies, celebrities, and so on, who also have better-funded content – but it can still give marginalized voices a chance where previously they had none. And it rewards quickness, wit, cleverness, play, and certain types of creativity – even if it also rewards darker pleasures, such as sadism and spite.

And if the use of social media unsettles political systems, this isn’t entirely bad news for those traditionally excluded by those systems. The once-hyped idea of ‘Twitter revolutions’ vastly exaggerated the role of social media in popular uprisings, and these have since been overtaken by darker forces embedded in social media, from ISIS to Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) killers. But there are times when the flow of information between citizens makes all the difference; times when the traditional news media can’t be relied on; times when the possibilities of social media can be put to good use. Times, generally, of crisis.

Nonetheless, the crucial part of Kranzberg’s observation is that technology is never neutral. And the crucial technology, in this story, is writing. A practice that binds humans and machines in a pattern of relationships, without which most of what we call civilization is impossible. Writing technologies, being foundational to our ways of life, are never socially or politically neutral in their effects. Anyone who has lived through the rise of the internet, the spread of the smartphone and the ascent of social media platforms will have seen a remarkable shift taking place. As writing has morphed from analogue to digital, it has become massively ubiquitous. Never before in human history have people written so much, so frantically: texting, tweeting, thumb-typing on public transport, updating statuses during work breaks, scrolling and clicking in front of glowing screens at 3 a.m. To some extent, this is an extension of changes in the workplace, where computer-mediated communication means that writing takes up an ever-larger share of production. And, indeed, there is an important sense in which the writing we’re doing now is work, albeit unpaid. But it is also indicative of new, or unleashed, passions.

We are, abruptly, scripturient – possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly. So, this is a story about desire and violence, as well as writing. It is also a story about what we might be writing ourselves into, culturally and politically. It is not an authoritative account: that is impossible this early in the evolution of a radically new techno-political system. This book is an attempt, as much as anything else, to work out a new language for thinking about what is coming into being. And finally, if we are all going to be writers, it is a story that asks the minimal utopian question: what else could we be doing with writing, if not this?

Katherine Angel for The White Review, 22 December 2020: ‘Books of the Year’

Jacobin Weekends, 12 December 2020: ‘Woke Biden Cabinet, Indian Strikes, & Social Media Industry w/ Richard Seymour’

LA Review of Books Podcast, 23 October 2020: ‘Friending Thanatos: Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine’

Cristina D’Amico for Rabble, 16 January 2020: Opting out of digital serfdom”

Owen Hatherley for Tribune, 12 January 2020: ‘Interview with Richard Seymour’

Politics Theory Other, 1 January 2020: ‘PTO Books of the year’

Oliver Eagleton for New Left Review, 17 December 2019: ‘Mind-forged Manacles?’

Rowan Fortune for Medium, 29 November 2019: ‘Utopia & Dystopia: Online Capitalism’

Richard Seymour for New Statesman, 27 November 2019: We are witnessing the end of the “Twitter Revolution”’

Mark Murphy for Rs21, 16 November 2019: ‘Review: The Twittering Machine’

Katrina Forrester for New Statesman, 13 November 2019: ‘Best books of the year 2019’

David Capener for The Irish Times, 9 November 2019: ‘Brief review of The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour’

Richard Seymour for Financial Times, 4 November 2019: ‘How addictive social media fuels online abuse’

Richard Seymour for Guardian, 28 October 2019: The right’s use of trolling is so predictable, why do we keep falling for it?’

David Streitfeld for The Times Literary Supplement, 22 October 2019: Don’t @ us: The problem with tweeting’

John Baglow for The Literary Review of Canada, 21 October 2019: ‘The Great Escape: Can we break out of our social media addiction?’

Richard Seymour for New Humanist, 14 October 2019: Willing servants’

Louise Proyect for CounterPunch, 4 October 2019: ‘The Politics of Trolling’

Ian Parker for Socialist Resistance, 27 September 2019: ‘Left Hooked on Twitter’

Kiera O’Brien for The Bookseller, 2 September 2019: ‘Books in the Media’

Emma Jacobs for Financial Times, 30 August 2019: ‘The Twittering Machine — our role in the online horror story’

Richard Seymour for Guardian, 23 August 2019: ‘The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media’ (extract from The Twittering Machine)

Francesca Carington for Tatler, 21 August 2019: ‘The Best Late Summer Reads’

Will Davies for The Guardian, 8 August 2019: ‘Book of the Week’

Daniel Hahn for The Spectator, 3 August 2019: The unseen enemy

Spanish edition here

North American edition here

 

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