Opting out of 'digital serfdom'

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Image: Alicia Steels/Unsplash

Once upon a time, the left was briefly but strongly enamoured of the radical potential of social media. This author counts herself among the enchanted -- the opportunity for collective organizing and political movement seemed immense. Yet nearly a decade after the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, social media has little to show for itself in terms of its ability to facilitate material change. Even more unsettling, those groups that have tended to fare best in the online environment support the worst forms of right-wing, reactionary and misogynist politics. 

Has something gone wrong, or was there a flaw in the machinery all along?

In The Twittering Machine, author and broadcaster Richard Seymour offers a compelling response to this question by taking into account the economic, structural and formal mechanisms of social media.

More accurately, Seymour describes digital capitalism as "the social industry" versus "social media" to reframe platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as sites of extraction and labour. Following Nick Srinieck's Platform Capitalism and Virginia Eubanks' Automating InequalitySeymour argues that the social industry gets more from its users than mere passive consumption: digital platforms siphon enormous amount of data from users simply for the privilege of using the platform itself.

This dynamic is doubly extractive in cases where persons also make their livelihood via the social industry. Be they YouTube microinfluencers, Foodora drivers, or recreational users, everyone is part of the emerging "digital serfdom." "We write to the machine," Seymour tells us, and "it collects and aggregates our desires and fantasies, segments them by market and demographic, and sells them back to us as a commodity experience."

Seymour's emphasis on writing as an act of labour is a unique feature of his argument and it brings a welcome materialist focus to our engagement with social media usage. But what keeps us writing to the machine? Seymour focuses a substantial portion of the book on the addictive nature of the social industry. Drawing on the latest neuro-scientific research, Seymour reminds us that addiction "is not linked to pleasure, but to appetite and anticipation." In other words, the mediums we work and play on are designed to keep us wanting.

Exactly what we want is not consistent, but Seymour reminds us of the addict's dilemma by drawing on Sigmund Freud's theory of the death drive: human beings are apt to seek pleasure as much as they are likely to engage in self-destructive actions. In placing a bet or chasing a high, we almost expect to lose or come down. There is a darker side to addiction that the social industry exploits.

For all of its erudition, The Twittering Machine is highly readable for both academic and non-academic audiences (this is a real feat given that Seymour references Marx, Freud, mythology and even modernist painting: the title of the book comes from Paul Klee's 1922 painting The Twittering Machine, which shows mechanical birds in the midst of song, luring unsuspecting victims to into an open pit). The critical consensus on Seymour's book has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. The Twittering Machine is undoubtedly a crucial and compelling read in the landscape of technology and society.

Yet critics have also found Seymour's book cynical about our ability to rewire our relationship to technology. The book closes by suggesting that we begin, on an individual level, to reduce our use of these platforms and recapture control of our free time. Peter Conrad deems this conclusion an insufficient gesture and "merely wistful."

Yet Seymour's suggestion puts our use of social media in the context of a Marxist argument about labour. If we can't seize the means of production, we can withhold our labour -- what Seymour proposes could be a social industry strike, of sorts. In other words, if there is a surplus to be generated with our writing, why not take it for ourselves? Keeping labour, extraction and profit at the core of the analysis has the potential to change a "social media detox" from a neoliberal catchphrase to a political gesture. It's not a full-fledged solution, but it is an idea, and Seymour's book is interested in generating alternatives to the social industry.

Both Conrad and John Baglow find the claims in The Twittering Machine "deeply pessimistic," but I think otherwise. Seymour does not imagine we can return to our pre-social media behaviours and he avoids succumbing to moralism or nostalgia in his analysis. Instead, Seymour begins the book by asking the "minimal utopian question: what else could we be doing with writing, if not this?" The book itself is full of questions, but writing a sociology of the present inevitably lends itself to openness and possibility.

It is early days yet, Seymour tells us, for us to know what we are truly walking into. What if we tried to do different things with our time? What would the machine unleash, and would we resist?

Cristina D'Amico is a curriculum developer at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto and a member of USW local 1998. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in the department of English.

Image: Alicia Steels/Unsplash

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