Books Become Games
Simulation, Gamification, and the Rise of Algorithmic Capitalism
I have been doing a great deal of publicity these past weeks for my new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. I have been compelled to train my speaking voice, to craft short-and-sweet sound-bites, and even to worry about such externalities as my physical appearance when I am asked to make promotional videos or to appear on podcasts that transmit not only a trace of my voice, but an animate likeness of my very person, across the world wide web.
I have been saying “yes”, to virtually every podcast and radio invitation I’ve received. Sometimes I find myself doing some rather quick mental work, after clicking the Zoom link, to recall who exactly it is I’m talking to, and what is expected of me. Sometimes there’s a tell-tale hint —an Australian accent, say— that brings me back to the e-mail I received a week or so prior and that reminds me of the host’s general orientation and expectations. Sometimes I fly blind through the whole thing, still uncertain at the end whose show I’ve just graced with my presence.
Most of the podcasters I’ve encountered, if I may be honest, remind me of nothing so much as the classic Onion “advice column”, from back before that newspaper was generated by AI (as far as I can tell), that consisted in a book-report on Animal Farm by a kid who hasn’t read it. It’s “well worth the $5.99 purchase price,” he wrote. “It’s so good, in fact, that if I was in Canada, I would be happy to pay the higher price of $7.99.” Similarly, questions I’ve been getting on my book, I can’t help but notice, are often drawn entirely from the sheet of promotional copy that is included with it. This is text I was compelled to generate at a nearly-final stage of book-production, when I was completely exhausted by the project and just wanted it over. If I were a better player at the book-game I would take this part of the process more seriously. Instead I put most of my energy into writing the book itself, I crank out some hasty copy at the end, and then I pay for it when I have to hold forth, again and again, on the contents of that single page.
There are some heartening exceptions. I had one invitation for a podcast in Korea, to which I said “yes” without much in the way of a background-check on the host. When I logged onto Zoom at the appointed time, I was a bit alarmed to be greeted by what appeared to be a teenager sitting in his bedroom. I asked him if he had studied any philosophy, or if he was a full-time podcaster, or what. He told me he was still in high-school. I somewhat regretted not being more selective, but I was already locked in, so I had no other choice but to be gracious.
We ended up having a profound conversation that went on for over 70 minutes, and he asked me questions that clearly could only have been drawn from a close reading of every page of my book. At one point we discussed the way in which algorithmic music delivery blocks any possibility for the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility appropriate to pop music, which, I argue in the book, is a genre that is essentially built on “standards”, and the deepest delight is to find different artists with radically different styles channeling these standards in their own singular way. The example I use in the book is of Rezső Seress’s 1933 song, “Gloomy Sunday”, also known as “The Hungarian Suicide Song”, which would later be interpreted, e.g., by Billie Holiday, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Birthday Party, Marilyn Manson, among others. My teenage host launched from here into his own observations on the aesthetic experience of listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” successively in its iterations by Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
In short, you just never know what you’re going to get when you go on a podcast. Anyone can have one… I have one, as a matter of fact. Most are duds, run by people who really have no business speaking, and nothing to say. Mine is something I do in order not to allow myself to become entirely shrouded in written words, which alone come naturally to me, and to force myself into a zone of relative discomfort, in which I have not only to express myself à voix haute while minimizing the “uhh’s” and “umm’s”, but also to do that most unnatural of things, at least for me, and sit and listen while others talk. If you enjoy listening in on this self-improvement exercise of mine, all the better, but the “for which” of the whole thing remains, for me, personal. My Korean host, by contrast, is a natural-born and extremely precocious podcaster, and I’ll be sure to provide a link when that episode airs.
I have been informed by one reader —my mother— that if you attempt to order The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is on Amazon, you run the risk of accidentally purchasing Patricia Lopez’s Study Guide for The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is by Justin E. H. Smith: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning instead. In spite of their similar titles, these are two very different books. The one costs $21.84 in hardback, is 201 pages long, and is published by Princeton University Press. The other costs just a few dollars, is 40 pages long, and is “independently published”. In fact, as far as I can tell, the book’s 40 pages are only printed out at the moment someone places an order, and consist entirely in the amount of text from Justin E. H. Smith’s book that can be included while remaining just under the threshold of copyright violation. Patricia Lopez is the author of numerous other books, including Study Guide for Allow Me to Retort by Elie Mystal: A Constitutional Guide for a Black Man, and Study Guide for The Men We Need by Brant Hansen: God’s Purpose for the Manly Man, the Avid Indoorsman, or Any Man Willing to Show Up.
