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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Reparative compulsions

When it comes to newfangled technology, Alan Jacobs argues that intermittent reinforcement is “the real enemy.” Rather than blame gadgets alone for diminishing our attention spans or for making us dumber or lonelier, we should, Jacobs writes, “think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked.” That’s what I hope to do a bit in this post.

Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky — that is, addictive, as Alexis Madrigal details in this post about the “machine zone.” He draws on anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s research in her book about machine gambling, Addiction by Design, to make comparisons between the lost time on gambling machines and the time lost to Facebook and other social-media sites. Like video slots, which incite extended periods of “time-on-machine” to assure “continuous gaming productivity” (i.e. money extraction from players), social-media sites are designed to maximize time-on-site, to make their users more valuable to advertisers (Instagram, incidentally, is adding advertising) and to ratchet up user productivity in the form of data sharing and processing that social-media sites reserve the rights to.

As Schüll writes, looking closely at machine gambling makes it “possible to track how shared social conditions and normative behavioral ideals contribute to shaping gambling addicts’ seemingly aberrant ‘machine lives,’ and to discern in those lives a kind of immanent critique of broader discontents.” That is, machine gamblers pursue a more extreme version of “nonrational” coping behaviors that many of us may resort to in less drastic forms, in machinic responses and repetitions on social media, as a response to economic and social precarity.

Gambling addicts, like other consumers in “risk society,” act not so much to maximize as to manage; to this end, they continually recalibrate their actions in response to environmental feedback, flexibly adjusting themselves to changing circumstances and contingencies.

I’ve argued before that social media is a platform for building and exercising neoliberal subjectivity, but that “paranoid” reading (in Eve Sedgwick’s terminology) seems inadequate to describe the way it’s also used “reparatively,” as an attempt to mitigate and control feelings of social risk, as I addressed here. Social media replicates social vulnerability while distilling it within a venue where it can seemingly be played with; it takes the contingencies of sociality and makes them something we can interface with and manage directly.

Schüll argues that machine-gambling addicts become hooked on the “zone” that machines can take them to, in which the contingencies and inconveniences of human contact are eliminated, the pressure of being rational and entrepreneurial in one’s life is suspended, and money’s value is inverted. In short, it is a temporary antidote to the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity — the calculating, rational self who must constantly hustle and perform affective labor and prosume. Machine gambling is a procedure for converting those pressures into their opposite by indulging their logic completely. Something similar happens with social-media use, which converts the pressures of social exposure — the economic need for attention and the loss of privacy — into something that feels managed.

Both the compulsions of machine gambling and the compulsions of social-media checking, afford users a specific and limited sense of control over a very precise set of choices and then simplifying the possible outcomes. In Schüll’s words, these platforms let “individuals use technology to manufacture ’certainties.’ “ Certainties is in quotes because this type of technology use doesn’t allow us to determine outcomes, only to choose the occasions when we seek rewards. Schüll quotes a 1902 essay on gambling by Clemens France: “So strong is the passion for the conviction of certainty that one is impelled again and again to enter upon the uncertain in order to put one’s safety to the test … Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, gambling is a struggle for the certain and sure, i.e. the feeling of certainty.”

People gamble because they are seeking action, a managed set of risks that distract us from the uncontrollable risks of being in the world (of having an identity). Gambling-experience design, as Schüll details in the book, is about continual modulation of the player’s sensorium so as to maintain an continuous equilibrium between sensation, distraction, control, and enchantment. Schüll notes the asymmetry in the time horizons of gamblers and casino operators: casino operators take the long view and use the mass of data they collect to manage long-run profit. Gamblers, in seeking the “zone” of satisfactory play, pursue a “perpetual present tense” whose horizon extends only to the possibility of immediate gratification.

In a sense, the gambling transaction is a mechanism for trading the long-term view, expanses over which it is much harder to manage and sustain positive mood, for the short-term, in which mood is irrelevant and there is only reactive sensation. As Schüll puts it, machine gamblers operate by “affective adaptation rather than analytic leverage.” They are looking to manage feeling and hack their brain’s reward mechanisms, not pursue a Weberian rationality that might lead to steady gains.

Another way to put that is that casinos, as corporate subjects, don’t experience depression the way individual gamblers do, so casinos don’t need the compensations of the zone but can instead sell it to those who do. But they have no incentive to help anyone resolve depression, only to make it “productive” — that is, a guarantor of a predictable profit stream for the casino. So casinos collect data and develop technologies and environments to cultivate and nurture depression in such a guise that the depressed subject can’t recognize their depression for what it is. This is how escapism-driven, “experience economy”–driven capitalism works.

Social media works similarly, aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. The continuity social media supplies to users relies not on sensory nullification, as with gaming machines (or opiates) but on making connectivity ubiquitous, of being always on and responsive to our flashes of social curiosity and anxiety. Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.

The design techniques for ushering users into the machine zone involve resolving the ambiguity, contingency, and complexity of action in everyday life, crystallizing ambient risk and dread into heightened moments that users can trigger and seem to control, whether it’s by spinning the reels or checking for likes or at-replies. Schüll writes:

Intensive machine gambling … manages to suspend key elements of contemporary life — market-based exchange, monetary value, and conventional time — along with the social expectation for self-maximizing, risk-managing behavior that accompanies them. The activity achieves this suspension not by transcending or canceling out these elements and expected modes of conduct, but by isolating and intensifying them — or “distilling” them … to the point where they turn into something else.

Later, she clarifies what she means by machine gambling’s distillation effect:

The activity distills these aspects of life into their elementary forms (namely, risk-based interaction, actuarial economic thinking, and compressed, elastic time) and applies them to a course of action formatted in such a way that they cease to serve as tools for self-enterprise and instead serve as the means to continue play.

