Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind.

You describe how certain mobile phone based videogames function as an ‘ally of the workplace structure’. In particular, you highlight how the very pointlessness and mindlessness of the distraction offered by games such as Candy Crush or Cookie Clicker fits into the demands of production. As you put it, ‘By appearing as such they are able to make the mundane work we perform for capitalism seem so much the more “productive” and “useful” by contrast.’ So, even when we play these games at work, they ‘not only consolidate our impression that capitalist productivity is comparatively useful and positive, but also make us feel indebted and keen to make amends to an employer after gaming.’ There seems to be a parallel here with the work-leisure cycle of early mass consumerism, analysed by critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. For example, Marcuse discusses a ‘performance principle’ that dismembers pleasure into small doses that fit around work and aid productivity. He states that, ‘The basic control of leisure is achieved by the length of the working day itself, by the tiresome and mechanical routine of alienated labor; these require that leisure be a passive relaxation and a re-creation of energy for work.’[i] Do you see the distractions you describe as an advancement of this cycle?

AB: Absolutely, I have argued something very similar in my earlier book. I suggest that we are experiencing a new wave of what the Victorians called ‘rational recreation,’ a political organization of leisure and enjoyment which is geared towards (a) increasing productivity and (b) preventing revolution. This method was implemented after the reform act of 1832 in the UK when, as E. P. Thompson says, Britain was ‘within an ace of revolution.’ I think we are in such a moment again today, where mobile phones operate to both increase productivity and prevent revolution in a whole variety of ways at the very moment when revolution is again possible.

That said, I hope I’m saying something different to Marcuse too, as my argument is less about leisure as recuperation and more about the prevention of solidarity among workers and the production of a subjectivity based on guilt. The first of these is simple: it’s just that playing Candy Crush replaces talking to your colleagues on your break (a potentially subversive act) and in a wider sense prevents reflection on your working conditions (the most popular time to play is on a lunchbreak, or to and from work). The debt function or guilt function is more tricky I think. I think the best book here is Samo Tomsic’s The Capitalist Unconscious. Following Marx and Lacan, he argues that every citizen is placed in the position of ‘debtor,’ so that we all feel we ‘owe’ something back to the state, which in turn is placed in the position of ‘creditor.’ In such a world, games like Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja or Cookie Clicker serve to re-entrench this relationship. That said, I did find a subversive side to Cookie Clicker when discussing it with a friend of mine

You emphasise a need for more progressive or radical politics to engage with and work inside digital technologies, to better understand how social media algorithms, videogame experiences and so on can structure desires. In fact, you say that, ‘The right always seems to know how to use new media to its advantage.’ Whereas, ‘Subversives, on the other hand, find themselves paralyzed by technophilia.’ Why do you think this is the case?

AB: In the book I’ve tried to give various examples of how the Right have utilized technology to their advantage in a way that the Left have so far been unable to. These examples range from the use and abuse of bots to social organization via Chan boards and forums to election tinkering and what is sometimes called ‘hacktivism,’ something that shouldn’t immediately be associated with the Left at all.

As for why this is the case – which is your difficult question here – I guess I have two provisional answers. The first is that I am not so far away from the kind of conspiracy theorist who thinks that the alt-Right are infiltrating Silicon Valley or otherwise garnering undue levels of influence there, causing the very platforms and latest technologies to be biased in their favour. The second and less tin foil hat answer is that I think that the rise of the Right that we have seen in recent years is a symptom of the direction we have been travelling in for the past several decades. This is true in the direct political sphere in that the rise of Le Pen, Trump and others must be seen as symptomatic of the logic of Clintonism and EU conservatism. In much the same way, the dominance of the online sphere, the videogame world and digital technologies more generally by those with right-wing or protectivist interests must be seen as a symptom of the way those technologies have been developing over the past several decades.

What progressive actors need to do, I have argued in the book, is first make visible these patterns which stack technology in favour of these ideologies and second, become more critically involved with the production and transformation of new technologies so that we can change the direction of technological (and political) travel. To win the war over the future of technology, which I firmly believe to be the most politically important war that we have to wage, we are not up against just the right but also the old neoliberals, the platform capitalists and the emerging political class of tech giants.

If conservative or conformist sensibilities in videogames are often visible in their overt themes, you also discuss how they are present in the kinds of interactions required of the player. As such, even ostensibly liberal and humanitarian narratives may be contradicted by ‘fascist’ gameplay demands that involve ‘the erecting of borders and the expulsion of the other.’ We can also see how games are always in a sense ‘authoritarian’, in that they place the player’s agency in thrall to a clear set of behavioural limits and predefined objectives – literally, ‘there is no alternative’ within their worlds. Is there something about the form of videogames that tends towards more exclusionary and controlling ideological undertones, in terms of the kinds of worlds and activities they simulate most effectively, and their imposition of rules?

AB: This is a very important point for me. I don’t think that videogames are texts and that we can discuss them in the way we discuss films or literature, for examples. Part of what I wanted to do with this book, which is really a very short book just touching on these topics, is to show that we need to create a whole new analytic language to understand how videogames function politically and psychologically. There are all these contradictions in videogames, where the content can be humanitarian but the form fascist, or where the content can be nationalist and conservative but the form or experience of playing can be unsettling and subversive.