Naturally, at first I was alarmed, and annoyed that my mother had been tricked by this low internet scam. But as my annoyance faded I reflected on the irony of this “study guide’s” perfect illustration of one of the real book’s central arguments: that the book as physical artifact, which from the era of Gutenberg became the locus and anchor of knowledge as a cultural value, simply cannot survive our current information revolution, which now ceaselessly inundates us with countless fragmented bits of that artifact’s dematerialized jetsam. Books are, like it or not, now basically on an ontological and commercial par with the tote-bags you are just as likely to purchase on your visit to a bookstore: they are mementos, souvenirs that signal your affiliation to a certain cluster of ideas, which you might come by through actually reading a book, but which you can also get, more or less, from reading promotional copy, or from one of Patricia Lopez’s unbeatably priced study guides.
It struck me moreover that, in this peculiar historical moment, it may be that Patricia Lopez has figured out something that I have not. She is the one who is really carrying ideas into the future. She is the visionary author; I am the sentimental fantasist who is still pretending it’s 1642 or thereabouts. Even though I wrote a whole book about the internet, that same internet remains the book’s great blind-spot, for I am still trying to pretend it does not exist. Perhaps for my next book project I should join Lopez and all the other Amazonian bottomfeeders, and start hawking a whole series of print-on-demand study guides to Who Moved My Cheese? or The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (sic), or whatever it is the market convinces people they want to read, for now. In the end Lopez and I are just trying to scrape by in this world, but, well, the cheese has moved, and while she has mastered the aforementioned subtle art, I’m still writing as if books were distillations of long, slow learning. Foolish me.
I could go on, and on. I was informed that my book is a nominee for a prize, and that to win this prize would result in a significant bulk sale of copies to the organization that administers it. The committee is headed up by a certain celebrity ideas-merchant, who will remain unnamed but whose initials are the same as those of “Middle Grade”, “Mean Girls”, and “Myasthenia Gravis”. Upon reading the fine-print, I learned that in order to be eligible for the prize, one must record and submit a 15-20-minute audio file summarizing the book’s principal selling-points (or “arguments”, as we used to call them) for MG et al. It is not too difficult to put two and two together and to conclude that no one in the prize committee is going to be reading the books whose merits they have been set up to judge: the audio file serves in lieu of the book, not as a supplement to it — a lieu that might also, only slightly less adequately, be filled by a single page of promotional copy.
But we do what we have to do: “the work”, as the inimitable Oliver Bateman likes to call it, and today, unless you’re Cormac McCarthy (“I have a publicity team for that,” he says indifferently to Oprah when she asks him why he so seldom descends among the people to help them connect the work to the man), the work of book-writing involves actual writing only in an initial phase, while subsequently the work becomes wrapped up in book-pumping, in technologically mediated promotions, branding of the self, bullet-pointing, after-the-fact elevator-pitching, and gaming of all possible metrics in the hope of going viral. In short, books, today, are a satellite of social media, operating according to the same logic, within the same empty economy of buzz and inevitable forgetting.
All this publicity, I admit, has at least enabled me to hone a few central ideas that are expressed in the book only in a prodrome stage. And so it has not so far been a waste of time for me, as I refine over and over again a core idea towards which I now see the book was moving, like a dim organism that has evolved some sort of photoreceptor at the center of its brain but has yet to be able to see.
I have been asked repeatedly in what respect, exactly, “the internet is not what you think it is” (this was my editor’s title, not mine; he was as usual right to choose it). I have taken to answering: “The internet is not what you think it is in two respects” (the famous double mouvement that nearly every academic talk ever given in French identifies in whatever matter is at hand: dans la Monadologie de Leibniz il y a un double mouvement; dans Méridien de sang de Cormac McCarthy il y a un double mouvement…). First, there is the respect outlined in Chapter 2, the one excerpted in WIRED Magazine, whereby the internet reveals itself to be continuous with countless other networked systems throughout living nature. This is the “natural internet”.
Second, there is the “unnatural internet”, with which we are most familiar through the algorithmic structures of social media, which distort and pervert everything that is filtered through them in the aim of maximum extraction of attention as the resource on which our new economy runs. In this respect, I have come to maintain, social media are fundamentally ill-equipped to function as a neutral public space in which substantive ideas are debated. And yet, in the current arrangement, social media are the only game in town, the only thing that even resembles a public space. The temptation is therefore strong to turn to social media for the expression of what feel from the inside like genuinely held commitments. But this temptation should be resisted. The only appropriate use of social media, beyond simple announcements of personal milestones or professional engagements, is shitposting. It is a medium that deserves nothing earnest, and that can facilitate no real project of social betterment. In this respect, as I’ve said dozens of times over the past few weeks, social media are to rational deliberation and to civic participation what Grand Theft Auto is to chasing stolen cars: social media are a deliberation-themed video game in literally the same respect that GTA is a car-chase-themed video game. Anyone who mistakes it for the real thing is operating under a simple illusion.
In the old days many people were so impressed with the power of books that they declared all of nature to be one: the long-lived and compelling metaphor of the liber naturae. Today a number of theorists are so impressed with video games that they have similarly taken to describing reality itself as a sort of VR. Evidently some of these theorists, David Chalmers notable among them, have lost sight of the line between the metaphorical and the literal, and mean this as an actual explanation of the nature of the world.