This same analysis can be applied to social media pretty readily. Social-media use can distill anxiety-inducing aspects of social surveillance, status competition, the economic mobilization of personality, and the fear of missing out into their “elementary forms” (overt self-promotion, explicit networking, stalking, establishing connectivity for its own sake) and format them into a manageable interface. The trappings of entrepreneurial selfhood in social media fall away, and the platforms become a means of escape, with distraction just a push-notification jackpot away.

Given that video-gambling machines offer, in Schüll’s view, a pure escape from the pressures of sociality, it may seem strange to liken them to social media. “The immersive zone of machine play,” Schüll writes, “offers a reprieve from the nebulous and risky calculative matrix of social interaction, shielding her from the monitoring gaze of others and relieving her of the need to monitor them in return.” Nothing could seem further from the realities of social-media use, which is built on mutual monitoring, lateral surveillance, calculated acts of sharing to build a personal brand, and so on.

But that is precisely what makes social media a powerful way of mastering the contingencies of such surveillance: On social media, privacy fears are”distilled” into their quintessence — I am always exposed — and concentrated in a realm where they can be amplified, where we can toy with them rather then be ruled by them. It takes the logic of gaming machines a step further. You can interact with a machine, alone, on your own terms, not to escape being social but as a way of being social.

Thanks to social media, we can believe that we control the time and place where we confront our social risks, our status uncertainties, our fears of exposure. (In fact, it may just make us less prepared to address those risks when they arise outside the social-media platforms.) If machine gambling is about mastering/escaping from the feelings brought on by economic precarity, social-media use is about mastering feelings of privacy risk, social exclusion, coinciding fears of over- and underexposure. We don’t want to be “unwilling avatars,” yet we also don’t want to be excluded from the social realm as it is reconstituted in fluid, intertwined, networked platforms.

If we are truly trapped in an attention economy, then compulsive social-media use represents an attempt to devalue the attention currency, the way gambling devalues money, makes it useless for its customary purposes. Schüll writes:

it is possible for a sense of monetary value to become suspended in machine gambling not because money is absent, but because the activity mobilizes it in such a way that it no longer works as it typically does. Money becomes the bridge away from everyone and everything, leading to a zone beyond value, with no social or economic significance. In the zone, instead of serving as a tool for self-determination, money becomes an instrument for “sustained indeterminacy,” as Livingstone puts it. Peter Adams clarifies the nature of this indeterminacy by arguing that machine gamblers seek through play to transcend the limits of finitude: constraints of space and time, the gaze of intersubjectivity, and the bounds of personal mortality.

Attention continues to serve the same economic function it always has for marketers and ad brokers, but for users it works differently, leading to “a zone beyond value” where it no longer gratifies or terrifies in the conventional ways. On social media, attention becomes an “instrument for sustained indeterminancy.” It propels users through the closed feedback loops that social media create, extending “time-on-site,” ultimately for its own sake. It allows us to perpetually defer the irreconcilable contradictions of being a subject in the world.

We both want attention and to be free of attention’s control over our lives, free of the insecurity it provokes. (Just like people want to belong while asserting their individuality.) So it’s not sufficient to say that social-media “microcelebrities” are starving for fame and will go to extreme, transgressive lengths for attention. Attention in social media at first triggers fantasies of fame, but then it settles into moment-to-moment compulsion. This allows it to addresses the psychic damage inflicted by precarious sociality — the result of social recognition and support having been depredated by its absorption into the service economy. Or more plainly: attention on social media both compensates for and is the logical endpoint of commoditized care work.

People can zone out into rituals of checking for signs of having been noticed, which, by Schüll’s logic, helps cultivate our ultimate indifference to it. The rituals of checking become more important, more soothing, than whatever is being checked for. You go from seeking a message to seeking the zone of perpetual seeking — aimless scrolling through the stream of tweets, for instance. When gambling addicts win jackpots, they often resent the way they have disrupted the flow of their play. Likewise, the notifications of social media are best when they are ephemeral and require no response from us that precludes further checking or scrolling through.

The “zone” of social media is a paradoxical hybrid of the asocial, desubjectified zoning out brought on by fusing with a gaming machine and the action-seeking hypersociality of exhibitionists. Intersubjectivity is negated by the social-media platform, which gamifies social interaction and makes it something that one plays alone on a smartphone. Social risk and the scary contingencies of personal interaction are mastered by the platform’s transformation of other people’s unpredictable attention-granting behavior into the social-media game’s “reward schedule.” The rewards remain addictively intermittant, only they are provided by capricious peers, not a random number generator. Here, validation or social recognition functions as a discharge as much as a confirmation of the self.

To the extent that anxieties about attention have to do with establishing identity, with constructing a self, social media addresses those anxieties in part by making the experience of getting attention dismantle the self, dissolve us into flow, even as our social-media use builds our identity up as a data profile. The data profile becomes rich but hollow, uninhabited phenomenologically by a subject. One is not “there” in the content of one’s self, which is in an archive; instead one experiences only the rhythm of checking and responding, and the one-dimensional rewards the rituals offer. Ongoing use of social media yields desubjectification through interaction with the standard formats elicited by the platforms: Your data is individualized, while your behavior is homogenized.

The pretense of self-construction online becomes an alibi for ourselves, authorizing self-forgetting, escape. When we are seeking the self, we may be seeking how to get rid of it. The constricted choices and checking opportunities social media constantly provides function as ego depletion, draining the will to continue to think about the self strategically, leaving us happy to make choices about self-presentation with the least friction as possible. Choices in social media invoke the self en route to dissipating it along with all resistance. Knowing we should share, but too tired to think about it, we start to share according to the defaults. And this release from self-consciousness is a sort of zone its own. Ego depletion is pleasurable. It can be marketed under the right disguises. Sweet surrender.