On top of that, the distinction between form and content is troubled by videogames and we can’t really fully separate those things. That’s why I have made this claim that videogames are dreams rather than texts. Like dreams, videogames do not function according to a set of conventions, clear separations between form and content, fixed character positions etc, etc. Understood as a strange form of dreaming, we can see how games operate on us in a strange space between consciousness and unconsciousness, changing and transforming us in completely different ways to say, films, literature or television.

However, I want to be clear here that I don’t think that videogames are inherently or structurally biased towards those more exclusionary and controlling ideologies that you mention. Generations of commentators can be forgiven for thinking that, because the evidence is laid out in front of us – most games are obviously ideologically awful. Still, I want to insist that this need not be the case.  As we discussed above, I think this is a space ‘the Left’ and other progressives need to manipulate and work inside, and there is no reason why the world of videogames cannot become a force for progressive or more ethical change.

Your point about videogames as a ‘dreamworld’ is that they get players to enact an externally imposed desire as if it were their own, naturalising the political motivations behind that desire in the process. But you are also interested in the potential to subvert that naturalisation, in the sense that, ‘If the gamer realizes that they experience not their “own” desire but the desire of the other, the apparently natural connection between desire and subjectivity is conceptually threatened, showing desire as neither universal nor unique but constructed politically as such.’ There are certainly numerous existing games that may create this kind of effect, from examples you give in the book such as Persona 4, Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Papers, Please, to others such as The Witness, No More Heroes or Nier: Automata, which all in some way make us shift our perspective on the game world or consider what we are doing within it. Can the techniques these games use become an important tool in questioning dominant ideas? How do such relatively niche (at least in the west) titles challenge the bigger ideological influence of major gaming franchises such as Call of Duty?

AB: Walter Benjamin argued that walking around the arcades of Paris in the nineteenth-century was like walking in a dream, surrounded by commodities and intoxicated by the aura of the scene in which you are wandering. I am trying to argue for the existence of a new kind of dreamworld, embodied by videogames but also present in our wider social life, which we enter not through the glass doors of the arcade but though the screens that surround us on a daily basis. It was the 19th century that was often described as the ‘age of intoxication’ but a great recent book – Laurent de Sutter’s Narcocapitalism – has argued instead that it is now more than ever that we live in an ‘age of anaesthesia’. His subject matter is narcotics, but in a strange way my book is on the same page. I’ve argued that it is now, rather than a hundred and fifty years ago, that life is more ‘dreamlike’ that ever, on the basis that we spend such large portions of our time suspended in a kind of reverie in front of our multitude of screens. I wanted to explore precisely what is happening to us when we are in this bizarre semi-conscious anesthetized reverie and how it changes our politics and, as you rightly say, our desires. The experience of the videogamer, I argue, is the embodiment of this dreamlike world.

Yet, if gaming is the most powerful site in which our subjectivities and desires can be transformed by ideology, then it can also be the site at which that process becomes visible to us. Many games force the gamer to see this reality, making them confront the political and ideological patterns which make the subject think and feel in certain ways. If we make such a realization, we learn not to trust our feelings, impulses and emotions but to see them as produced by political and social forces. For me this is both a very psychoanalytic and a very subversive realization. It’s the subversive edge of videogaming, as far as I’m concerned.

When you talk about subversion as a way of challenging dominant ideological assumptions from within, by using the same influential technologies, the implication is of a kind of counter mass manipulation. Indeed, you say that, ‘embracing this possibility would involve an admission that it is necessary not only to deconstruct existing ideological assumptions but to construct new ones, operating consciously to manipulate the emotions of others. It may be time for the left to accept this necessity.’ Is there anything ethically different about the means or techniques of subversive emotional manipulation in contrast to the dominant emotional manipulation? Or is the only difference in the political ends it serves?

AB: You’ve picked up on the most controversial part of the book here, which I even tried to hide in the text to some extent. Maybe we can just say that given the political and social crises that we face today, I am suggesting that it may be time to start thinking about whether we do need a more concrete program for changing how people relate to technology on a psychological level. This is also something I am continuing to work on with a colleague and readers can see where we are going with it here.

Perhaps I can answer in relation to the previous question though. I am suggesting that progressive and subversive actors might need to manipulate the emotions of others, but that does not mean that those ‘others’ need be unaware or tricked by the process. The logic of the right rests on tricking people into feeling free to think and feel as they wish, and likewise the guys at Google hinted at in the first question want you to feel that their tech is only helping you to realize desire that you already (as if naturally) had. That’s the dominant emotional form of manipulation in the West. Instead of this, we should attempt to show just how political our desires and feelings always are, breaking that dominant illusion of each person with their own unique and free desires. Still, it might not be quite enough simply to recognize this fact that desires are always-already political, we may also need to work towards reprogramming and changing those desires, which is, I think, a rather scarier prospect.



[i] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, 2nd edn. (New York: Vintage, 1962), p.43.