A rodent trapped inside a pitcher plant in the Philippines. Photograph: Redfern Natural History/PA
The dominant view of these self-destructive propensities was vividly explained by addiction entrepreneur, the late Allen Carr. In a macabre image, he compared addiction to a carnivorous
pitcher plant. The plant lures insects and small animals to their death with the fragrant smell of nectar. Once the creature is inside, gazing down at that delicious pool of sugary liquid, it finds the walls slippery and waxy, then slides down, with growing speed, falling into what it discovers is a watery grave. By the time it realises that the pleasure is a mirage, it is too late to escape, and it is consumed by digestive enzymes. This was Carrs hard sell one of a range of powerful suggestion techniques he used to break his clients addictions. But it also condenses how we tend to think of the dark side of addiction as something that ambushes the user, lured by a simple promise of pleasure.
The problem is that widespread knowledge of the dangers of addiction does not stop it from happening. Likewise, we know by now that if social media platforms get us addicted, they are working well. The more they wreck our lives, the better they are functioning. Yet we persist. Some of this can be explained away by the manner in which addiction organises our attention. The platforms, like gambling machines, are experts at disguising losses as wins. These work thanks to an effect similar to that exploited by practitioners of cold reading and psychic tricks: we attend to the pleasurable hits and ignore the disappointing misses. We focus on the buzz of winning, not the cost of playing the game, and not the opportunities lost by playing. And if occasionally the habit threatens to crush us, we can fantasise that one day a big win will save us. But to explain away behaviour is not really to explain it. It is to collude in the rationalisation of behaviour that may not be rational.
The prevalence of addiction raises a troubling question: is self-destruction, in some perverse way, what we are seeking? What if we dive into the pitcher plant in part because we expect a slow death? What if, for example, the images of death and disease on the cigarette packet are an advertisement? Of course, it is not what is consciously sought. Heroin users are always trying to rediscover the bliss of the first hit. Compulsive gamblers live for those manic moments when their strategy seems to have paid off with a big win. But if it was really all about dopamine loops keeping us fixated on the next hit, it would be difficult to explain why random hits of unpleasure would make social media even more gripping. The platforms treat us mean and keep us keen.
One metric for this experience is known as The Ratio. On Twitter, if the replies to your tweet vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, you have gambled and lost. Whatever you have written is so outrageous, so horrible, that you are now in the zone of the shitstorm. The notorious examples of this involve corporate CEOs, politicians and celebrities, ostensibly on the medium for professional purposes, pushing the self-destruct button with an
awful post. But the telling examples are not those tweets where there is a momentary lapse in good public relations, but those where intelligent users become embroiled in horrendous, undignified, self-destructive fights with their followers.
Consider, for example, Mary Beard, a Cambridge historian who maintains a profile on Twitter filled with amiable selfies, centre-left views and chat with fans. Beards downfall came as she mused publicly about the horrendous allegations of Oxfam aid workers raping and sexually exploiting children in Haiti. While stipulating that it could not be condoned, she wondered aloud how easy it would be to
sustain civilized values in a disaster zone. Beards progressive followers were horrified. She seemed to be relativising the behaviour of rapists. Would she be saying this, people wondered, if the victims were white? Beard was presumably unaware of any racist implication of her argument, but it was striking that she chose this medium as the place to make it. And perhaps just as significant was how ordinary that decision was. Twitter is good for witty banter; the lapidary concision of a tweet makes any putdown seem brutally decisive. Exactly for that reason, it is a terrible place to idly propose provocative theses.
In the ensuing shitstorm, blizzards of concise, lethal replies were launched in her direction. Disappointed followers declared their disaffection. Beyond a certain critical mass, it stopped mattering how accurate the criticisms were. The shitstorm is not a form of accountability. Nor is it political pedagogy, regardless of the high-minded intentions, or sadism, of the participants. No one is learning anything, except how to remain connected to the machine. It is a punishment beating, its ecstasies sanctioned by virtue. Twitter has, as part of its addictive repertoire, democratised punishment.