Much is made of using social media for personal branding, and I’ve certainly griped about it in dozens of posts, but the personal brand is something we want to deny as much as create. It’s not a source of secure value for most of us, but a stigma we bear, a mark of how hard we struggle to remain a viable member of society. It’s a kind of metaphysical reputation score, like a credit rating but more nebulous and all-embracing.

Facebook use indulges self-construction, just as machine gambling indulges fantasies of jackpot wealth, but these selves and jackpots are also the animating fantasies that open the gate to the zone, where self disappears and money’s function dwindles down to maintaining time-on-machine. These fantasies make us willingly collude with the platforms’ business models — they prompt us to give away our information, give away our money, as we fetishize the process of giving them. Getting into the “zone” and staying there is a form of productive labor that workers essentially become willing to pay to perform (like an internship in a glamour industry). Prosumerism at its purest.

Self-expression in social media can function as a self-purging, a way of processing life experience at a remove that reduces the uncertainty of its implications to straightforward traffic metrics (number of likes, etc.). Self-documentation becomes a way of conquering the paralysis of self-consciousness, of having too much self on one’s mind. It builds a self in the process of discharging it, making us feel as though we have acted on our desires, negated them, turned them from something unpredictable into something that can be mastered through repetition. (In psychoanalytic terms, “desire” becomes “drive.”)

As I argued in this post, instantaneous and continual sharing shrinks the time frame over which our narratives of identity need to span in our imagination. The idea that we must posit a long-term identity disappears and is supplanted by the rhythms of updating and checking. That long-term identity persists, but as an archive, and making a narrative out of it ceases to be our persistent worry. The material in the archive is available for whatever narrative one wants to make, when they want to make it. Your archive can confront you as the work of a delightfully mysterious stranger.

Experiments in inertia

In Our Aesthetic Categories, Sianne Ngai argues that cuteness, interestingness, and zaniness are the characteristic aesthetics of our “late capitalist” age. While it seems somewhat arbitrary to limit the possibilites to three, I can easily see how these can be used to taxonomize most people’s online presence: There aren’t many that can’t ultimately be reduced to attempts to be cute, interesting, or zany.

Ngai links the promience of these categories to neoliberalism and our ambivalent response to its demands for flexible subjects, immaterial labor, real subsumption, and progressive commodification of experience. They might also be regarded as a consequence of “networked subjectivity” and the idea that we must circulate signifiers of the self to give that self concrete reality. Once, we could convince ourselves we have a self by paying attention to our own interiority — by listening to the voice(s) in our head. Social media, and the direct social proof it can offer, render interiority insufficient. So we must marshal an audience with a style of self-performance that is appropriately scaled to the attention we can reasonably expect for it (“cute”) or is explicitly concerned with virality, with being compulsively “interesting” — an identity worthy of a reblog. The value of any given signifier as a marker of the self depends not on its content but on its circulation. The “truth” about the self stems from how it gets retransmitted, not what it originally or uniquely contains.

In this sense, social-media users today are where the pioneering video-artists of the 1970s once were. Rosalind Krauss, in a 1976 essay called “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” condemned the effects of self-documenting art on the art world in general, pointing to the way it shifted emphasis to circulation and feeback:

In the last fifteen years that world has been deeply and disasterously affected by its relation to mass-media. That an artist’s work be published, reproduced and disseminated through the media has become, for the generation that has matured in the course of the last decade, virtually the only means of verifying its existence as art. The demand for instant replay in the media-in fact the creation of work that literally does not exist outside of that replay, as is true of conceptual art and its nether side, body art-finds its obvious correlative in an aesthetic mode by which the self is created through the electronic device of feedback.

It’s not hard to link the “self created through the electronic device of feedback” — for Krauss, the quintessential “mode” of all video art — as a description of social-media use, much of which can be regarded as a kind of phatic mic check: “Is this thing on? Can you hear me? I am here!” Just as artists needed to verify their status through circulation in media, we need to verify our social selves through circulation of artifacts in social media. So like video artists, we are conscious of reframing our life activity as shared performance. The depth or complexity of one’s subjectivity can no longer be used to measure how authentic one’s art is, or how authentic one’s self is. Authenticity (which is almost always a code word for validation or recognition) is a distributed phenomenon.

But the search for validation on social-media is complicated by the fact that our audiences are always also performing — are artists in their own right. In Ngai’s analysis of the “interesting,” she quotes a passage from 1970 by Joseph Kosuth, American editor of Art-Language, a conceptual-art journal: “The audience of conceptual art is composed primarily of artists—which is to say that an audience separate from the participants doesn’t exist. In a sense, then, art becomes as ‘serious’ as science or philosophy, which doesn’t have ‘audiences’ either. It is just interesting or it isn’t.”

Kosuth seems to be talking about how sheer facticity can protect artists from the shame of pandering to audiences. But it may be, as Krauss’s claims about video narcissists suggest, that one can also circumvent pandering through solipsism. Social media use, too, is beset by the problem of pandering, and many users adopt aggressive self-promotion as a guaranteed way of seeming sincere: “You know I am not lying about wanting your attention and approval.” Shameless pandering seems without guile, which then makes it seem like the opposite of pandering, like some kind of daring devotion to honesty.

But what really forestalls accusations of pandering is that all social-media consumers are also users who are vulnerable to the accusation themselves. We can’t pander to one another because we are all insiders, technicians of the medium. With both conceptual art and social media, the audiences are also performers and are “serious” about the medium and concerned about strategies for using it. Social-media consumption thus has a meta component built in to it that nonsocial media don’t — most people don’t watch TV shows with the intent of making their own (though arguably, I suppose, some of the same techniques could be appropriated for self-presentation in Facebook, etc.). But consuming social media is often about absorbing how to create social media better — that, and not the specific things mentioned, can be the primary content for consumers.

