Available to listen here.

Episode notes and references:

Alfie Bown books, Pluto Press

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, Vintage Books, 2002

Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Stanford University Press, 1998

Dominic Pettman, Peak Libido: Sex, Ecology, and the Collapse of Desire, Wiley, 2020

Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine: How Capitalism Stole Our Social Life, The Indigo Press, 2019

Max Haiven: Hello and welcome to “The Exploits of Play.” This is a podcast about the strange and unexpected roles of games and play in our stage of capitalism that just keeps getting weirder. My name is Max Haiven and I am the Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination.

Halle Frost: I’m Halle Frost from the platform Weird Economies. We’re presenting this podcast. Today we’ll speak to Alfie Bown. Alfie Bown is editor of “Everyday Analysis” and “Sublation Magazine”. His books include Post Comedy, which is forthcoming in 2024, Dream Lovers, Capitalism and the Gamification of Relationships from 2022, Post Memes from 2019 and the PlayStation Dream World from 2017. Max, can you tell us how you found Alfie’s work and really specifically about his book Dream Lovers, Capitalism and the Gamification of Relationships?

Max Haiven: Well, this is a really interesting book in a really wonderful series called “Digital Barricades” from Pluto Press, the press that often publishes a number of my books as well. And when I saw it come across my radar, I was very excited, especially in the context of this project, “The Exploits of Play” and our concerns with gamification. What drew me and will draw many readers to this book is the account of the gamification of relationship on apps, like any number of dating apps that are out there that many of us have intimate, sometimes good, sometimes bad relationships with. But very quickly in this book that Alfie’s written, he goes well beyond the kind of critique of the dating app, which I think almost all of us could make in various ways in terms of the way that it affects our brains, the way that it affects our senses of self, the way it affects our sense of what romance is and what connection is, the way it speeds up and slows down certain aspects of romance.

Alfie, as you’ll hear in this interview, is interested in a much broader spectrum of what’s happening to desire and what’s happening to relationality under a digitalized form of capitalism that’s very interested in, of course, harvesting our data. But even more importantly, I think in this interview and in the book, Alfie makes the argument, drawing on a whole range of very important theorists, that our desire is not really our own. We tend to imagine that desire is simply something that bubbles up from the depths of our individual unique souls.

It’s quite uncomfortable to think about desire as something that’s shaped by our society, shaped by our community, shaped by our experiences, shaped by how we’re embodied in the world. But the archive of theory and of analysis that Alfie is working from in this book really attempts to show us that our desire is in some ways more deeply shaped by those phenomenon than it is by any sort of intrinsic magical quality. That’s very unsettling.

But then it allows Alfie in this book to really point out how then our desire can be not only manipulated, but also shaped by incredibly powerful institutions like transnational corporations and the financial markets that back them, as they access our desires and relationships through any number of not only apps, but also pieces of hardware, digital infrastructures, digital atmospheres and the rest.

Halle Frost: Yes, I love the way that you said that, but simply that this desire being this very intimate and sometimes compulsive urge that we feel is very unique to us or somehow innate, that this is actually most probably initiated through advertising, especially.

Max Haiven: I always like to begin these interviews with if you can cast your mind back to a moment in your childhood or even your adolescence, where you played a game that was consequential to shaping your imagination. What was that experience? And what did it teach you?

Alfie Bown: I mean, it’s actually a hard question. And I guess but I remember that, you know, the first experience for me was that on my seventh birthday, I got given a “Sega Game” gear by my dad. And my parents were sort of separated several years before that. So it’s a classic sort of dad, dad move to sort of treat me to this video games console way before my mum would have consented at all. And I remember that even to this day, when they speak about it, when I speak to them individually about it, they’ve obviously hung on to this sort of tension because my dad thinks that video games taught me how to concentrate. And that led to me being interested in reading and writing and had this really positive impact on me as a little boy.

And my mum thinks they led me down the path of having a short attention span and not being able to, you know, slow things down. So like, even from the first experience of gaming, I suppose, I was aware of this like, silly question, I guess, of are these good or bad? Are they helping or hindering? You know, what is this kind of new form of enjoyment that comes into the world? And, and then I sort of came back to that, obviously, with a sort of political approach sort of decades and decades later. So I guess I can’t really, you know, give you an example of a game, it was basically just Sonic and things like that.

I did try in some books to give like stupid in little readings, how much can you say about Mario or Sonic or something like that. But, you know, generally, I just think from a very young age, I was sort of interested in this question of like, yeah, what are games? What are they doing to us? How are they kind of reshaping our brains or whatever, as we become the sort of citizens that we are now that I am. So I guess, I’m interested in my generation and what that means that we were sort of brought up with this kind of gamified, game influenced experience of life.

And I guess, yeah, right from the beginning, I was sort of aware of that with this tension between my parents, you know.

Max Haiven: We’re going to talk in a little bit, well, for most of this interview about your book Dream Lovers, the Gamification of Relationships, which is really a fascinating and illuminating take on something that I think many of us experience intimately with varying degrees of pleasure and terror. But I wanted, before we get to that book, just to kind of ask you to delineate your own journey as a thinker and as someone who’s thinking about radical politics and anti-capitalist politics, from thinking about games, as you were just mentioning, and the politics of games and the political economy of games, to thinking about the gamification of relationships.

Alfie Bown: In the decades between, after I got my Sega Game Gear, I studied literature. That was my thing. I did a degree in English literature. I was very lucky because in my A-levels, there was a real cock up on my exam paper and I got, I failed my English exam somehow and I didn’t get in anywhere except Manchester University in the UK. And I decided I’d have to sort of, you know, take a gap year, reapply, start the process again. And on results day, you know, all my friends were going off to university and I decided, you know what, sod it, I’m just going to go.

And I went to Manchester to study English. And I was very, very lucky because at the time I was taught by Terry Eagleton, the famous Marxist literary theorist, and by Jeremy Tambling, who’s very much in the same vein. And there was this group of real Marxists and leftists at Manchester at the time that really sort of made me, yes, that changed everything for me.

And I started to think about the history of class consciousness. And so I stayed there for three degrees for over a decade and got a PhD from there where I was working on Marxist theory and psychoanalytic theory, which were really exciting things. But all through that time, I carried on playing video games.

You know, I’ve never stopped. I never grew out of it, you know, since that first one on the Sega Game Gear. I still play too often now. And then I was doing all the work on literature. I just finished my PhD. And then in 2014, this Gamergate saga happened, basically, where it was a real sort of precursor to the ideas of meme culture and online warfare around the Trump election, the first Trump election. And suddenly, you know, in Gamergate, basically you get this kind of right wing trolls attacking sort of progressive or feminist or just or figures within the gaming industry or just women for being women. But also it flared up in a quite interesting way. We’ve always had boring debates about, you know, do games cause school shootings? You know, do they cause violence or whatever? But suddenly there was something actually happening, I think, where the mainstream realised that the gamer population was this enormous mobilisable army of potential voters or thinkers or activists or whatever. And it goes on the left and it goes on the right. And suddenly there was this from 2014 onwards, there was this sense that the politics of games mattered and the communities around gaming mattered in a new way, in a way that they hadn’t really realised until then. I had not until then thought about it, but I decided to stop working on English literature.

