No technology can be uninvented, so Seymour’s pessimism leads him to a conclusion that feels merely wistful. The worst offence of social media, he argues, is “the theft of the capacity for reverie”. Time spent online is time deducted from our lives, just as taking a selfie is an excuse to not be yourself. By way of escape, all Seymour can whimsically suggest is to go for a walk in the park, making sure you leave all your “devices” behind. In his last sentence, he even recommends lolling on a lily pad. I have some more earnest advice: if you really want to set yourself free, you should read a book – preferably this one.
What saves this book from replacing techno-deterministic views with economic determinism is that the writer invites us to look at the psychological reasons. “If this is a horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user,” he argues. After so much darkness, the book offers no manifesto for happiness. Seymour’s best remedy is not for the state, business or through collective action but advice for the individual, suggesting we take time out, explore nature and substitute our smartphones “with nothing but a notepad and nice pen”.
Seymour’s insights into trolling are as good as you will read on the topic. Combining base forms of sadism, a mask of ironic detachment and writing tools that seem to destroy all norms of accountability, trolling is central to this horror story, where human frailty becomes toyed with for entertainment. This isn’t going on somewhere else, he reminds us; we can all do it. Every time we take to social media, to cast someone’s else’s words or deeds in an unforgiving light, we are trolling... We must rediscover the emancipatory aspect of writing, he argues, in defiance of the suffocating, regimented dystopia being forced on us. The book is a thrilling demonstration of what such resistance can look like, by one of the most clear-sighted and unyielding critics writing today. We should all read it.
Seymour examines the behaviours that get us into the system, the addiction patterns that keep us there (compulsion arising from the variability of rewards, say). We know the dangers of addiction, yet still we become addicted. He looks at his subject from many angles. He covers the ‘celebrities’ (in what he calls ‘the attention economy’) and their antitheses, the trolls. Trolling, too, isn’t new — again, the platforms have simply facilitated and amplified it. He looks at cyberbullying, and ever-more-fragmented identitarianism. His excellent chapter entitled ‘We are all liars’ is thoughtful and convincing about the spreading of fake news.