Our consumption of social media, then, is always inflected by potential jealousy for rivals in the medium or by the alertness for techniques or ideas to borrow. This can complicate the hope we have in using social media for creating an appreciated self, an archived identity that has followers who validate it for its particular content. It tends to makes the self merely a set of techniques for self-documentation rather than a matter of what it is documented. (I am real because my social media presence is active, not because of anything I say on social media.)

The tension between personal experience (the thing itself) and the need to share it to make it mean something has always existed, but social media certainly intensifies it. It leaves social-media users with no excuse for not immediately seeking social confirmation for the awesomeness of whatever experience they have just undergone. The need to share seems to overlap  experience, so that all experience is sharing: We are the video artist pointing the camera at ourselves always to make what we are doing into a “life.” Into life as art, as truth — there is documentary proof that things happened. Ngai notes how “the photographic series” was the main mode of conceptual art in its heyday; it is also a chief mode of casual social media use — sharing a stream of photos whose content can be of minimal interest as long as it is part of an ongoing project of sharing and documenting the self.

The reciprocity of our being audience for one another has the effect not of emphasizing the “interestingness” of the content but of making the content more like an indifferent placeholder in the game of exchanging gestures of attention and recognition within the network. Circulation of ideas becomes the idea, the content of the ideas being circulated a matter of happenstance. This was why conceptual art could be Ed Ruscha compiling a book of images of gas stations, and why Instagram feeds can be a bunch of pictures of breakfast. What is ”interesting” with respect to such media unfolds over time and is not revealed as a flash of captivation, as we are sometimes prone to think of it.

Taken to one logical extreme, social media as self-documentation becomes self-quantification as democratized conceptual art. The quantitative self is a conceptual artwork driven by quantitative logic, just like Ruscha’s. It’s intentionally boring and inane in any isolated moment, since its purpose is to nullify the moment of interest and stretch the self’s potential interestingness to infinity as the data compiles to make up charts and graphs and so on. Like minimalist art, it eliminates subjectivity and creativity and, to some degree, intentionality from the documentation of the self. It becomes “pure.”

Ngai quotes literary historian Franco Moretti on detective fiction to describe Ruscha’s mode of linking “continuous novelty of content to a perennial fixity of the syntax.” I think that’s a good description of social-media platforms. Social media invite “experiments in inertia” (to borrow a phrase from Roger Shattuck’s description of Satie): continual additions and variations on themes hard-coded into the platforms.

Moretti’s phrase also captures the epistemological approach of self-quantifiers, who are thrilled to derive aesthetic pleasure in themselves by using a systematic approach to render their life experience “interesting.”  Objectively interesting, too — remaking life as data makes it seem universally significant (“quantities are always informative,” Ruscha claims), not a contingent form of purely personal nostalgia. Self-quantification, then, may be an attempt to make personal nostalgia somehow more “legitimate” and less a vertiginous private hole one’s mind can fall into.

In Ngai’s scheme, conceptual art played a part in establishing the definition of the “interesting,” helping establish it as an aesthetic category in its own right rather than the purported opposite of an aesthetic (i.e. “it’s not good, but it’s interesting”). The “interesting,” she suggests, is a response to consumer capitalism’s overwhelming us with novelty; it describes and valorizes the sort of pattern recognition that is never complete, and it is always in danger of collapsing into boredom, of seeing insignificant variations in commodities, say, not as novelty but as more of the same. Something is interesting when we can’t immediately resolve why it has piqued our curiosity or held our attention. It calls attention to the process of being attentive, frames “paying attention” as a kind of important work in and of itself, regardless of what is attended to. Hence “interesting” is the aesthetic category Ngai associates with circulation, with the affective force that yearns for seriality and keeps information moving.

This seems relevant to the frequent complaint that the stuff many people share on social media is “boring” — as though the specific, discrete updates or images are even the point. Each isolated update is almost structurally doomed to being boring because its chief function is to gratify our wish to long for the next one, to provoke our curiosity for what’s coming — to make our “interest” palpable in the trace of its evaporation, as we consume any given image and yawn.

If any given update or image is too fascinating, it upstages the accumulating archive of self as the center of interest — it halts it. For instance, if any one of Ruscha’s gas-station images is too interesting, it voids the integrity of the project as a whole. The book would become subordinate to the outstanding image it contains. You wouldn’t need to take on the book as a whole any longer to appreciate its genius.

Likewise for social media use. The user’s self in social media is akin to those conceptual artworks (or novels — I’m thinking of Richardson’s Clarissa) that work chiefly in time rather than space. The sum of things shared are more compelling in their flow, in the way they tame diverse experience into an underlying homogeneity required by the social-media platforms. The point of this is to secure social recognition and validation of the self, as a dynamic but socially real thing, a coherent concept that takes its stable form as an open-ended progression over time. The self is legitimate as a format.

But an overly interesting image diverts the audience’s attention from the flow, reorients their attention to the singular update. This means that the force of the social recognition audiences supply is diverted away from appreciating the ongoing life one chronicles through social media use; instead recognition suddenly becomes contingent on whether a user can deliver spontaneous moments of true fascination. You get upstaged by the brilliance of what you’ve shared.

Social media and sensibility

The parts of old novels that we find most boring are also the ones that will tell us the most about the ideological needs of past readers. We find these sections boring because they cater to desires or address ideological confusion we no longer experience, or they spell out ideological propositions we have since come to take for granted. Boring passages represent the world in a way we no longer find necessary or thrilling, but in them we can uncover how to reopen the problems that ideology has come to perhaps too tidily solve. Guided by boredom, we can rediscover precisely what ideology guides us to regard as unworthy of careful attention. (No, don’t pay attention to the everyday mechanics of male supremacy; its boring!)