I haven’t looked back at all actually. And I now wrote two books on video games, and then this one you mentioned on relationships, gamification of our desires and things like that. And I think, and I moved it from literature into a media studies department.

So, you know, I still like books, but I’m just not in that world anymore. And it really, really was this incident that where they sort of got politicised. So first of all, I wanted to sort of think about them on their own, you know, what are video games? What do they do? But also my main feeling about them is that games influence everything. And the technologies of gaming have percolated out. And what this what we often refer to as gamification, when like, things from a game end up playing a role. And so now you can look at dating apps. And you can say, well, Tinder is like a card game or whatever. Grindr is points collection. Or you can look at Google Maps and say, oh, there’s in game rewards for taking this route or that route. You can look at trading apps like Robin Hood or whatever, or food delivery apps like Uber and Deliveroo. And you can see that things that began in the gaming world are now part of everyday life and structuring how we think and feel and desire. So what I wanted to do is to try to think more philosophically and theoretically about what does this all mean, right? So it no longer matters if you play games or not, you’re in this game space, as Mackenzie Walt calls it.

It’s about exploring the politics and for me, especially the politics of desire within this new kind of dystopian game space that we all inhabit, whether we like it or not.

Max Haiven: It really comes across in your book, Dream Lovers, which we’re going to turn to now, this sense that we need to really work hard to understand and then develop a politics appropriate to being in this game space that is now unavoidable. And I want to go to a passage from that book, which I think you really summarise the stakes of both the book and the political moment we’re in.

You write, “From sex robots and smart condoms to dating sites, simulators, video games and pornography, we are seeing a desire revolution. It’s all one word that you develop here. We’re seeing this desire revolution take place before our eyes. There will be no restoration when this revolution has been completed. Things will not go back to how they were. All that remains to be decided is who the victors will be in this battle for the future of desire, and therefore politics. At the moment, progressive forces might be struggling to catch up with the populist right and lagging miles behind the neoliberal capitalists. But the battle is not over yet. Love has been the site of this battle, a key to controlling and reorganising us into the perfect functioning capitalists of this smart city.”

I think this is such an important passage, and I want to go through a couple of pieces, one by one. We’re going to come back to two things a little bit later, I hope, in this interview. And one of them would be this question about what’s the meaning of love and what’s the meaning of desire? Because you present a really interesting, and a lot of the book is animated by a kind of pushing back against a conventional notion of love and desire.

But before we go there, what I really want to ask you about is, you say, at the moment, progressive forces might be struggling to catch up with the populist right and lagging miles behind the neoliberal capitalists. And I want to turn to each of those quickly and turn, where are the neoliberal capitalists right now in terms of this war for the future of desire? And then of course, I’ll ask you about the populist right as well. So I mean, it sounded really good when you read it out.

Alfie Bown: I can’t remember writing that, but I’m okay with that. You chose the best bit, I think. But I think it does. Yeah, I mean, this is, I suppose, very important. I mean, one of the stories I most like to tell about this research, if you call it that, you know, when I was thinking about this book, is this time, which is in the book where I went to China to give a lecture. And it was about, I was really criticising WeChat, you know, the Tencent app. And I was looking at the way in which it changes the patterns of everyday life, as you say, in the service mainly of corporate interests. And sorry, just for our listeners who might not be familiar, WeChat is kind of like Facebook on steroids. It’s like Facebook, but it’s also got the sort of Google Maps inside it and Uber inside it. It’s like a super app, they call them, where it’s like kind of rolled into one. It’s got dating inside, it’s all sort of in there. And this talk was in Hangzhou in East China.

At the end of the talk, these two, I was saying, these technologies are evil, they’re, you know, they’re remapping the way we use our cities in ways which take away from the possibilities of protest and just serve corporate interests and take away our agency and power and so on. And then these two guys in suits came up to me at the end of the talk. And I was like, thinking, Oh, God, these could be lawyers or whatever. And they said, Oh, well, hello, we’re from Alibaba, which is the second biggest tech company. And I thought, Oh, God, I’m in trouble. And they said, Oh, you really hate Tencent? And I said, Yeah, you know, and they said, ‘Oh, you probably love us— We’re Alibaba.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s not how this works, guys. You know, I think you’re all evil.’

This is a sort of, as you put it, this revolution, the tech revolution that’s anyway, they said, ‘Don’t be so silly.’ You know, they didn’t care about what I had to say, really. And they invited me to go to cloud town, which is the Silicon Valley version of Alibaba sort of tech hub in just the outskirts of Hangzhou.

Then it’s where they developed this thing called a city brain, which is basically this kind of prototype smart city, which is interested in predicting behavior and editing behavior to sort of set the future of cities or whatever. They showed me some crazy things, for example, like traffic lights, which count the wrinkles in your eyes and give you a bit longer to cross the road if you’re looking a bit haggard or whatever. And I said to the guy there, I said like, Oh, what’s the most impressive thing you’ve got? And he showed me this car, which is a co production between Alibaba and the German car manufacturer Rover.

And I said, ‘What’s so impressive about this? It just looks like a normal car.’

And I was expecting to say, ‘Oh, it can fly is the car that can never crash, you know, whatever. It’s the fastest car in the world.’

And he said, ‘Oh, the car knows when you’re hungry, and what you might like to eat before you do, and it drives you there.’ And at the time, I thought, what a silly nonsense, you know, and I said, Why do you care about that? And he said, because we want to make people go to restaurants that take Alipay rather than WeChat pay or cash. So it goes back to this kind of rivalry between Alibaba and Tencent and whatever.

And I thought nothing of it at the time. But as I thought about it more and more, I realized actually, this is the most impressive feature of the car. And what it actually does, it syncs with all your data from your credit card, smartphone, whatever you’re willing to allow it to read.

And you might fancy, let’s say, a Japanese ramen at 4.30 on Tuesdays, you yourself haven’t realized that you fancy Japanese ramen at 4.30 on Tuesdays, but the car realizes, and at 4.20, it says, Why don’t you go to this restaurant, all they’re doing is trying to make money by nudging people towards their own restaurants where they can profit. So it’s no big deal in a sense. But what it shows us, I think, is exactly as you said, this desire revolution, a revolution in desire that’s taking place, whereby it’s through our very desires that we are nudged in different directions.

And so one of the key things I wanted to show was that predictive apps are nothing to do with prediction and everything to do with nudging you in new directions, not just understanding the ones you want to go in and so on. And I think here you do have this this well, it’s very interesting to me politically, because if you think about comparing that to the revolutions of the 60s, like May 68, for example, there it was following your own desires would get you out of capitalism. But now we’re in a situation where capitalism is organizing its subjects precisely through our desires.