In time, one hopes, the ideological presuppositions of this gambit will become too clear to ignore. To conceptualize reality as a whole on the model of the technologies that have so enraptured us in our own age, as books enraptured our ancestors, is not so much to offer an account of metaphysical reality as a whole, as it is to contribute to the validation of a particular form of social reality: namely, the model of reality in which gamified structures have jumped across the screen, from Donkey Kong or Twitter or whatever it is you were playing, and now shape everything we do, from dating to car-sharing to working in an Amazon warehouse. The “simulation argument” is a pure apology for algorithmic capitalism.
For my part I continue to see something to hold onto in the idea that reality is a book. For one thing, this is a metaphor suited to properly adult pursuits, such as a life that balances playing with learning, rather than collapsing everything into the former category. The rise of the video game as the single most powerful metaphor for human existence, indeed, comes in tandem with the rapid, severe infantilization of nearly all domains of culture, from movies to pop music to undergraduate humanities education, and with the equally precipitous fandom-ization of politics.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we see in the concept of games —here it comes again— a double mouvement, and indeed something approaching an autoantonymy. The concept in question can signify both a free play of the imaginative faculty, a Schillerian Spieltrieb; and it can signify a situation in which one is bound by formal constraints on one’s motions, and is therefore compelled to respond to one’s existence fundamentally through coming up with strategies. The gamification of our social life, which was honed and perfected on social media before it jumped the fence to affectivity, labor, and who knows what’s next, forces us to sacrifice free play to strategic play, and the leisurely flight of the imagination to narrow problem-solving.
On the face of it, the gamification of reality looks like fun. But when everything becomes a game, it turns out, that game ends up dissolving into its merely apparent opposite: work. The dupes of the new ideology, underlain by the metaphor of the game, think they’re giving us life in an arcade —a child’s dream!— but what we’re really getting is life in a global warehouse, monitored and metricized, forced at every turn to devise strategies that maximize engagement with whatever it is we’re putting out there… all in the name of scraping by.
Anyhow, buy my book, please. I think you will enjoy it.
Now, some announcements.
First, don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?” in which I talk to my old friend S. Abbas Raza about Friendship, and what it is.
It had been over fifteen years since I’d last read a Michel Houellebecq novel, or thought all that much about him, when Foreign Policy magazine invited me to write a long review of the new English edition of his collected short non-fiction pieces, Interventions 2020. Here’s a short preview (I’ll add a link when the piece goes live):
Frédéric Beigbeder offers one of the most delightful interludes in the volume, a 2014 dialogue with Houellebecq in Lui (the iconic French magazine with a bare-breasted woman on every issue’s cover). Early in their free-floating conversation, Houellebecq quantifies his smoking habit: “I’m on four packs a day right now. I don’t think I could write without nicotine. That’s why I can’t slow down right now.” To which Beigbeder replies: “Can we talk about your dental problem?”
Houellebecq seems to be at his prime in this conversation, and it is touching to see how he comes alive under the spell of what appears to be a real friendship with Beigbeder. He is happy to talk about his teeth, though he is somewhat less happy to be compared to Serge Gainsbourg, as the model of a specific sort of genius French wastrel. Houellebecq insists that being compared to Gainsbourg annoys him, and if this disavowal is at all convincing, it is surely because he is never more sincere than when speaking of his love of real rock ’n’ roll, not simply as in a Gainsbourgian paean to Ford Mustangs or to Bonnie and Clyde (barely a cut above what Hallyday could conjure in his own American lyricism), but in telling us bluntly and honestly that discovering Iggy Pop and the Stooges remains “one of the greatest joys of my life.”
One of the funniest moments in Houellebecq’s 2001 novel Platform comes early on, when the 40-something protagonist, about to depart for a sex-tourism jaunt in Thailand, pulls a Radiohead T-shirt over his fat gut and briefly contemplates his own absurdity. This is a situation in which no Gainsbourg, no Léo Ferré, no adept of French chanson would ever find himself. The great stars of chanson are, in their essence, old—or, rather, as they age they grow ever more into what they truly are. Rock ’n’ roll is a good deal less kind to its children as they grow up, as their bodies change and they appear increasingly out of place in its attire and its milieux. Chanson, the French popular genre par excellence, excels at producing dirty old men, who have, at least traditionally, lived their lives unapologetically, inhabiting their roles as the éminences grises of music the way Dominique Strauss-Kahn inhabited his spot at the top of a decadent and libertine elite, at least until he was brought low by a sudden change in the cultural winds. For Houellebecq the aging punk, by contrast, aging is a problem—which is to say both that he is a master at problematizing it in his literary work and that, in his real life, he is quite plainly not aging well. Just look at him.
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