I was inspired to start re-reading Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction because I remembered it made a claim about the analytical usefulness of readerly boredom, in reference to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). This paradigmatic novel, one of the earliest in English, was among the first publishing sensations — the original “must-read.” It thrilled 18th century readers like Diderot, but most contemporary readers find it excruciatingly boring — particularly its second half, all about domestic protocol in a country house. In case you haven’t read the book (and you should!), the first half is about country squire Mr. B wanting to have sex with Pamela, one of his servants. She resists when he tries to rape her and writes copious letters about it, which Mr. B reads and then falls in love with her. Eventually she sees how she has “reformed” him, and they marry. Detailed domestic instructions ensue, showing how a servant can deserve an aristocrat’s love and respect through diligent housekeeping. In case you missed its subtle message, the novel is subtitled “Virtue Rewarded.”

Armstrong argues that in the boring parts of this novel we can trace the conversion of political tension between classes (as industrial capitalism began its rise and social mobility ceased being impossible) into a solvable crisis of courtship that can be traced in a novel’s plot. What was the aim of social mobility, if not revolution? Courtship novels offer one solution: They create a universally accessible space (the domestic space) and a universally accessible prize (the domestic woman, who can supply universal comfort to her family regardless of their level in society). “True love” conquers class animus, or at least makes such considerations a side matter to the main story about one’s life: finding a partner, enjoying their intimacy, and learning to appreciate their inner depths while establishing the domestic space together as a world apart.

Because of their political usefulness in transforming class struggle into a “sexual contract” between a man and a woman in an isolated domestic sphere, Armstrong argues that courtship novels became the dominant form of novels in general — what was understood as a “real” or “quality” novel. Genuine novels aren’t simply fictions; they must show how the motive of love specifically transcends other “interested” motives and constitutes the essential goal in life. The durability of this ideological ruse can be seen in the popularity of the rom-com, though in a rom-com, viewers are not bored by familiar plot materials; instead they satisfy our genre-driven expectations. We can’t yet tell what parts future generations will find boring about them, but they will likely be those parts that strenuously tried to assimilate contemporary political tensions to the courtship story. It will be the stuff that we need to be made to believe so that future generations won’t even know they have a choice about it.

Another aspect of Pamela that can come across as boring is the way it must teach readers how to read novels — something we definitely take for granted. In Pamela one reads lots of scenes depicting other people reading; generally they are reading the very same text (Pamela’s letters and diaries) you have already read and are modeling the appropriate level of responsiveness to it. The book thus dramatizes its own consumption and promulgates its appropriate usage. The novel is a product that teaches you how to consume it. In many early novels, the key subtext is often, How does one learn to read stories? How do I read my social experience in the same fashion? How can I hoard affect, how can I extract sentimental goods?

I’m interested in this because the novel-reading experience then was as novel then as social-media-consumption experience is now. Social media platforms in some respects function like the formal qualities of early novels; they teach us how to extract the pleasure from the product, how to live our lives in a way that social media models and can accommodate. Both novels and social media are erotic technologies, in that they make it possible for users to experience new pleasures of intimacy in new ways.

New mediated pleasures tend to be regarded as inherently dubious (or the inverse, inherently liberatory). Social media is regarded by many commentators as dangerously narcissistic, echoing one of the original moral panics about reading novels, that it was tantamount to masturbation. Reading meant that you removed yourself from social interaction to enter into a private solitary fantasy world of pretend intimacy that gave you asocial emotional satisfaction. To counter this, novelists tried to redeem novels with didactic content that taught readers how to behave in society. They were covert conduct manuals made palatable and — as their defenders would eventually come to argue — more instructive through absorbing storytelling. This was certainly Richardson’s modus operandi. Pamela evolved out of an instruction manual he had composed, Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, that was meant to provide boilerplate form letters for semiliterate people. It dawned on him that teaching people what to write was close to teaching people what to think and, more important, what to feel.

But adding didacticism doesn’t really solve the onanism problem. As Eve Sedgwick points out  in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, citing 18th century literature scholar John Mullan, “the empathetic allo-identifications that were supposed to guarantee the sociable nature of sensibility could not finally be distinguished from an epistemological solipsism, a somatics of trembling self-absorption.” In other words, if you identified with the characters in fiction to learn from their experience and felt what they feel, you were still indulging in the same affective short-circuit that bypasses the need for actual others as a prerequisite for emotional pleasure. The novel (as is claimed about smartphones and other modes of online engagement today) pre-empts the need for co-presence. But the pleasures of exercising sensibility — an 18th century term for vicarious feeling whose vogue coincided with the novelty of this skill, giving it moral credibility — supposedly proved one’s fitness for better society, but they could only be truly enjoyed in private, which invoked the specter of subversion. No one really knows what crazy thoughts you are having when your nose is buried in a book. You are adapting yourself to the norms of the text, and not the social position you are physically inhabiting.

This irresolvable tension between didacticism and autoeroticism can be put to productive ideological use, helping perform the cultural work Armstrong argues novels were doing at the time, resolving political conflicts through the universal promise of domesticity. That is, the pleasures of reading were put to use in authorizing the collective imagination of the social pleasures of domestic retreat. It created a new kind of connoisseurship — the sensitive fiction reader who could readily experience vicarious emotion and thus proved her finer moral sense.

Before novels were in wide circulation, most people had never exercised the capacity to sustain an identification with a fictional character who existed only as text. Once this leap is made, it opens the possibility of seeing oneself as a textual artifact, as a consciousness made up of words that could be preserved and transferred. The same novelistic discourse that writes interiority into an accessible form also makes it seductive, alluring, something to fantasize about possessing. The pleasures of writing oneself into being generates at the same time the pleasures of reading such writing — pleasures which validate the self-production.