So the last thing we can trust is our own impulses. And that for me is the interesting point to emerge here. And that’s why we need to think theoretically, as as Marxists, but also as, in my opinion, as psychoanalysts, because we’re thinking about how and why do we desire in these ways, because we’re actually being the revolution is taking place, and we’re being transformed. And it’s through our desires that we’re being sort of mapped and planned in new ways. The big trend here is, as you put it, you could call them neoliberal capitalists or whatever. Those are the people really controlling the means of production, really influencing this revolution as it as it takes place.

As well as that, I think you get communities, perhaps communities associated with the right, mean communities or whatever, who are sort of recognizing this fact. I did some funny research into sites like, which is an interesting example of manipulating the economy of desire to sort of nudge in a political direction, which could be, you know, considered right wing, or whatever. So I think you see that the the right sort of maybe recognizing this and trying to get involved in the process.

Other examples of that would be those communities like women go their own way all these kind of misogynist communities that like Angela Nagle explores in her work and stuff like that. They’d be another example of like, you know, trying to do this, whereas I think the left, you know, we often get stuck in this nostalgic sort of, well, desire should be free, we shouldn’t manipulate things and so on. So it sort of ends up lagging behind.

And I guess the overall argument of my book was that this revolution is happening, whether you like it or not. So you might as well play a role in it and start if you can, trying to think about how we would want to change things for ourselves for if you like a Marxist agenda or a socialist one or whatever your politics might be a feminist one, it might be I mean, there’s interesting work in that area. So I guess that’s a long way of answering with that example.

But I think it sort of gets to the heart of what’s what I think is happening. And what we sort of we just I just we need to be aware of it and start thinking of ourselves in this new world.

Max Haiven: No, that’s, that’s fantastic. And it’s it’s such a valuable intervention, because I think you’re so right, we are still caught up in a certain nostalgia. For that moment, I think we associate with the 60s. And the emergence of a kind of politics built around desire and pleasure, where we imagine that following our authentic desires would lead to some sort of collective liberation, or at least could contribute to it.

But I think what’s so fascinating about your book, both in the examples you provide, and in the theoretical apparatus that you that you offer, is the sense that in fact, our desires are not our own in this digital age, or not purely our own. But I think what’s fascinating about your book also is you go back to a long history of theorists who’ve been trying to understand this even before we got to digital technology, and as a political project. So you know, at certain points, you even go back to sort of the ancient Greeks and the way that they were thinking about desire as somehow integrated into sociality. And so Freud and Lacan as well, as well as people like Roland Barthes, and others to think through this question about how, what’s interesting about desire is not that it is kind of the authentic expression of our souls, unmediated, that emerges from some deep well within us, and then enters the world to be manipulated, but is in fact, desire emerges from the interface between us and our world and our social world. And that’s, it’s precisely that interface that these technologies are targeting. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about how you came to that theorization.

Alfie Bown: I mean, I think it’s very important to say, I mean, I’m not saying that video games or dating apps are that, in one sense, aren’t that revolutionary, because things weren’t consistent before, right. So the way I think of it is, you could maybe say, at some point in history, the church and religious institutions, they played a key role in codifying desire and love and relationships and so on. At some point in history, it was probably, it was literature, you know, European literature, probably, which played a key role in recodifying these things.

And at some point in history, it was Hollywood cinema that played this role of revolutionizing desire. So there’s interesting that, you know, there’s this guy Niklas Luhmann, his book is called The Codification of Relationships, or The Codification of Intimacy, or something like that. And it’s interesting that he used that word codification before the internet, before code coding in the sense of, you know, digital coding, because he’s interested in this history of how relationships and desire are always coded and recoded.

So I’m simply saying that games and gamification and apps, they are the latest in this line of extremely influential things that codify and shape our desires. In other words, as you put it, there is no natural desire, there’s no authentic desire. As you look through the ages, it gets changed and shaped in different ways by different forces, whether they political, religious, family, culture, these these things all play roles in the codification of desire. But we’re just now looking at some pretty rapid recent changes, and a new, it’s no longer film and literature, and the church and the family that structured desire, it’s actually the online space, the digital space. And it’s also your question about, you know, how to think about the interfaces. I think that is so interesting to me, because there’s what I wanted to do, I think differently to other writers, because lots of people have written about love and desire. And they all tend not not, it’s a bit of a generalisation. But in general, they tend to try to eventually separate things out from one is like a bad love or desire, which is being controlled by Hollywood corporations, whatever. And the other is a more authentic or, you know, it can be, it’s been phrased differently, you know, Alan Badiou talks about it as more like a solidarity versus a corporate, everyone tends to do this.

I don’t think that’s wrong. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as true love or anything that I’m just I’m more interested in the similarities between the way we relate to things than the differences, or this is what I did differently. So for example, when we look at a lover on a screen of Tinder or hinge, and if you look at like a meal on Deliveroo or Uber Eats, and if you look at a Pokemon on the screen of Pokemon Go, like what is striking is the connection between these objects.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that there’s no difference between a wife and a Pikachu or a burger, you know, there are palpable differences. But what if we emphasise the similarities instead, and then you start to see that it’s this these new interfaces and screens that present objects to us in certain ways and structure our desire in relationship to those objects in certain ways. And the most powerful piece of critical theory, you know, you mentioned a whole list of people there.

For me on this topic is Roland Barthes, because he says that what we fall in love with is a scene, right? So he basically argues in this very amazing short passage, it’s about one page long, so anyone should just check it out. It’s in a book called A Lover’s Discourse. And the name of the chapter is enamoration, which means as we were touching on the moment where you start desiring, the moment where you become enamoured by something, that could be a woman or a man, it could be, I don’t know, a watch or a pair of shoes, it’s the moment where you suddenly start desiring.

And he says that it’s not the object that matters, but the scene. And he’s using that language from drama. And in his notes at the side of the page, he writes Sorrows of Young Verve, which is the novel by Goethe.

And there’s a great example in that novel, which I sort of assumed or hope that is the one Barthes was referring to, where he sees Lottie or Charlotte, whatever, for the first time. And he describes how he barely says anything about her. But he describes how she’s surrounded by children.

In one hand, there’s bread. In the other hand, there’s a knife. She’s cutting the bread and handing it out to these children, the children looking at her with awe, and then he starts desiring her. And what Roland Barthes is saying that, in other words, the whole history of thinking about love as being between subject and object is wrong, because the powerful thing is the scene. How is the situation in which we desire orchestrated, composed, constructed, so as to make desire possible? A really obvious example would be those trainers in the front of shoe shop windows, right? It’s a construction of a scene. It’s not the trainer itself, but partly the way it’s constructed there or whatever. And the utopias for those historically would be the 19th century arcades, which are these massive glass structures that were all developed when they when they invented glass and iron works. They created all these capitalist structures where you’re meant to enter into it, you know, you can still see them in London or whatever, you enter into the space, and the objects are arranged in such a way as you want them. It’s like a department store. Now, maybe it’s not a coincidence that we also play video games in arcades. And what I sort of wanted to do was say, we’re now not talking about scenes, but we’re talking about screens, or we’re talking about digital arcades or whatever. What happens to us with our screens, we’re invited into a world where objects are arranged in a certain way as to make desire possible, and to sort of plan and map the moments we feel enamored, attracted, impulsive towards a certain thing or whatever. That to me, I mean, even just describing it, it’s quite dystopian. And, you know, quite powerful, this happens. And I think that’s what we need to sort of start thinking about when we talk about desire, like who controls these spaces? Who are they built by? And what for?

