The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour

I’ve sprinkled references in the past few posts to a book I just finished reading, The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. The central thesis of the book is that we are all writing more than we ever have in history in the form of tweets, Facebook updates, texts, emails etc. Seymour contends, however, that we are not so much writing as being written by the platforms we use and that we all have a propensity for trolling and narcissism that tech companies exploit with a kind of algorithmic agnosticism.

Seymour chronicles the horrors of these platforms: the trolling, doxing, mob hate that we all, at this point, are familiar with. It’s hard to imagine anyone now coming to Mark Zuckerberg’s defense. But Seymour notes that this mass violence is nothing new and only breaks out thanks to pre-existing conditions, within all of us, that Silicon Valley exploits for a business model built on the unholy combination of gambling addiction psychology and mass surveillance.

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine.

What separates Seymour’s book from others chronicling our current dystopia is a nuanced analysis of the crisis combined with a admonition not to fall into the simplistic “backlash” style of criticism of the sort I’ve been guilty of on this blog. Seymour says,

The backlash style, despite having the advantage that it disputes the inevitability of our assimilation into the Borg, is reactionary. It is compromised by a subtending fantasy that it could somehow be sufficient to exhort others to quit which is further underpinned by a fantasy that the frequent flights into mob irrationality, paranoia, nihilism and sadism characteristic of social media could be solved simply by ‘going back’. As though these phenomena had no deeper and father-reaching roots.

Seymour retells the often mis-reported history of the Luddites who were not opposed to technology, but instead against the ownership of the machines of production by the upper classes. He suggests that we need to develop a Neo-Luddite “escapology.” He leaves it to us to develop that alternative but implies that it might just an internet owned by all and stripped of exploitation and “gamified capitalism”–an internet that, in his words, leaves space for and encourages a sense of reverie, a stroll in the park with a pen and notepad or a quiet time in a church with our eyes closed. With Seymour’s nuanced and insightful analysis we might just be able to start mapping creative ways out of our predicament.

Go Plant a Million Trees

Kelly and I interviewed Akiva Silver, of Twisted Tree Farm, for the next episode of the sporadic Root Simple Podcast. Silver is the author of Trees of Power: Ten Essential Aboreal Allies (Amazon, library). The book celebrates the power of trees to feed us and solve a lot of the world’s problems including climate change and soil erosion. In the book Silver makes the provocative suggestion that we might all be better off with a greater emphasis on tree crops instead of clearing land for monotonous fields of wheat, corn and soybeans. He has an interventionist, Johnny Appleseed like passion at odds with the hands-off, leave-no-trace branch of environmentalism. Silver says, “Instead of trying to have as little impact as possible, I want to have a huge impact. I want to leave behind millions of trees, a bunch of ponds, enriched soil and wild stories.”

In our own small urban yard, we’re beginning to see the fruits, literally, of our own small-scale arboreal efforts that we began over ten years ago. This month we had a abundant crop of Mission figs, avocados, olives and pomegranates. And that pathetic vegetable garden I blogged about? My heretical thinking is to give up annual vegetables entirely and use the space to plant two small citrus trees. If I want vegetables I’ll put in artichokes which grow well here and return every year without any effort. We’ll outsource the misery of growing annual vegetables to the vendors of the farmer’s market.

Watch for our interview with Silver next Wednesday. In the meantime read his book and then go plant some trees.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I suspect that readers of this blog will enjoy Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I’ve been a fan of Odell’s work since reading her mind-bending essay There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch wherein she describes how the internet’s nightmarish realm of disembodied Instagram babble results in actual crappy objects. If you’ve seen either of the Fyre festival documentaries you’ll know how these “influencer” nightmares play out.

If you’re looking for a book about how to be more productive in a world of Facebook notifications, text messages and endless emails How to Do Nothing, despite the deceptive subtitle ain’t that book. But, perhaps, that’s the point. Maybe the problem with our culture is the need to “be productive,” to live in the myth of endless growth on a planet with finite resources.

Central to Odell’s book is Walter Benjamin’s quirky interpretation of a Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Benjamin says,

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Odell sees our role as like Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking backwards, facing the destruction and injustices of our past and working to undo the damage, to “make whole what has been smashed.” In Odell’s words, “When we pry open the cracks in the concrete, we stand to encounter life itself—nothing less and nothing more, as if there could be more.”

Odell floats the idea of a “manifest dismantling,” an inversion of the industrialization and colonialism embodied in John Gast’s silly painting American Progress. The examples of manifest dismantling that Odell offers range from monumental, such as the multi-year dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in Northern California, to the modest, such as the volunteers that sustain and maintain public gardens.

Odell asks for us to consider a present grounded in remediation rather than obsessed with grand teleological visions. What if our heroes were caregivers, gardeners, bird watchers and people who fix things instead of venture capitalists, tech bros and mars mission obsessed CEOs? Personally, I think the readers of this blog are the sisters and brothers of the great dismantling. Let’s open those cracks in the pavement.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!