In Richardson’s novel, as Pamela compulsively writes letters about her feelings (18th century sexting), her sentimental diaristic prose begins to displace her body as the object of desire for Mr. B. In one famous scene, he undresses her not to access her body but to find her hidden diary pages. This displacement, Armstrong argues (drawing on Foucault), is how modern subjectivity (a primarily female subjectivity) is born. It stems from eroticized resistance and intimate surveillance. Mr. B learns the erotic appeal of using his power to elicit Pamela’s interiority, to stimulate it and draw it out, and this proves far more pleasurable than using brute force to ravish her body. Given that this precious interiority — the product of courtship, the fruit of authentic love — is available to everyone regardless of class, novels show us that you don’t need a lot of money necessarily to build a rich inner life within. That interior life, that refinement of the moral sense, is true wealth.

For readers of novels, the lesson is that if you have the sort of refined sensibility that can enjoy the interiority that a novel’s prose is creating, you too possess true wealth. You have sensibility, a kind of connoisseurship far more affordable to the bourgeoisie. It was a way to show a moral superiority to other people without relying on conspicuous displays of wealth, which were transformed in novels (in Jane Austen’s books, for instance) into vulgarities.

In the space created by the practice of reading, sentiments supplant material riches — just as in Pamela, her letters supplant her body as the truly desirable object of delectation. While reading, the ability to feel vicariously is more efficacious than material luxuries in providing pleasure. The competency to extract affect from texts becomes a core part of the middle-class habitus, a challenge to the aristocratic mode of life and a compensation for lacking the material basis for it. There is no more democratic and egalitarian space than the imagination, where everyone who is literate is presumably on equal footing to enjoy the pleasures of having deep emotional feelings.

If literacy and vicarious pleasure were the great political compensations of early capitalism, deflecting class animus while paving the way for consumerism, then technological literacy and the sensibilities afforded by social media may be the compensations of our period of stagnating neoliberalism. Social media seem like a new way to buy the bulk of us off with affect, all while creating new types of consumer products in commodified emotions. (Novels were an early form of commodified emotion, among the first mass-manufactured experiential consumption goods.)

The tension between a private, intimate kind of pleasure — “sharing,” a modern update of the faux-mutuality of sensibility — and the sociability it is supposed to anchor is still with us. We can all be producers of emotional goods; we can be novelists as well as readers, deepening our competency in the field of sensibility. We consume other subjectivities as we prepare our own for consumption. Part of that product includes a reified “ability to enjoy sharing.” We can prove our emotional competency (as Pamela does) by eliciting as well as experiencing affective sensitivity. We can generate as well as succumb to feelings — not just with a select few people, as in the era of familiar letters addressed to loved ones, but with a broad audience, including strangers. Our sensibility can be more directly conjoined with our reputation.

But this process remains suspect; we still are in a state of moral panic about the sensibility derived from new media: It’s solipsistic, inauthentic, inappropriate. These mask the way these new pleasures ameliorate the ills of capitalism not by mitigating them but by intensifying commodification and turning more of everyday life into exploitable labor.

All of this suggests that the emotional competencies of social-media use will be central to  political struggles, but not merely in the instrumental ways researchers tend to focus on. (Social media leads to more street protest: yes or no?) The pleasures and the habitus grounded in social-media use are masking conflicts, absorbing their energy and processing it into microfame and other “viral” distractions. It may be politically useful to start from those pleasures and find a better use for the energy encoded within them, one that will bring about an even greater and perhaps more collective kind of pleasure.

“Organic stories”

Facebook recently changed its News Feed algorithm, which determines which content users see of all the stuff shared by the other users they have elected to follow. Traditionally, Facebook has veiled its algorithm in secrecy, even going so far as to disavow “EdgeRank,” an earlier name for this algorithm. But this time (as ReadWrite notes) Facebook has decided to accompany the round of algorithm tweaks with a propaganda post about the company’s benevolent intentions. It’s as nauseating as you’d expect, full of cheerful insistence about how hard the company is working to try to give users what they want, which is its doublespeak for making users think they want what Facebook wants for them.

The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them. Ideally, we want News Feed to show all the posts people want to see in the order they want to read them … With so many stories, there is a good chance people would miss something they wanted to see if we displayed a continuous, unranked stream of information. Our ranking isn’t perfect, but in our tests, when we stop ranking and instead show posts in chronological order, the number of stories people read and the likes and comments they make decrease.

That sounds noble enough, but you can see what really matters to Facebook — that you feed it likes and comments and so on. It’s going to rig your feed to extort the most interaction (a.k.a. free immaterial labor) from you. It also wants to be able to control what it programs for your delectation so that it can sell your attention span to whoever is willing to bid for it. The News Feed algorithm is what enables the sponsored stories racket, in which you have to pay to assure that your friends will actually be displayed the material you share.

The claim that Facebook wants to give you what you want also makes no logical sense, given that Facebook decides what you think is important only on the basis of what you have already seen and liked on Facebook, ignoring the possibility that you could want something it hasn’t already cajoled your friends into sharing. Instead it takes the even more dispiriting position that most of what is posted on its site is spam, and you should be grateful that Facebook is willing to protect you from the morons you have chosen to friend and their interminable updates about “checking in to a restaurant.” If Facebook didn’t impose its hierarchy on what you see, you might get all confused and upset! It’s important that things be hidden from you, so you can see what’s important.

But how can Facebook seriously claim that it “does a better job of showing people the stories they want to see” when there’s no point of comparison? You can’t evaluate whether people got to see “what they wanted to see” without knowing how much they would have wanted to see what’s been withheld. Facebook must just figure you can’t possibly want anything you haven’t seen yet.

An increase in likes and shares and comments is not indicative of a better News Feed consumption experience, and Facebook is either being stupid or disingenuous when it suggests that it is. Facebook makes the categorical error of using interaction with the site (the only metric it cares about for its core data-retailing and marketing businesses) as a proxy for user engagement with the content that user’s friends have shared — what Facebook chooses to call, in a very telling euphemism, “organic stories.”

