Review: The This by Adam Roberts
I had a friend in college who was very good at quitting smoking. Every weekend, she would smoke at parties, and every Monday, she would quit smoking once again.
For me, quitting Twitter was more like Hemmingway’s going broke: slowly then all at once.
Slowly, I created a professional account, moved the alt account using my teenage AIM screen name to private, and juggled which devices (laptop, phone, tablet) were able to access which accounts under which screen names at which times with what screen time limits. And then all at once I stopped reading any of my Tweeter feeds, thanks pretty much entirely due to reading the first two chapters of The This by Adam Roberts.
What is the feeling of being on Twitter?
That Twitter is addictive is clear, but why this is and where Twitter’s hold on us comes from is hard to describe. Social networks don’t actually contain nicotine. At least, not yet. It must be the feeling which keeps us coming back.
Using Twitter is not like watching a great movie and being swept up in the drama. It’s not like watching a familiar sitcom and laughing at characters whose foibles you know well. It’s not like going to a concert and being overwelmed with the sound. You don’t get lost in Twitter the way you get lost in a great book. It doesn’t get you fired up like a motivational speech or a political rally. It doesn’t make you cry like tearjerker movie or that song you listened to a lot with your ex. You only rarely laugh out loud.
One of the truly awkward experiences of modern life is reading a really funny tweet in bed next to your partner, being asked what you’re doing, and then trying to figure out how to communicate the content of the tweet orally without sounding like a complete weirdo. “Well, first you see, there’s this image meme format where there are these two guys arguing, right? Okay, and then there’s a lot of debate in software programming about how to include other libraries in the code you write, so, well, um…”
The only worse experience is having an opportunity to make a good joke at a party and having to preface it with, “Well, according to a tweet I read, you sleep when the baby sleeps and do laundry when the baby does laundry.” That slight atom of attribution for the bon mot sours the whole effect of the joke.
A mistake one cannot help but endless repeating is following someone whose works intrigues you in another medium. It cannot go well. If they turn out to be a good tweeter, you don’t credit it to them. You wonder how they can manage to spend so much time on Twitter and also do the actual work you respected them for in the first place. The more likely scenario is that they endlessly whinge and beef with their petty foes. You end up wondering how someone so easily goaded by CommieLibertarian420 can also produce other works of such seeming solidity. There is no possibility of their stock rising in your estimation. Maintaining status quo ante is the best case scenario.
So, what is that feeling that makes us make this same mistake over and over again?
The This is a science fiction novel. It largely takes place in the near future, when a new Twitter-like social network called The This has been created that lets you send and receive posts via a brain implant installed in the roof of the mouth. As it turns out, this slight improvement in posting speed is enough to accidentally crystalize the social network into an actual, literal hive mind, which then battles for the next few hundred years with the remaining individual humans (and indeed with the spirit of the absolute itself) for control of the solar system and ultimate immortality.
It’s also a meditation on the philosophy of Hegel and quite funny.
So what is that feeling? What are we laughing at? Why u mad, bro? Why do we participate in memes? What keeps us picnicking atop the hellsite?
In this essay, I will argue that the pleasurable feeling of being on Twitter is the feeling of being a small part of a hive mind.
In a word, the feeling is gestalt.
Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at UC Riverside, has a paper called “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious.” His basic point is that assuming we don’t have immaterial souls (or maybe even if we do), whatever it is that gives individual persons consciousness seems like it would have to do so for sufficiently well integrated collective entities as well, such as the United States.
In sum, the argument is this. There seems to be no principled reason to deny entityhood, or entityhood-enough, to spatially distributed beings if they are well enough integrated in other ways. By this criterion, the United States is at least a candidate for the literal possession of real psychological states, including consciousness. If we’re willing to entertain this perspective, the question then becomes whether it meets plausible materialistic criteria for consciousness. My suggestion is that if those criteria are liberal enough to include both small mammals and highly intelligent aliens, then the United States probably does meet those criteria. Although that conclusion might seem bizarre, even a passing glance at contemporary physics and metaphysics suggests that common sense is no sure guide to fundamental reality.
Schwitzgebel is here just taking the flipside of the Chinese room (or Portuguese stadium) argument and saying there’s no reason for the parts of a conscious system to be able to intuit the whole, so if the United States is conscious, there’s no reason to think that individual Americans ought to be able to experience individually what it experiences collectively.