Max Haiven: Absolutely. And I want to ask you to for another turn of the screw here, which is to tell us what’s at stake, because I think there’s a way that one could hear what we’ve discussed up until now, where what’s at stake is, again, kind of the possibility, on the one hand of an authentic desire that now authenticity is out of reach, that will never truly reach our true core of our real desires. Or the idea is that there’s a maybe a bit more complicated is that there’s this threat that we might not ever experience the full panoply of pleasures that we might enjoy if we weren’t locked in some filter bubble, you know, determined by Tencent, or by Tinder, or, you know, by all of these other apps that are sort of feeding our desires. But one of the things that I think is really, really important about your book is you’re pointing out that, in fact, desire is very connected to then the kind of choices we make about solidarity with other people, and about the kind of society we want to build together.

It’s not just about will we be fulfilled or not? It’s more about like, will we fulfill our potential as a co-operative species?

Alfie Bown: I’m really happy you said that, actually, because one of the things that I think when people say, oh, it’s very depressing, all this, isn’t it? You know, we’re not, you know, you’re basically saying, as you said, there’s no authentic desire. There’s no true love, whatever. And also, you’re completely controlled by all these tech giants or whatever. It sort of seems like quite a depressing conclusion. But in fact, I think the opposite. I think that by thinking of desire as authentic, as natural, as essential, as human or whatever you might want to say, it means we’re locked in.

We’re stuck in it. We have to. We’re just desire because we’re humans or whatever. There’s nothing we can do about it. I actually think by, you know, by recognising that our desires are never natural, but always shaped and controlled by social and political and economic forces, you know, to think of it, because I think that is the main force. That is, is in a sense, you know, frightening because we can no longer trust our desires. We have to start thinking that even the things closest to us and most that feel most instinctive to us are in fact controlled and edited by powers that we might not agree with. But on the other hand, it’s a, it’s a signal of potential, right?

If desire is manipulated and changed constantly by society, arts, culture, economics, politics, then we can have any future we want. We can be any subjects we want in the future. And this is where I am interested a little bit in sort of, this has been done in the 80s by like people like Donna Haraway, like cyborg feminism and stuff like that.

Because although I think it gets some things wrong, especially in its kind of hopefulness about technology and stuff, but, but it at least acknowledges that This is an opportunity, right? If we can reshape our desires and let go of our idea of natural or innate desire, we can actually replan and organize society in new ways and actually be new subjects going forward.

And I think we do need to do that. Right. So changing the, yeah, changing the, the material conditions of our society. will lead to our desires changing, and that seems like something we want. Yeah, I want to come back to those radical potentials and, and how technology, and one of the things I appreciate about your book is you’re not, you’re not pessimistic about, you’re very realistic about the technology and the powers at stake, but you’re not pessimistic in the sense that you, I think in each chapter, as you look at different technologies of the gamification of romance and love, you are entertaining possibilities, that these could be used otherwise and that they open new doors.

Max Haiven: I want to come back to that in a minute, but I think before we get there, I kind of want to rewind to something you were saying when we began about Gamergate and then also the far right. And I think you, you do something really interesting in the book where you talk about the rise of these kind of online Reactionary cultures as their own kind of game of desire and pleasure that preys upon certain kinds of affect certain forms, not just of individual pleasure, but actually of these kind of collective this collective jouissance.

Of, you know doxing someone or starting the kind of online pile on, or to go back to a theme that we talked about with some other guests on this podcast, the kind of collective detective work of something like QAnon, where you have thousands of people collaborating and finding a kind of righteous community.

In a kind of gamified space that they’ve fabricated for themselves, and I wanted to just ask you to expand a little bit on this because I think it reveals on the one hand the dangers, like the kind of the dark side of these technologies, even beyond the corporate control, but on the other, I think there’s in a shadowy, a shadowy way, it reveals the kinds of collective desires and collective pleasures that emerge from these technologies as well.

Alfie Bown: That’s really interesting. I don’t remember if I talked about QAnon in this book, but it is something I’m really sort of fascinated by because I think although it’s obviously a symptom of It’s quite a complicated topic, I guess, but I’d say it’s a symptom of the failure of traditional father figures or something like that, that, you know, the mainstream media is completely collapsed.

There are no, we’re lacking a big other. We’re lacking, you know, father figures. patriarchal structures, not that those are good or whatever, but there’s a collapse there. And then it’s sort of been replaced by other sort of forms of seeking for that sort of security of truth or whatever that, that exists.

So one of the things I investigated, as you, as you know, was like, These kind of misogynistic digital dating communities. They have a similar approach to QAnon and they’re, what they’re doing. So I think what we want to say is what I want to say is they’re doing it half right. And then they’re turning away and, and, and going into a reactionary direction at some point.

So I think it’s right to think about restructuring community. I think that we, we, the days of just saying, Oh, fantastic. Let’s break down everything. are gone because that, you know, there was a time when critical theory and philosophy was, was pro sort of breaking down all structures, liberating us from them.

Well, capitalism has done that. So we now need to re, re erect the structures. Now I’m not saying we need to re erect the family or religion or but we do need to resurrect community and, and, and build society again in this capitalist fragmented world. And I think what we see in these areas, even though we might be, we might find some aspects of their you know, right wingness, neo fascism or, or misogyny really repulsive, they’re sort of going halfway in the right direction in at least trying to, to, to build a community, to restructure the, the, the, the, the broken society.

Then they’re pivoting into a sort of, you know, quite often quite frightening direction and we want to make that clear. But I think, yeah, so I think we should see them as symptoms, like failed symptoms of a broader sort of collapse in society itself. And yeah, I mean, it’s a really big question, but I do think it’s concerning, even if I just put this in the most obvious way, I mean, people on the, the, the liberal left or whatever, if you, if you sort of make a joke out of place you, you’re in serious trouble you know, and I can see how that’s happened, you know, and then you, you get this sort opposite case in the, in the, in the sort of proto fascist right or whatever, the things that get said are just extremely obscene.

And then on the other hand, they’re extremely policed. And it’s like, you, you, you, you’ve got to be able to do one without the other. We’ve got to be able to take the piss out of each other and have a laugh and a joke and, and build community and speak openly and so on. And so I think both the left and the right are like symptoms of the same problem of sort of contemporary.

Capitalism sort of eroding society itself and I suppose that’s why I’m more interested It’s not that you know, I’m more interested in saying that yeah This sort of as you said in the passage you read out that the big problem here is overcoming the economic structure of capitalism not the The, the, the sort of online culture wars or whatever, because I think those are, the second is a symptom of the first.