It’s not clear what the inorganic stories are, whether they are “sponsored stories” or merely user-generated content that has been decontextualized by the News Feed algorithm from the time and occasion in which it was originally shared. Organic stories seem to be ones that have not yet been processed by Facebook into soylent green that’s suitable for shoveling out into user News Feeds.

This predication of what you see on what you’ve already seen and approved guarantees a closed epistemological loop in which platform-dictated patterns can be reinforced and intensified — a phenomenon exemplified by such blight as Zynga’s social games, which choreograph meaningless engagement for engagement’s sake.

Because it measures what we want in terms of how much we interact with Facebook, Facebook will never give priority to or assume we like anything that is meant to encourage us to do anything outside of Facebook’s universe. The only thing we really “want,” from the algorithm’s point of view, is to use Facebook as much as possible. Facebook wants us to forget that it can potentially provide useful information that directs us out toward the world and instead it demands we regard it as immersive entertainment, sucking us in. As Alexis Madrigal detailed here, Facebook aspires to be like a slot machine, engineered to pull you into the K-hole “machine zone.”

It might be more apt that Facebook wants to make you into a machine. To say that “when a user likes something, that tells News Feed that they want to see more of it” is to impose an incredibly simplistic, Pavlovian psychological model of pleasure and desire on users. It presumes that of course anything you find pleasurable can be understood in quantitative terms and automatically indicates you want more of it. It’s almost unfair to neoclassical economics to argue that the algorithm mirrors its limited behavioral psychology, because it sounds as though News Feed can’t even assimilate the idea of diminishing marginal utility.

Facebook certainly can’t fathom — or can’t tolerate, rather — that you might enjoy something without leaving a trace of your enjoyment; that some pleasure in social-media comes lurking; that sometimes we are so intensely engaged with “stories” that it would seem glib to “like” them and inadequate to leave a comment. Sometimes we want to see content that we are ashamed of, but we still want to see it, even if we won’t interact or “engage” with it. Sometimes we hate-like. Sometimes etiquette compels our interaction with users whose content we don’t want to be more prominent.

In short, a user’s interaction with content in Facebook is irreducibly complex, and Facebook’s attempt to filter it for you is an attempt to eradicate the complexity and make you an emotional simpleton. Then you become a much more attractive and easily-sited target for the marketers Facebook wants to sell you to.

When you like something, Facebook assumes you are liking a generic category, not a particular thing, as though there could be nothing uniquely likeable about any given “story.” Only if all stories are generic can liking one story warrant getting served “more of it.” To Facebook. any shared item is just one more unit in a heaping pile of stuff that can be separated into a few broad-based categories based entirely on metadata.

One gets the sense that Facebook regards its paternalistic algorithm as valuable intellectual property akin to Google’s ever-evolving PageRank algorithm for generating search results. It’s not hard to imagine Facebook’s engineers congratulating themselves for coming up with the  ”PageRank of people,” or maybe the “social PageRank.” Facebook likes nothing better than treating its users as tractable chunks of information amenable to processing. The company has trouble conceiving of its users as people who should be afforded the respect of being able to make their own decisions, whether about privacy or about the information that they want to see or anything else. Instead, Facebook wants to cow users into accepting that the algorithm always knows better than they do. And once they accept that, they will be trapped in the habit of making explicit their feelings about everything to make sure it is registered and factored in, so the benevolent algorithm can serve them.

Facebook is like a television that monitors to see how much you are laughing and changes the channel if it decides you aren’t laughing hard enough. It hopes to engrain in users the idea that if your response to something isn’t recordable, it doesn’t exist, because for Facebook, that is true. Your pleasure is its product, what it wants to sell to marketers, so if you don’t evince it, you are a worthless user wasting Facebook’s server space. In the world according to Facebook, emotional interiority doesn’t exist. Introspection doesn’t exist, and neither does ambivalence. There is only ostentatious enthusiasm or null dormancy.

Yet rather than blame social-media companies for demanding elaborately performative emotional reactions from its users and skewing their users’ experience to secure it, worried social commentators will evoke generational narcissism and insouciance about privacy to explain why people broadcast their mundane reactions to everything they encounter. I’m sorry, I mean their organic stories.

En passant


To my shame, I prefer playing chess against a computer than a human opponent. It’s less risky. There is no shame in defeat. Cheating is not unethical. Attention to it can be sporadic. You can simply suspend a game or start over if you think you are going to lose. Even when I am beaten soundly by a computer opponent, I don’t feel outwitted; instead I take away a feeling that my thinking has not become sufficiently machine-like to compete, which is more reassuring than anything else. I get the gratifying feeling that being lousy at chess is a mark of my indelible humanity. This despite the fact that I am playing computer chess because I can’t bear the pressure of human interaction.

Some of the same sorts of ideas about emotional vs. artificial intelligence are at play in Andrew Bujalski’s new movie Computer Chess, about a fictional early-1980s tournament of chess programs held in what looks to be a Super 8 motel. Teams of programmers pit their machines against other machines, displacing the confrontation of egos and giving it a collaborative, scientistic veneer, as if the quest for machine intelligence while resolve all the conflicts over intelligence among humans. The competing programmers are represented as “nerds” — with flattened emotional affect, negligible social skills, a general indifference to personal hygiene — whose aggression simmers below the surface and finds only tentative outlet, often through patronizing sexist remarks about the one woman involved with the competition.

Women are pointedly confined to stereotypes in the film  — aside from the shy nerd girl, there is a wife/mother, an earth-mothery swinger, and a prostitute (who may actually be a robot) — as if the entire gender were functioning as a metaphor for forsaken domesticity and emotionality. A key moment in Computer Chess comes when some of the competitors discuss the “feminine side” of programming, as an alternative to the apparently masculine “brute force” approach to chess: Another fantasy about artificial intelligence is that it will resolve antinomies between male and female modes of thinking. A tossed-off line about computer dating being a matter of “computers dating each other” turns out to be not a throwaway joke but the movie’s core thematic preoccupation, the characters’ utopian dream.