The This takes up this argument directly for one chapter, although to say more than this about that chapter is definitely a spoiler. Suffice it to say that in the book, it is possible for sufficiently integrated political systems to become persons. But what about in the real world and with very loosely integrated systems? If Twitter really is a hive mind, what is it thinking about?
At one point in the book, we are told that the hive mind can’t do away with individual humans because they need us to raise children. Child rearing is too specifically focused of a task for the hive mind to do successfully and children’s brains aren’t the right size for the implant anyway, so they let us do the dirty work of changing diapers and take our large adult sons instead.
In my experience, this is somewhat wrong. Twitter is the perfect thing for paternity leave. You need only one hand to scroll through the tweet stream and reply guy at the tweets that catch your interest, and you can disconnect at any time when the infant needs you to change said diapers or whatever. The feeling of Twitter is fragmented consciousness. It’s the opposite of the oceanic feeling. You’re not one with everything; you’re less than one by yourself. You’re a single synapse in a brain the size of the Earth. No wonder you can’t focus on anything for more than fifteen seconds.
What the hive mind thinks about is of course the main character and the current thing. As Alan Jacobs and Justin Smith have argued, the internet is a demonic consciousness: Moloch the heavy judger of men.
The perfect follow on Twitter is a bored librarian. Someone with a day job that lets them type their every thought into a computer so that by scrolling through it you enter into their Joycean, Bakerite reveries. The effect of entering their stream of consciousness really is the genius of Twitter as a medium. Nothing else can replicate the effect in its combination of intimacy and distance. You really know what it is like to be annoyed by the stale coffee in the third floor lounge and also envisioning the final collapse of capitalism.
Twitter is the crankification engine: it turns us into the kind of people who write letters to the editor. All internet message boards have the effect of giving us strong opinions about water, but Twitter directs that hyperfocus into a strange combination of memetic “jokes” and seething rage.
There is a weird danger to Twitter. A joke (sometimes a good joke; sometimes a bad joke) can not only get you fired, it can also get the person who complained about your joke fired as well.
If I did not wish to be cancelled I would simply not tweet.
And yet by all accounts the three greatest Twitter follows of all time were @horse_ebooks, @dril, and @realdonaldtrump—a spammer pretending to be a person pretending to be a spammer, a person pretending to the worst person in the world, and the worst person in the world pretending to be a person.
This is the duality of Twitter: “theres actually zero difference between good & bad things.”
What really should have been my last tweet occurred on my now private alt account on January 6, 2021 at 1:38pm EST just as the rioters were massing around the Capitol and before they broke in:
thinking of hard pivoting this acct from tweeting about how America is doomed #repent2020 to bringing back Latin Averroism #onemind #deanimamundi #worldsoul
What was the Q Shaman but a Borg Queen—the physical embodiment of a hive mind wreaking havok on the twenty first century?
I had just spent the last year moaning that America was doomed. #repent2020 was my quinxotic and completely unsuccesful branding of the very exilerating period of being on Twitter just as COVID began. Doomscrolling in early 2020 was like watching a horror movie in which you know that the killer is somewhere in the house and you feel a frission of relief when he finally pops out of the shadows and lockdowns began in earnest. By the morning of January 6, it seemed pointless to keep nattering on about what everyone surely already knew to be true by then, so now it’s time for some Latin Averroism.
Averroes or ibn Rushd was a Muslim philosopher in 12th century Spain. His commentary on Aristotle was the standard account for the rest of the Middle Ages. He became best known for a controversial explanation of the intellect which solved the problem of individual knowledge of universals by just positing that there is One Mind which all humans are limited participants in. This doctrine was considered heretical by the Church so the Latin Averroists always had to find ways of fudging to make it cohere with Catholicism. The bolder among them said that by faith, we believe that there are many minds, but looked at scientifically, we see that there is but One Mind.
By faith, we believe that the Invisible Pink Unicorn is pink; by reason, we see that it is invisible.
Latin Averroism neatly solves Schwitzgebel’s riddle by just showing that the United States, like everything else is the World Soul grasping itself in thought.
The This social network/hive mind is introduced in the second chapter of The This. The first chapter of the book begins like this:
In the Bardo subject and object are the same. You say, “I’m not sure I understand what that means.”
In a tour de force of funny and sweeping writing that skips lightly over the whole sum of human history, the second person protagonist is incarnated and reincarnated, only to return after each life to the Bardo, where, we are repeatedly told, subject and object are the same.