Yeah, absolutely. On that, on that note, before we move, I feel like I keep promising our listeners that we’re going to get to the hopeful stuff in a second, but a little, a little more darkness moment, please. I want, I wanted to ask you also about. You sort of engage with this notion of from Dominic Petman of peak libido, which has a resonance with sort of Mark Fisher’s notion of a hedonia as well, that somehow the, the kind of click bait form of digital capitalism that we’re in right now is giving us these kind of small hits of pleasure and these kind of this entrainment of our desires on a kind of micro level. But seemingly what emerges from that is a kind of dullness that then can only be answered somehow through more and more extreme kinds of things. And at a certain point in the book, you sort of speculate whether this is what’s actually leading to these more extreme acts of violence, like sort of school shootings and these sorts of things.

And also we might point in there the kind of pleasures that come from these kind of extreme politics of the right. I mean, you know, if it led to extreme politics of the left, that’d be pretty happy, but unfortunately that’s not where things are going, it seems like. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about that.

As a way of also talking about the consequences for the desiring body, the desiring subject. Of this kind of constant exhortation and exercising of our desires and of our, our will to pleasure by these kind of machines that we’ve now let into our neuro system and body. Yeah, it’s such an interesting question.

I mean, I really found that fascinating. So yeah, it’s a very interesting book by Dominic Pettman, and it comes, it all starts with this concept of peak libido from the philosopher Bernard Stiegler. And the idea is like peak oil. Right, like peak libido in that sense, like we’ve run, we’ve run out, you know, we’ve reached the point where it’s started to go down.

So his idea is that we’re actually living in a society which doesn’t have enough libido, it’s characterized by boredom and detachment and so on. Whereas, in a way, that was the opposite to my instinct, because I was trying to say that, well, we live in a society that’s completely full of libido. Like, everywhere you look, you’re being directed in this and that direction by your desires.

So the problem is that we’ve got too many things that we can have or pursue, right? Rather than, but then I think your, your answer sort of seems to sort of successfully sort of combine these two seemingly Opposite positions because I think it probably is the case that what we’re offered by these I mean The most obvious example would be you know The dating app hinge has the tagline the app that’s designed to be deleted now That’s silly, isn’t it?

Because it why would you make an app that’s designed to be deleted? Of course it’s in the interests of the the the the app that you stay on the app that you that you go from date to date not Find the person that stops you You So, I mean, it’s a good piece of marketing, but the point is that these apps are designed not to give you a sort of large dose of pleasure, but to give you micro doses so you keep coming back.

And that’s the structure of capitalism. The structure of capitalism is to promise that when you get the thing, you’ll feel better, and then when you get the thing, you don’t, so you go for the next one. You know, that’s, that’s how it works, right? So I think that these so to go to I think your really like provocative and interesting question, is this a cause of school shootings or whatever?

You could say that, couldn’t you? You could say that, well, because your people are, people want out of this system, They they will they’re trying to produce something which explodes it right which is maybe extreme or whatever So, you know and obviously there’s no there’s no defense for for for someone committing a school shooting But if we can say that it’s a symptom of this Relationship between capitalism and desire then we we get to the point.

Well, okay, if that’s the case If we fix the capitalism problem, we won’t get the school shootings. I do think that’s true. I think that, and as, as the economy’s gone down and down and down, there’s less and less recognition. So you’re, you’re getting, you know, I mean, this could be, it’s like, you could talk about the number of graduates that don’t have jobs, you know, anything, you know, but you’re not, you’re not getting anymore enough from, there was maybe a moment when capitalism was able to sustain itself by giving each person a job just enough that they would keep going in the system. But now with the inevitable decline of it, people are not getting enough. So they want to explode the system and they’re doing so through extremism and extreme ideas and extreme acts could be violent ones could be lashing out online. Could be all sorts of things because they want to rupture the system that they’re in and get out So I think that they’re wrong to do that But they’re right to feel that way and we need to help people out of this system.

So they don’t do those things. Yeah, yes as soon as we can.

Max Haiven: I think we’re going to come back at the end of this conversation to the the big question about like how do we Change society so that we don’t have the the triggers for these kind of pathologies. But on our way to that, now I want to turn to a number of the very interesting sort of proposals or sort of, they’re kind of thought experiments or imaginative ventures in this book where you, you look at different aspects of this gamified romantic economy, this gamified libidinal economy.

And then at the end of each chapter, you do a really interesting thing where like, well, what would this look like if it was reclaimed or claimed or hacked or adjusted by people who actually care about the things that probably most of the listeners of this podcast care about, which is, you know freedom and collective liberation and some notion of equality and peace and justice, blah, blah, blah, blah and so I wanted to go through a couple of the kind of Also as a way of mapping out some of the complexities of your argument.

Looking at some of the chapters and what you’re thinking about here and I wanted to start by here by talking about wearables. You know, and you explore in one of the chapters of your book, how much investment there’s been from Silicon Valley, and also by states in these sort of wearables and these, these sort of haptic interfaces with the body that collect data and on our movements and then use that data in order to try and what they would say is predict our desires.

But what you point out, of course, is that in fact, it’s, it’s interdicting our desires, not predicting it’s a productive intervention that gives us the desire or shapes the desire. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about maybe a demonstrative example of this, the wearables, and then walk us through how you’re thinking about what it would mean for there to be a kind of radical wearable.

Alfie Bown: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting isn’t it because I suppose I want to say as a sort of precursor, I know we can’t do this because we don’t have the means of production. So obviously a bunch of leftists can’t just build Something we need also to like lobby for like collective ownership and state ownership so that we could even start to Think okay.

What if this technology was used for us instead of for so I understand that but I still like you say I still wanted to do it in a sort of playful way, right like What would it actually be like? So, with the wearables, I think it is the most fun example of it. My argument about the wearables, in a sentence, is that a Fitbit or an Apple Watch is a tiny Jordan Peterson attached to your hand, that you carry around with you all the time.

The reason I think that is because, what ultimately do they do? They, they turn social problems into Right. So you can’t have you know, it’s now your responsibility to get enough sleep, make sure the air you’re breathing is, is okay. Make sure you rested enough, didn’t eat too much, did enough exercise.

I know that it’s good to do exercise and eat well. I’m not saying that it’s not, but I’m saying that there’s a, there’s like a, a turn away from, and the best philosopher for it was really the whole career of Mark Fisher, which I don’t really think that much of Mark Fisher, but what he really did show was, was that mental health things and symptoms like sleep declining sleep and health have, you know, completely connected to social and material and economic conditions.

What the Fitbit does is it denies that. It tells you, like Jordan Peterson, go clean your room, improve your situation in a self help way, and your life will improve. It may improve, may improve, but the point is there’s a sort of, anti Marxist, anti society ethos to these solutions. Whereas, so I started thinking, what would the opposite be?

