The Sea Was Not a Mask — Real Life

Source: The Sea Was Not a Mask — Real Life, by Rob Horning

Does more “extreme” content compel the most compulsive viewing, or are we only concerned with compulsive viewing when the content has antisocial overtones? In other words, when YouTube fine-tunes its algorithms, is it trying to end compulsive viewing, or is it merely trying to make people compulsively watch nicer things? … The idea that YouTube shouldn’t force-feed users content at all is, of course, not considered.

The assumption built into YouTube (and Netflix and Spotify and TikTok and all the other streaming platforms that queue more content automatically) is that users want to consume flow, not particular items of content. Flow and not content secures an audience to broker to advertisers. … [The compulsivity of flow] is so pervasive as to almost seem inescapable — from “page-turners” to bingeable shows to endlessly refreshable scrolls to autoplaying music and autopopulating playlists. It is usually depicted as a selling point, a proof of quality — you can’t put it down! — but that shouldn’t disguise the fact that what’s being sold is surrender: Engage with this thing so you can stop worrying about what to engage with. That is flow. … Flow allows us to experience our agency without exactly exercising it. It blurs the lines between those things.

Flow, fundamentally, is a trap — as anthropologist Nick Seaver details, that means it is a “persuasive technology” that can condition prey “to play the role scripted for it in its design.” Traps work, he argues, by making coercion appear as persuasion: Animals aren’t forced into the trap; its design makes them choose it. Coercion and persuasion, then, can’t be cleanly distinguished. … We are neither forced to consume more nor choosing to consume more; we both want the particular units of content and are indifferent to them. We are both active agents and passive objects. … Flow works by disguising its compulsory mechanism in the details of its content, which is nothing more than bait from the system’s perspective.

[Are] certain kinds of content are especially suited to this blurring? How do we become addicted to the spectacle of our consumption, as an emblem of our own singularity? Does it take particular kinds of content? Does certain kinds of antisocial content make that spectacle more potent and compulsive? Does pursuing information that other people reject or that seems hidden or secret intrinsically make the pursuer aware of their own agency, of their ability to redraw the epistemic frame?