The Reaction Economy

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From The London Review of Books:

When I​ deleted my Twitter account in September last year, provoked not by Elon Musk’s imminent takeover but by the suffocating quantity of royal coverage gushing from every media source, I was left feeling bereft, as any addict is when their drug is taken away. How was I supposed to react to the news now? And if I had no way of reacting to the news, what did I want from the news? Am I even interested in the news, if I have no opportunity to react to it? Being in the digital public sphere without any means to react is a bit like being trapped in a shopping mall without any money.

The timing was especially awkward since, a fortnight later, a news event came along that cried out for a reaction: Kwasi Kwarteng’s infamous ‘mini-budget’, which threw 45 years of economic orthodoxy overboard, provoked a stand-off between the government and the Bank of England, and very nearly triggered a financial crisis. Twitter gives users thirty days to change their minds after deleting their accounts, to prevent impulsive exits (i.e. to re-ensnare recovering addicts). I was still inside my thirty days. Stopping myself rejoining in order to react to this exceptional political event took considerable self-restraint. The moment I came closest to cracking wasn’t in response to the events themselves, though, but when I was tasked with managing my university department’s social media profile and came across this tweet by a prominent conservative commentator:

The louder the squealing from the left, the more certain @KwasiKwarteng and @trussliz will be that they have got this right.

This is the sort of culture war logic that has become known, courtesy of the American right, as ‘owning the libs’, the primary objective of which is to enrage (‘trigger’) the opposition by fair means or foul. In other online settings, it is known simply as ‘trolling’. The tweeter appeared to see the unhappy reactions of the left as the litmus test of good economic policy: Kwarteng was a good chancellor because he was a successful troll. ‘What an absurd way to judge policy!’ I wanted to respond. ‘This is idiotic!’ Yet, of course, in feeling that impulse, I was the one being drawn back into the economy of reaction. Who’s the idiot now?

Our public sphere is frequently dominated by events you could call ‘reaction chains’, whereby reactions provoke reactions, which provoke further reactions, and so on. Last year’s Oscars ceremony is remembered for just such a reaction chain. When the host, the comedian Chris Rock, made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, her husband, Will Smith, strode up on stage and slapped Rock in the face on live television. For several days afterwards, countless commentators, celebrities and social media users sought to distinguish themselves by their reaction to ‘the slap’. Inevitably, those reactions provoked further reactions, as debate turned to the merits of the positions taken, and suspicion descended on those who hadn’t yet reacted at all. Everyone waited impatiently for the Academy’s official reaction: would Smith be banned, and for how long? The amount of global attention ‘slapgate’ sucked up in the weeks after the ceremony was considerable.

One particular detail added a layer of intrigue. As a result of the blanket television surveillance of the celebrities in the auditorium, there was footage of Will Smith’s immediate reaction to Rock’s joke, which had been laughter. This impulsive response appeared entirely at odds with the anger he displayed on stage just a few seconds later. Was he acting? Was ‘the slap’ real? Or had his wife, perhaps, demanded that he step up? Every frame of the video sequence was pored over, as if it were the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination.

Thanks largely to the spread of smart scrollable devices in the last fifteen years, a certain concept of public participation – what is now known in the managerial vernacular as ‘engagement’ – is common to events of this sort, and to the way they are framed by the media. The individual is not conceived in the same way as in the liberal philosophical tradition – as an autonomous agent, possessed of reason and interests – or in the psychoanalytic tradition, as shaped perhaps unconsciously by past conflicts and injuries. Instead, each of us (celebrities included) becomes a junction box in a vast, complex network, receiving, processing and emitting information in a semi-automatic fashion, and in real time. Information and emotions bounce between these junctions, mutating as they travel, as instantiated in the memes and jokes that spread virally via social media platforms. In this model, each individual reaction is one more item of information thrown back into the network, in search of counter-reactions.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books