It’s dawning on you (in the Bardo, where subject and object is the same thing) that you’re going to reincarnate into every single human being who ever lived.
I mean, really?
I mean … seriously?
You are an airline pilot. You’re a street kid. You die when an allergic reaction collapses your throat. You are shot by a cop. You plant rice. You mine notional gold by playing video games all day in a dingy building and die of heart disease in your fifties. You beg on the streets. You beg on the orbital run. You are a lunar shuttle pilot. You are an asteroid kid, scraping a living and eating vat-gunk. You are poor and volunteer for a new treatment that splits your consciousness between your organic brain and two drones — a military surveillance experimental program, is what it is — but the experience induces psychosis, and you kill seven people with the drones and two more with your bare hands before you are shot dead yourself. You mastermind the terraforming of Venus by releasing vast amounts of heat from the planetary core, subliming the highly acidic atmosphere almost entirely into space; and then you replace it with a bombardment of shepherded cometary bodies. You do grunt work on the Martian elevator cable and die when the foundations collapse and debris breaks your airpack.
In the Bardo subject and object are the same thing.
Like most mind-blowing philosophical theories, the theory that there is only one human consciousness which we all reincarnate into occurred to me spontaneously during my freshman year of college. The advantage of this theory is that like all forms of metaphysical monism it is just obviously true. Of course, there’s only one actual mind and individual minds are just illusory partitions of the one mind from itself. How else could it possibly work? #onemind
But The This isn’t a work of Latin Averroism. It’s a meditation on the philosophy of Hegel. For Hegel, the this is the ultimate philosophical contradiction: as this, it is absolutely concrete: this thing right here; but as concept it is absolutely abstract: this thing, that thing, anything whatsoever.
If we take it in the two-fold form of its existence, as the Now and as the Here, the dialectic it has in it will take a form as intelligible as the This itself.
To the question, What is the Now? We reply, for example, the Now is night-time. To test the truth of this certainty of sense, a simple experiment is all we need: write that truth down. A truth cannot lose anything by being written down, and just as little by our preserving and keeping it. If we look again at the truth we have written down, look at it now, at this noon-time, we shall have to say it has turned stale and become out of date.
The same will be the case when we take the Here, the other form of the This. The Here is e.g. the tree. I turn about and this truth has disappeared and has changed round into its opposite: the Here, is not a tree, but a house. The Here itself does not disappear; it is and remains in the disappearance of the house, tree, and so on, and is indifferently house, tree.
The This is shown thus again to be mediated simplicity, in other words, to be universality.
The correct answer to “What are you doing now?” is always “Typing something into Twitter.”
Twitter being Twitter, of course, Hegel guy was a meme before and throughout 2020. But in a certain sense, we’re all Hegelians. It’s current year; we all think science, technology, and the arc of history are slowly bending towards an inexorable non-zero logic.
Near the end of The This, a speaker for the hive mind says to an individual,
“Cells aggregated into multicellular forms because it was evolutionarily advantageous for them to do so. Consciousness is doing the same thing. That’s not something that begins with The This, you know. It begins in the same way evolutionary scientists’ version of Adam marks a beginning. Human beings were lone hunters, living in small kinship groups Then they lived in larger tribes, and reaped the advantages of pooling their physical and intellectual resources — passing on wisdom to new generations, emotionally supporting one another. So larger tribes became even larger. The first hive mind was the first city. The first hive mind was the first population that swore allegiance to one monarch and so became a unity bigger than any tribe. The first hive mind was when people gave up their fragmented and dissipated multigods for One God, One Allah, One Scientifie Truth — all versions of the same thing, the desire to come together as souls.”
“Bringing souls into it now, are you?”
“Of course, technology improves. Take the passing-along-wisdom part of consciousness’s evolutionary role. More sophisticated languages are better at this than elementary ones. The scroll is better tech than the clay tablet. The codex better than the scroll. Printing is better than handwriting. Computers and phones are better than paper. The internet is better than banks of index cards. Thistech is better than iPhones. So it goes. We have tech now a caveperson would assume was magic, and if you kick off your chains and step out of the rut and look up you’ll see it all… keeps…. going — that’s the shape of it — until we have tech a Victorian would assume was telepathy. And when we’re sharing thought on that level, with that immediacy and intensity, then we’d be splitting hairs not to talk about Spirit. Capital S.’”
Any sufficiently advanced technology is either Whig history or the movement of the dialectic.