Rather than backing away from the medium in open-mouthed horror and reconsidering her whole approach to the issue, Beard remained entranced by the flow. As so many users have done, she spent hours upping the ante, trying to rebut, engage and manage the emotional fallout from the attack. She ended the day by posting a tearful photograph of herself, pleading with the medium that she was really not the nasty colonialist you say I am. This, predictably, egged the medium on, adding white tears and white fragility to the indictment. Hurt feelings, trivial in the scale of human woe, were being used to evade political accountability. (Besides,
sotto voce, hurt feelings are delicious, but not enough.)
Still, Beard kept returning. It was, in its own way, a form of digital self-harm. The mirror that had told her how awesome she was now called her a scumbag, and it was clearly irresistible. Many online self-harmers set up anonymous accounts to bully themselves, a practice which among the
incel (involuntarily celibate) community is known as blackpilling. On the Twittering Machine, no such efforts are needed. You just have to keep playing and wait for it. Come for the nectar of approval, stay for the frisson of virtual death.
art of what keeps us hooked is the so-called variability of rewards: what the US computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls carrot and shtick. The Twittering Machine gives us both positive and negative reinforcements, and the unpredictable variation of its feedback is what makes it so compulsive. Like a mercurial lover, the machine keeps us needy and guessing; we can never be sure how to stay in its good graces. Indeed, the app manufacturers increasingly build in artificial-intelligence machine-learning systems so that they can learn from us how to randomise rewards and punishments more effectively. This sounds like an abusive relationship. Indeed, much as we describe relationships as having gone toxic, it is common to hear of Twitter toxicity. P
Toxicity is a useful starting point for understanding a machine that hooks us with unpleasure, because it indexes both the pleasure of intoxication and the danger of having too much hence the clinical term for the administration of toxic substances, toxicomania. The Renaissance natural philosopher Paracelsus is credited with a major insight of modern toxicology: the dose, not the substance, makes the poison. Every food and drink, if taken beyond its dose, is poison, he said.
If toxicity is having the wrong dose, what are we overdosing on? Even with drugs, the answer is not straightforward. As pointed out by Rik Loose, the author of The Subject of Addiction, similar quantities of the same drug administered to different individuals have widely varying effects. The real experience of the drug the subject-effect, as it is called partly depends on something other than the drug itself, namely something in the user. The happy pills have no more magic than magic beans. They have a blunt somatic force, but there has to be something else to act on. And if psychosocial dislocation was a sufficient cause, then there would be far more addicts. Beyond a certain point, addiction must act on, and be caused by, the psychic world of the user.
With social media addiction, there are many more variables than with drugs, so it is hard to know where to begin. The designers of the smartphone or tablet interface, for example, have made sure that it is pleasurable to engage with, hold, or even just to look at. The urge to reach, irritably, for the device during meals, conversations, parties and upon awakening, can partly be attributed to lust for the object and the soft, nacreous glow of the screen. Once we have navigated to the app, it is the platform designers who take control. For the duration of our visit, life is briefly streamlined, as with a video game, into a single visual flow, a set of soluble challenges, some dangled rewards and a game of chance. But the variety of possible experiences include voyeurism, approval and disapproval, gaming, news, nostalgia, socialising and regular social comparisons. If we are addicted, we might just be addicted to the activities that the platforms enable, from gambling to shopping to spying on friends.
The platforms dont organise our experience according to a masterplan. As the sociologist Benjamin Bratton puts it, the mechanism is strict and invariable, but within that autocracy of means, the user is granted a relative liberty of ends. The protocols of the platform standardise and order the interactions of users. They use incentives and choke points to keep people committed to the machine. They manipulate ends for the benefit of their real clients other firms. They bombard us with stimuli, learning from our responses, the better to teach us how to be the market demographic we have been identified as. But they do not force us to stay there, or tell us what to do with the hours spent on the platform. Even more so than in the case of drugs, then, the toxicity is something we as users bring to the game.
This article was amended on 23 August 2019 to correct the reference to the allegations against Oxfam aid workers.
This is an edited extract from The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour, published by The Indigo Press. To order a copy for 11.43, go to guardianbookshop.com
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