The Machine Always Wins

A new book by Richard Seymour.  I have posted a link in my section on website and article links to the article because I believe it is worth reading in its entirety.  Ah, the story that just won’t go away, modern technology as entrapment.  We in televisionland know that all these critiques don’t hardly make the slightest dent in the consciousness of Everycyborg.  Now Mr. Seymour has mounted a very cogent and telling case as to why this might be the case.  He observes, whether or not we consider ourselves addicted to social media and the smartphone, the system treats us as if we were.  “For those who are curating a self, social media notifications work as a form of clickbait…but it is not only addictive.  Whatever we write has to be calibrated for social approval.  Not only do we aim for conformity among our peers but, to an extent, we only pay attention to what our peers write insofar as it allows us to write something in reply, for the likes.  Perhaps this is what, among other things, gives rise to what is often derided as virtue signalling, not to mention the ferocious rows, overreactions, wounded amour-propre and grandstanding that often characterize social media communities.”

This is compelling stuff, but, but what is even more compelling and tragic is what Seymour describes as the ultimate horror of addition:  It kills.  Obviously it can kill outright through fatal overdose but what Seymour wishes us to focus on is its propensity to lead us to spiritual death.  “The drug addicts of Vancouver’s Hastings Corridor, described by Bruce Alexander–an emeritus professor of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who has studied addiction since the 70s–suffer symbolic death, “sodden misery”, before their biological death from overdose, suicide, Aids or hepatitis…  [c]ompulsive gamblers administer death in a symbolic sense, too, building up unpayable debts to the point where they lose everything they have lived for.  Social media addiction is rarely understood in this extreme light.  Nonetheless, users often describe it wrecking their careers and relationships…[t]he more these platforms wreck our lives, the better they are at functioning.  Yet we persist.  The platforms, like gambling machines are expert as disguising losses as wins.  We focus on the buzz of winning, not the cost of playing the game, and not the opportunities lost by playing.” And then Seymour delivers the punchline:   “The prevalence of addiction raises a troubling question:  is self-destruction, in some perverse way, what we are seeking?” One is of course reminded of Freud’s “death drive” at this juncture, and the crucial observation that this drive in classical psychoanalytic theory is unconscious.

Naturally Seymour, in his carefully mounted case, makes frequent recourse to the notion of variable reward, so chillingly documented by Natasha Dow Schüll in her signally important book Addiction by Design.  Seymour cites Jaron Lanier, who refers to the process of machine addiction as the employment of the “carrot and schtick.”  And he continues, “The Twittering Machine gives up both positive and negative reinforcements, and the unpredictable variation of feedback is what makes it so compulsive.  Like a mercurial lover, the machine keeps us needy and guessing; we can never know how to stay in its good graces.” The question which screams to be heard here is, what characteristics in the human personality have to be in place so that the hapless individual joins the hordes and puts up with all this?  Aren’t we once again speaking of a deep and abiding will to submission, even a will to self-extinguishment?

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