The Twittering Machine (eBook)


Richard Seymour
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A masterful dissection of our networked era by the acclaimed author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics

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. Political writer and broadcaster Richard Seymour argues that this is a chilling metaphor for relationship with social media.

Former social media executives tell us that the system is an addiction-machine. Like drug addicts, 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 interviews with users, developers, security experts and others, Seymour probes the human side of this machine, asking what we’re getting out of it, and what we’re getting into.


‘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.’

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

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


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, 22nd December 2020: ‘Books of the Year’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Seymour for Guardian, 28th 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, 22nd October 2019: ‘Don’t @ us: The problem with tweeting’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Seymour for Intelligence Squared Podcast, October 2019: ‘The Social Media Addiction-Machine, with Richard Seymour and Jamie Bartlett’

Richard Seymour for Horror Vanguard Podcas, October 2019t:HV Interviews Richard Seymour Author of The Twittering Machine’

Richard Seymour for New Books in Critical Theory Podcast, December 2020:Richard Seymour, “The Twittering Machine” (Verso, 2020)

Richard Seymour for Intelligence Squared Podcast, July 2021: ‘The Truth about Fake News, with Marcus Gilroy-Ware and Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour for Zer0 Books and Repeater Media Podcast, April 2022: ‘The Lacanian Left, Self-Help, and the Family feat. Richard Seymour’

Richard Seymour for The Weekend University Podcast, July 2022: ‘The Social Media Addiction Machine – Dr Richard Seymour, PhD’

Richard Seymour for Novara Media, December 2022: ‘Downstream: Twitter’s Toxic Downfall w/ Richard Seymour’

Richard Seymour for The Guardian, 22nd November: ‘Elon Musk never cared if Twitter was a business failure – he wants a political win’

Spanish edition

North American edition

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