What would we do if we had the ability to make the next wearable? And I mean, I don’t know, I can’t remember all the things I sort of thought of, but it was just quite simple things. Like what if, for example, The workers in factories or other kind of manual workers had wearables, which did some health analytics, which were not then reported to the workers if it was their responsibility, but which were could legally you know, the company would legally have to make sure that their workers remained within certain healthy parameters or something like that.

So something like that could be potentially used for like some green or environmental thing, like taking some data to like, for example, air quality is like a simple one where, you know, those corporations would then be responsible. So now it’s like, wow, I better. Go and get some fresh air or something. You can’t really solve that problem if you live in a polluted city. But what we could do is sort of reverse the, the attention of it, so that instead of telling the individual to improve yourself, you’re using the individual’s data to compel companies and corporations to meet certain standards or whatever of workers rights, or environmental concerns, or health concerns, or whatever.

So it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine doing that. If we had the incentives to do it and so I kind of I can’t remember what the all of them were but like I Thought about like that a leftist or marxist Video game or dating simulator, you know a marxist dating app. What would they be like? I just think you know, it’s not worth sort of saying the details But because I don’t think I came up with the best ideas, but it was more just to point out well, we should start thinking at least about What we do because for example and my favorite statistic example of this is the You self driving trucks thing.

So like self driving trucks trucks, like they took like I think three and a half million jobs over the last few years or whatever. And it’s like, well, we didn’t have to build those. It’s not like technology, you know, thinks for itself and, and go, and then the tech companies present it to us like, oh, well, you know.

They’re here, you know, so you’re fired. And you can now buy a trucking simulator and spend your day on that instead. You know, so which, which apparently saw a huge increase in, in use. But but anyway, the point is it’s not inevitable, which things will be built. Right. And at the moment. The people who control what will be built are, you know, it’s, it’s Amazon drones and self driving trucks because that’s the most profitable for the small percentage of people who are building these things in a different sort of world where we had collective ownership or you know community owned Tech industry, we would be thinking in a different way.

What do we want these things to do? And when it goes back to the previous stuff we’ve been talking about, what do we want to, you know, if these technologies change who we are, what do we want to be? You know, and I think that’s quite interesting to start that conversation, even in a sort of silly, playful way.

Max Haiven: Yeah, I wanted to extend that conversation into the, your discussion in the book around dating simulations, these games that basically are not like gamified apps like Tinder or Grindr or Hinge, but they’re actually these sort of narrative video games where you play a character who’s essentially attempting to seduce, usually a female character. And I think you, you point out in that chapter, like the long kind of grim history of this and how it presents a very normative heterosexual subject based on pretty toxic notions of masculinity. But also at the end of that chapter, you’re sort of like, well, but what, you know, there might be other ways of having, using dating simulations that might open up to a fuller spectrum of desire and a fuller encounter with our fellow humans and more than humans in a way that opens up a new political horizon.

Alfie Bown: So this is the example where I went into it the most suspicious. So I wanted to like try stuff properly so I went to like a sex robot brothel and I got like an AI girlfriend and a VR girlfriend and all this stuff and I just sort of went for it and tried to go in with a sort of open mind The weirdest thing was this virtual reality game Porn house, I guess you’d call it, where you go into like a booth like in the old, this was actually in Hong Kong, but I went to this like in the old you know, peep shows, I guess, but you put on a VR headset and, and you see some pornography or whatever.

Now, as you, as, as you say, I sort of felt I couldn’t believe at first the, the grim history here, the long history of dating games, which are, you know, really quite, I mean, misogynistic’s not even the word, it’s just quite astonishing the kinds of structures they sort of replicate and, and, and normalise.

All that’s there when but, I, in the, and the one I was thinking I’m gonna hate the most is the, the porn thing. So, I’ve put the headset on. And it’s the weirdest experience ever. You, you, you got these two types of VR porn. I’m sure you guys don’t want to know this, but you’re gonna hear it. And, and, and you got the one which is like a fly on the wall.

So imagine you’re just like a camera floating in the room and you sort of look around and you see people doing sex acts. The other kind, you’re actually, it’s what you call POV, point of view porn. Where it’s done from the perspective of like, A bloke and you sort of look down and you’ve quite literally got someone else’s body and penis, right?

it’s the weirdest thing ever. Obviously, there’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on there with like castration and homosociality Like this idea you’re quite literally castrated in the experience But then you have this sort of replacement phallus or whatever and it’s all this I wanted to explore Psychoanalytically how crazy that was but The thing I, I sort of found is that in all of that, in all its sort of evil, let’s say, I found, I think, something sort of redemptive in the experience it made me come away with.

Because I felt like what these things showed was that it is actually possible to desire in the eyes of the Right, so, I wouldn’t say I started enjoying it, I don’t want to confess that much. But I was able to see that it works, even if you hate it yourself. And another, I think, really compelling example is, with all, not maybe all, loads of us have experienced the pleasure of going in a Call of Duty video game, getting a sniper rifle and shooting off someone’s head.

Popping their head right off or whatever and there’s quite a satisfaction there And of course we don’t in real life have any desire to do that for the most part and it was exactly the same with this the experience was Horrifying in one way, but it also sort of shows that what these technologies do they offer you the opportunity to step into A structure of desire, like we said, a scene to go back to some of the things we were talking about before.

So it doesn’t actually matter what you desire. The point is the technology can give you the experience of stepping into a different scene of desire and experiencing it from the perspective of one subject within that scene. Now for me, although I saw some horrors in there that I’d rather never see again and that weren’t made.

I also felt there was something extremely radical about the capacity of technology to confront you with that fact. Right. And it really sort of shows, I mean, maybe we could say that empathy, maybe, maybe empathy is an interesting word here that, you know, the experience of, of, of, of, of desiring as another would desire actually makes a kind of empathy possible.

And I think we’re a society today, very much lacking in empathy, you know. Brexit or not Brexit, you know, you bastards who said the wrong thing, you know, it’s, and it is possible to desire Brexit, because the scene is there for you to desire it in. And it’s also possible to desire, to combat Brexit, you know, because that scene is there too.

And I think that is something we miss. politically and socially because we’re so divisive and keen to blame the other for their views. We actually also might want to say, well, the problem here is not those other people who obviously might have different views and stuff, but the possibility is there.

This is how our society is structured with these scenes of desire, which we opt in and out of, and we’re offered. as experiences and so on. So I hope you can see it’s quite a rambling answer but I hope you can see like the sort of politics of it and it was my favorite part of the book because I thought I was going to hate all that stuff and I did but there was something really bizarre and eye opening about it too and I think I was going to sort of capture that as best I could.

Max Haiven: I know it’s totally fascinating. It brought to mind, I mean to jump on not only genres but formats for a moment, it brought to mind also, and also because you mentioned at the beginning your background in literary studies, also the kind of way that literature has a long history of bringing us into these kind of different scenes of desire that then open up different possibilities for good and for ill.