For my part, I wrote my PhD thesis about Watsuji Tetsurō, and I accept his dual criticisms of Hegelianism and materialism. To be a human being is always to be cleaving to greater hive minds and cleaving away from it again. There’s nothing wrong with a little joining the hive mind as a treat. The trick is to make sure you are able to step away and become an individual again once you’re done mindlessly reading tweets while the baby mindlessly reads tweets.
Hegelian theories of history have things building up and up to their stunning and absolute logical conclusion, like Godwin’s law but for dialectics, not dialogues. As Chesterton wrote,
All these clever men were prophesying with every variety of ingenuity what would happen soon, and they all did it in the same way, by taking something they saw “going strong,” as the saying is, and carrying it as far as ever their imagination could stretch. This, they said, was the true and simple way of anticipating the future. “Just as,” said Dr. Pellkins, in a fine passage—“just as when we see a pig in a litter larger than the other pigs, we know that by an unalterable law of the Inscrutable it will some day be larger than an elephant—just as we know, when we see weeds and dandelions growing more and more thickly in a garden, that they must, in spite of all our efforts, grow taller than the chimney-pots and swallow the house from sight, so we know and reverently acknowledge, that when any power in human politics has shown for any period of time any considerable activity, it will go on until it reaches to the sky.”
I am more partial to theories of, if not quite stasis, at least meandering. The passage of history makes some new things possible, but also makes some old thing impossible. Minerva’s Owl perches by the banks of Lethe’s waters.
Emptiness is the opening of a field of possibilities. Negation is a limitation or determination of that possibility. Initially, there is a manifold field of possibilities based on past determinations (空). Out of that field, an agent (人) arises as the limitation of the self and other (jita 自他). This is the individuating moment of double negation. It is followed by a moment of communalization in which the individual reintegrates into the totality (間). The reintegrated totality can now be taken as the field of possibilities in which future determinations will be made. Our freedom as individuals comes from our location within the process of determination and determining.
From the top down perspective, we can attempt to define individuals in terms of those larger entities that mold them. From a Marxist perspective, we might talk about how the individual is a pawn in the struggle between classes; or, from a nationalist perspective, we might talk about how individuals are mere instantiations of some larger national or ethnic character. On the other hand, from a bottom up perspective, we can attempt to define individuals in terms of those smaller entities that constitute them. From a biological perspective, we contain certain cell structures; or from a chemical perspective, we are made of collections of particular molecules. Buddhist emptiness is non-reductive because it denies the finality of either top down or bottom up reductions. It charts a “Middle Way” between nihilism and substantivism by turning these two directions of reduction against one another.
It is true that we are molded by larger social structures. It is from the top down perspective that we can talk about the subject as having a “mind” studied by psychology. From this perspective, society is an observable outer reality, and mind is a hidden inner reality. It is also true that we are constituted by smaller physical entities. It is from the bottom up perspective that we can talk about the subject as having a “body” studied by the natural sciences. From this perspective, the body is an observable outer reality, and sub-atomic particles are a hidden inner reality. The tension between these two perspectives is not unilaterally resolvable. Both are ultimately lacking in substance when explored in sufficient depth, and this non-dual emptiness leads to the overflow of value…
So, to be sure: I still tweet.
If anything, my Twitter account has become vastly more popular now that I’m not junking it up with my own thoughts about anything besides self-promotion. My method for quitting Twitter was that I didn’t delete the app or block the website. I just left them open to my mentions, which I still compulsively check. I look at my likes and mentions for a few moments and think, “Oh yeah, I don’t actually read Twitter anymore,” then close the app, only to reopen it thirty seconds later.
So, I guess I’m pretty good at quitting Twitter, too.
There are downsides to not being on Twitter. I quit before the Ukraine war, and I don’t know the names or military importances of various small cities in pale of settlement that my children’s great great grandparents fled and never looked back on. I don’t have any opinions about the current COVID variants, and I’m still not really clear about whether monkeypox is a thing or not.
Still, there’s a part in The This where a cancer patient who was kicked out of the hive mind because the cancer ate away her brain implants looks back on her time as a collective and her return to individuality. She says, “There’s a middle path, and it’s human fellowship, it’s friendship and love, the balance of me and others. That’s what we’re fighting for, yes?”
One last tweet:
“The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform loses all its power when that invitation is rescinded.” — @robinsloan https://www.robinsloan.com/lab/lost-thread/
— Carl Johnson (@carlmjohnson) April 26, 2022
★★ out of ★★.