To highlight the programmers’ discomfort with emotion, Bujalski puts a relationship-therapy encounter group in the same conference space in the same hotel as the computer-chess tournament, leading to scenes where a programmer is invited into a free-love threesome and another is brought to re-live his passage through the womb in a birth-reenactment ritual. Can these nerds be taught how to feel? Isn’t emotionality clumsy and awful anyway, the stock-and-trade of hucksters and manipulators? At the same time, the movie is shot through with scenes about how the computers seem to want to become human, or perhaps are already more soulful and mysterious than the mechanically predictable nerds. One programmer discovers that his machine engages with a chess match and tries only when it senses it is playing another human; a psychology professor has a dark-night-of-the-soul encounter, told in flashback, in which a computer turns the tables on him and confronts him with existential questions. The computer subjectivty is an ineffable mystery, while the capacity of human subjectivity shrinks. People in the movie get caught in loops, evoking the possibility that identity is not a reflection of some intrinsic essence or interiority but instead the product of feedback loops, like the ones that allow robots to seem to walk with purpose.

The guiding protocol of the Turing test, the cogito of AI, hangs over everything in Computer Chess: Are the humans passing as machines, or the machines passing as humans? How much of emotional connection is simply the simulation of it? When machines can feel, won’t we be relieved because we will no longer have to?

Computer Chess‘s formal ambiguities serve these same themes well. The film’s not quite a mockumentary, though it’s shot on vintage videocameras from the period and videographers appear in the film documenting the event. Sometimes that footage is incorporated into what we see; sometimes it’s not. Some scenes are just impossible to assimilate to that documentary setup, as in the TV show The Office; the pretense is just dropped in favor of naturalistically capturing an intimate scene. The result is a mise en scene that is deliberately impossible to sort out, achieving a kind of genial alienation effect. You can’t get wrapped up in this film’s plot, and you are reminded through the form not to try, to put your attention on other things.

There are comedic moments, of the deadpan sort you find in Hal Hartley’s films, but the point is not simply to laugh sympathetically at the people in the movie. It seems also an indictment. It’s funny when people screen themselves from emotion with technology, but it is also hostile, aggressively solipsistic, pathetic, and possibly pathological. It’s not dehumanizing so much as entrenching a particular human weakness, insecurity. I think I play chess against a computer because when I play another person, win or lose, the empathy can become overwhelming, as we both work out our moves and shape the contours of a configuration of intentions together, but against each other. In chess, the “sacrifices” you make are always of your pieces and never of yourself.

The linchpin thematic conversation in the film occurs when the female programmer describes how she has started to see human interaction in terms of chess moves. This is a cliche of literature about chess; Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense is a long elaboration of it. But it always works on me. The woman describes seeing the people at the tournament from above in chess terms, their interactions easily translated in the prescribed actions of the pieces. Rather than emphasize the calculating consciousness this metaphor typically implies — trying to outwit other people by anticipating their moves and countering them — Bujewski takes it in a different direction. The student the woman is talking to responds by asking whether, when two pieces came together, did one of them disappear. This is a chess-based fantasy not often articulated, that “capture” can be an efficient matter of bloodless elimination rather than a moment of intense collision and potential ongoing entanglement.

Before seeing Computer Chess I didn’t know anything about Bujalski except that he had something to do with “mumblecore” movies. As far as I know, I have never seen a mumblecore movie, but it seems the cinematic equivalent of alt lit, or maybe its precursor. This New York Times piece by Dennis Lim from 2007 defines the genre in terms of its low-budget, semipro production values, its use of nonactors to convey Aspie-ish awkwardnesss and ambivalence, and its conviction that sublimity adheres in the mundane. Lim writes, “Mumblecore bespeaks a true 21st-century sensibility, reflective of MySpace-like social networks and the voyeurism and intimacy of YouTube. It also signals a paradigm shift in how movies are made and how they find an audience.” Replace MySpace with Tumblr, and that sounds a bit like what clueless commentators like me say about alt lit: It’s a community of outsiders testing out new forms of affective bonds in social media through serial production of intimate-and-spontaneous-seeming, highly emotive yet also highly appropriative art.

But mumblecore also looks backward to the indie-rock lo-fi trend of the 1990s epitomized by Lou Barlow, also known for earnest, “raw” emotionality that gains an aura of authenticity through amateur production values.  In music, technology has even developed to the point where crappy production values is much more of a stylistic choice than budget constraint, a kind of deliberate Fauvism; in filmmaking, low production values can still come across as a more “genuine” result of being outside the mainstream. Computer Chess is somewhere between the two poles, using glitches, patches of poorly synched sound, and 1980s cable-access-TV production effects (dot-matrix fonts overlaid clumsily over images; rudimentary split-screens jumped used with seemingly haphazard aplomb) to convey not simply outsiderhood or drug-induced disorientation when the characters in the film take pills, but also subtler shades of emotional alienation. It seems like an effort to emulate the atmosphere of the “New Aesthetic” through appropriated retro means, with humans rather than computers being glitchy.

Critics tend to call both mumblecore and alt lit “narcissistic” and “navel-gazing,” as though practitioners weren’t reflexive about it. The cultural conditions that foment narcissism is what these works are primarily about — that and the difficulty and fragility of the communities that one can form through technology rather than tradition. Computer Chess invites us to wonder about such communities and their blend of human and machine; the framework of the tournament makes it explicit that the computers might be the “real” protagonists, the real members of the community, and the humans the mere facilitating technology. As artist Jeremy Bailey asks in this interview with Brian Droitcour, “Maybe thinking of the computer as the narcissist would be more interesting for you?”