And I was just thinking, I was reading recently Anna Nuit, the Terraforms, which is a fascinating science fiction novel that just came out this year. We’re recording this in 2023, just at the end of 2023. Which not to belabor the storyline has to do with a, a transnational corporation. Basically breeding life forms that will then go to work terraforming a planet that is destined to be basically luxury condos for people nostalgic for a long lost earth, for rich consumers. This is some planet way out in the solar system. And of course what happens, well, not of course, but to the author’s credit, what happens is that these life forms, which include Kind of standard human types as well as hyperintelligent animals begin to rebel and say, actually, this planet is ours. We built it. We’re not going to have it expropriated from us. It’s a really brilliant meditation on capitalism and colonialism. But one of the interesting things that happens in that book is because you, because there’s one of the mechanisms in the book is that there’s been some sort of alliance between humans and non humans or more than humans.

The non or more than humans, whether they’re robotic or biological. In other words, like robots or animals are also sentient and also desiring subjects and the book, though it’s not necessarily about this, it gives us a huge number of really intimate and complex sexual and non sexual relationships.

Between different characters, including the, I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s a wonderful sort of romance between intelligent cat and an intelligent train, and they have a sort of beautiful romance. And it just, it had me thinking about this question about simulation and the way that. You know, like, some of us perhaps do desire to be a cat, and some of us perhaps do desire to be a train, and that’s wonderful.

But I think that there’s something beautiful about the book as well, and the possibilities of the kind of simulation, whether it happens through literature or through technology, that can allow us to be like, ‘Wow, like, even though that might not now become the thing that I desire and try and fulfill in my life, by placing myself in the the scene, as you put it something else emerges.’

Some internal possibility of which we were not yet aware. And that, to me, feels like it has incredible political potential as well.

Alfie Bown: Yeah, no, I agree with you. And I think my perspective on this is that, you know, I’m not quite sure whether I want to say it’s something new because obviously objects have always been part of the scene.

Like we said somewhat, you know, towards the start, with that, the novel where The bread plays a role as well as the children in the scene of desire, but, but I think we can allow ourselves to say that these new these new objects and digital objects and physical objects are sort of, you know, they’re more prominent in the desire economies of today, whatever.

So it’s not a question of sentience and. And are these things thinking beings and stuff, which we obviously, you know, they obviously aren’t, but it is more a question of, well, if you want to understand. how desire works between us, objects, both physical and digital, are part of those scenes that we’re in now.

And that, that really influences everything. I mean, I do actually believe, for instance, that avocados are more tasty after Instagram. You know, there’s nothing instinctive or natural about this. The relationship between our screens and our material life is really intertwined. We have some objects which are physical commodities and others, which are simulations, digital objects or whatever.

And then we have humans also interacting in these, in these collections of, of scenes that constitute the present. So I guess I’m really saying in quite a simple way. They are actors. Everything here is an actor in these, in these scenes of desire. And some of these things are digital objects simulations, whatever.

Extreme case like a sex robot, or a very unextreme case like the menu on Uber Eats. You know, the so we, we gotta think about how, The new it’s not just human actors that we’re dealing with in these new and emerging sort of scenes of desire where desire takes place. So I think that’s that’s what i’m definitely going to read that.

Book, I haven’t read a good book in a while So, I mean it sounds very interesting and I think you know, as you say, yeah science fiction and stuff It’s it’s part of this thought the thought experiment. Okay, how do we relate to each other with our things? You know Given that there have been such changes since not so long ago, we were used to thinking about it.

Max Haiven: All right, let’s come to the final question here. And I’m gonna, I’m gonna stage a debate and ask you to bust us out of it, even though this debate doesn’t quite exist. The way I would frame it is this, there’s been a tendency on the left, the radical left, for as long as we’ve been able to name it as such, between those who would perhaps say that the transformation of the subject- it’s desires, it’s pleasures, it’s relationship has to be in some ways a precondition for collective liberation.

And you know, we can see this already beginning with, you know, some of the, the the friction between Engels and Marx, you know, one, the classic libertine and the other, the classic bourgeois family oriented guy. And it travels, of course, through the various waves of feminism, and with crystallizing in the slogan that the personal is political, we see it emerging in queer movements where, you know, new forms of relationality and relationship and family and chosen family undergird a certain kind of social transformation, and we see it increasingly, I think, as, as all of those movements have come to inspire

I think younger generations were very attentive to building communities of care and solidarity to be the grounds for their kind of activism. And a lot of that is driven, of course, economically as well, because nobody can afford a home except when you live together. So on the one hand, I’m in some ways lumping a lot together, but let’s say that the, the thing that many of these tendencies agree on is that the personal is political, that relationships, including sexual relationships and relationships of desire, And the subject are the kind of key way in which, you know, some sort of social transformation is going to happen.

And then on the other hand, we have you know, our proverbial sort of crusty old revolutionaries who in some sense say, like, get over yourself, your desire, like, desire and politics, need to kind of remain separate because, and you know, this has been borne out in my ethnographic field work on social movements, which I did a number of years ago.

The things that tend to tear social movements apart are money, sex, or kitchens. So, you know, these, these more crusty organizer types might say, well, you know, like, leave the sex aside, leave the desire aside. If you want to actually have some sort of transformation. to fundamentally change the conditions of capitalist exploitation within which desire is being exploited in the ways that you’ve described in your book, then we need discipline, self sacrifice, and in some senses, the disillusion of the subject and the desiring subject into, let’s say, a political party you know, in the Leninist sense, or into a kind of political cause, there’s a spirit of self sacrifice, and that, in fact, your desires are not that important, given the scope of what we face as a species right now.

You know, what is, our desire to have a love affair between a cat and a train compared to ecological catastrophe and rising fascism. I have presented these two sides as caricatures, but I think most of our listeners would recognize somehow the tension between these and probably feel them intimately Is there a reconciliation between them?

Is this completely false binary? Help us out.

Alfie Bown: Well, I mean, yeah, no, I think it’s a very interesting question because, you know, on the one hand, I agree with the crusty old revolutionaries because I think that, unlike the protesters of May 1968, I don’t think that you know, culture and, you know, experiment with sex and love and desire leads to revolution, I think it has to be the other way around.

The revolution is, happens first. The change, the economic, material, cultural change happens and it edits our feelings, thoughts, drives, desires, rather than the other way around. However, where I agree with the combination of politics and desire is just in the sense that we have to have. social movements to, to be even start thinking about asking for things like a material and economic change in the structure of our society.

So an obvious example would be, you know, if you just think back to like 2019 you know, with when we were in the middle of the sort of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders movement, there’s so much libidinal energy on the part of people that’s being isn’t the word, but channeled into community building advert, advocating for certain political changes or whatever.

Now, I know those are failed projects. And I also think it’s very interesting that, you know, I think it’s Obama’s election that was the first, I mean, the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat has kind of made this point that, you know, Obama’s like, yes, we can was this kind of libidinal election that you could, you know, you really supposed to feel part of.

And he has, has shown basically how we might not like to say it, but the Trump election, the first Trump election had a lot of similarities in terms of being this election that, that might be. That might confront us with some, you know, questions or whatever. But the point is, I think that we do need to have that libidinal energy and direct it in ways that will help us.

So there’s no point saying, oh, leave your desires out of it, because there’s no way the, the right wing or the capitalists are going to leave your desires out of it. So, you know, I think it is depressing to think that even three, four years ago, We were doing that now. I think you’re seeing much more the opposite.

You’re seeing people with nowhere to channel their energies and desires so they are going more towards your QAnon or conspiracy or you know, news or whatever it is over here. So I think yeah again as we sort of and this maybe brings it full full circle. We started by saying you know, what where is the left in this and what are the possibilities of a left?

But I think that we need to recognize that we’re not really going to have a Marxist or socialist or leftist revolution without economic change. But we also need to play a part in this, these desire economies in order to start building societies and communities that are capable of change. So I think that’s and the other thing, I mean, I do want to say, there’s not really time to go into it, but I do want to say that you mentioned queer theory.

I think that’s extremely interesting. It was one of the first things that brought me to thinking about theory was learning to people like Lee Edelman and queer theorists of the 80s and 90s. And I think a lot of what they said has, has been, you know, Sort of forgotten, actually. It’s, you know those, those lessons are actually very important that like, we are like, we are amorphous in terms of desire, not essential subjects that are fixed and stuck.

And we do need to engage desire and lobby for change or whatever. So I think I think there’s hope, I guess but we’re in a bleak moment, I suppose, at the moment where I think people feel they, they haven’t got somewhere to channel their energies and desires that does lead to political change.

So we end up, you know, conforming with the sort of capitalist powers that be but it isn’t so long ago that we’ve seen moments where it looked like that might shift. And obviously I hope it does again.

Halle Frost: I can’t believe we got through that entire interview without saying the word dopamine. I was waiting for him to say it the whole time.

Max Haiven: Yeah. Yeah, dopamine. Wow. I mean I was joking the other day with our next guest on the podcast, Christian Nagler, that if dopamine didn’t actually exist, it would be necessary for late stage bonkers capitalism to invent it.

And that’s not to say that dopamine isn’t real. I mean, it is. And for those of you who have not been exposed to the cult of dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a very complex neurotransmitter in the brain that essentially has been credited in sort of popular science and popularized science as the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for motivation and for sort of hedonistic seeking behavior.

So it’s a neurotransmitter that’s supposed to reward you for going out and seeking things. And it’s released by drugs, it’s released by sex, it’s released by attraction. And recently there’s been a huge amount of sort of popular psychology, popular neuroscience, and also legitimate neuroscience on this.

Strange chemical and one of the things that I’ve been talking about with Christian, who’s going to join us in our next episode to talk about Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley’s efforts to cheat death is how A lot of the apps that we’ve been talking about with Alfie and that are related to it, so the sort of dating apps that we might be familiar with, but also the apps that are attempting more broadly to stimulate our desires whether they’re gambling apps or advertising you know, things that are trying to advertise to us or whatever.

These all developed within mostly a kind of Silicon Valley thought world, if not in the geographic area of Silicon Valley, based on a certain behavioralist approach. This set of ideas that are framed around this neurotransmitter dopamine. So very, very basically, and here I’m simplifying things a lot.

There was this kind of rediscovery of dopamine as a neurotransmitter that then allowed app developers to say, Ah, well if you put like a glowing red button. On the app that’s going to make that’s going to trigger a kind of dopamine response in people’s brains, and they’re going to seek out that sort of thing.

And if you’re designing a dating app, then you kind of time and calibrate the swiping and the haptic feedback and the visual feedback in order to keep. Your users in what these developers would call like a dopamine loop so that you keep on getting these little shots of dopamine rewards that keep you motivated to stay on the app and therefore perpetuate your engagement with the app and allow the app and its parent corporation and its funders to continue to harvest your data and your attention and sell it on to advertisers and other nefarious forces, which is kind of the backbone of tech capitalism today.

And there’s some elements of truth to that. I mean, like dopamine is real. It does exist in our brains. It is an incredibly important neurotransmitter, but the reduction of dopamine to this kind of rat in a cage style behavioralism where, you know, somebody sees a red glowing light or, you know a piece of skin or something like that, and then they have a dopamine response and then they keep clicking through the app.

As Richard Seymour points out in his book, The Twittering Machine, this is a highly reductive way of accounting for human behavior. It basically reduces human behavior to kind of these automatic responses as if we’re kind of automaton that run not just on like sort of electricity and AI code, but on kind of biological wetware that gets activated by these kind of, you know, endogenous shots of a drug that our brain produces for itself.

But it also, and I think this really dovetails with what Alfie’s talking about in this interview, it just erases all of society that’s going on outside of that. And as we began this episode by saying, and as we talked about with Alfie, Like, that idea that we’re completely controlled by dopamine, and now these tech corporations have figured out how to hack into our dopamine system, that would mean just bracketing out all of those ways that our desires are not actually That’s crazy.

endogenous to ourselves. They’re actually something that we develop in dialogue with and intention with the world outside of us. And it would bracket out also the fact that in a weird way, the dopamine idea or what Christian in our conversations calls the dopamine dispositif from the French sort of Foucauldian understanding.

It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in the sense that, you know, you have thousands and thousands of tech developers saying, yeah, yeah, we found this amazing thing called dopamine in the brain. And that means we can hack into it in order to get people hooked on our apps. And in a weird way, because they then go on to make the apps.

It actually makes the effect that they’re trying to have real in the world in the sense that like Now we are being trained by all of these apps including dating apps and all sorts of other apps as well You know the apps that we give to kids to play as well We’re being trained to have these kind of behavioral responses But that’s not necessarily because that’s something hardwired into the human brain It’s not necessarily because that’s something that’s hardwired into the human brain And if you gave a smartphone to one of our ancestors 10, 000 years ago, it would have the same effect.

It’s, in fact, because the species we have become as we have developed these technologies is one where we are becoming more and more susceptible to these kind of triggers. Because they’re so baked into the apps themselves. And the question would be, like, and I think this comes out of Alfie’s conversation, and it’ll tie into our conversation with Christian in the next episode.

Like, we could be designing these apps much more differently. We could have had a different approach. Future of handheld digital technology than we do now, we could be using our incredible technological gifts in order to become cyborgs in the sense of mixing digital technology with our biological wetware in completely different ways.

The future we have unfortunately chosen, and we never really got to vote on it, is that a handful of unscrupulous corporations and their financial backers are going to determine the future of the most important technological developments in the world. Certainly in our lifetimes, probably in, you know, a large part of human history.

But other paths could have been taken and other paths still could be taken. So as we go into our conversation with Christian Nagler in our next episode it’s worth keeping that in mind because he’s going to really take us on a very deep, deep journey. And actually kind of psychedelic, I found, kind of dive into the thought world of Silicon Valley and what a lot of the people who are building this technology are thinking, and particularly what a lot of the people who are funding this technology are thinking, because Christian’s specialty is looking at venture capitalists within Silicon Valley and its orbit, and how revolutionary technological ideas get funded and really get to kind of create the future that we all have to live and love and desire in.