Another the Letter

This newsletter will begin some meta-newsletter commentary drawing from another newsletter. It almost reminds me of the golden days of bloggy blogging about blogs. Sociologist David Beer, in a recent edition of his occasional newsletter, takes a look at the recent rise of newsletters and explains it as writers' reaction against algorithmic feeds. "Newsletters carry the appeal of bypassing algorithmic invisibility," Beer writes. "As people come to experience algorithmic filtering they are likely to feel they are more often on the losing side."

That seems true enough for writers. The newsletter promises a less obscure relation to an audience: If they subscribe, they will receive it, which is not something that having a "following" on social media platforms necessarily guarantees. But it seems less certain for readers, whose behavior has confirmed platforms' contention that users prefer algorithmic sorting over other, more passive-seeming sorts (like a chronological ordering of everything you claim to have wanted). People's constant moaning about email is also an expression of this; they seem to hate email because it can't be filtered as aggressively as other kinds of feeds. Newsletters, of course, come to your email and make a specific claim on your attention, requesting that you live up to the promise implicit in your subscribing, that you would make time for it and read it. But perhaps there is also a special gratification in deleting a newsletter without opening it: I feel like a master of time management when I delete a few newsletter emails without opening them — it's like closing a tab without any anxiety over why I opened it in the first place.

Beer suggests that subscribing to newsletters is an attempt at "unmediation" — removing the algorithmic mediation that imposes itself on other platforms and attempts to determine what you "really want." It is the "pursuit of the personal without personalization." It allows subscribers to reassert their own judgment and consume that reassertion every time a newsletter arrives, whether they read it or not. That suggests how the mode of circulation still affects our disposition toward the content, making "unmediation" another kind of "remediation." Algorithmic feeds set up the fantasy of escaping them, but then that escape becomes the primary meaning of whatever we've escaped to.


This week at Real Life, Robin James writes about Peloton and Spotify's different approaches to music in "Moving in Stereo." Why compare them? James suggests at least three reasons: First, because they are both essentially subscription-based music streaming platforms, though one of the two has a sideline in selling exercise equipment.

Second, because they are both in their way geared toward self-optimization. But whereas Peloton promises to tone your body, Spotify seeks to streamline your feelings, offering music to get you into whatever mood seems appropriate for whatever activity you are engaged in, and training listeners to think of their moods as selectable, as performable with the right effort and accoutrements. That is, Spotify offers a certain training in "vibes," or how to assimilate oneself to the assemblage of inputs that is creating a horizon of possibilities. Vibe is not just a vague word for an indistinct feeling about a situation; it's also, as James points out, "a normative statement about how users ought to feel about it or how they should orient themselves in response to it."

Third, because each posits a different route to the aspirational experience of oneself as belonging to an elite demographic, with the appropriate habitus. For Peloton, this is a matter of foregrounding its commitment to diversity, as manifested in the different workouts it produces that are pegged to different genres. "Genre, as Peloton deploys it, helps the company make the case that it raises the voices and visibility of underrepresented groups, while connecting with users who are members or allies of those groups," James explains. By contrast, many of Spotify's playlists foreground moods or vibes over genres, claiming that the sophisticated listener is a highly adaptable cultural omnivore.

The companies' different dispositions toward genre reflect different approaches to productivity, different ways of getting workers to work harder. James writes: "If Peloton’s music helps users perform work as an amount of time, Spotify’s helps users perform work that is gauged qualitatively, as mood, vibe, or affect." Both approaches, in opposite ways, reproduce familiar inequities and systems of domination. "Peloton uses musical genre and Fordist abstract labor-time to produce distinctly neoliberal, post-Fordist forms of patriarchal racial capitalism that exclude through nominal inclusion," James argues, while Spotify's vibe-oriented approach accomplishes the same thing by training users to configure their emotional states for corporate benefit.


Also this week, in "Speaking for the Past," Ben Lee wrote about a controversial AI-based project called Dimensions in Testimony, which uses natural-language-processing algorithms to power holograms of Holocaust survivors so that can have spontaneous simulated conversations with audiences, who could ask any question they want.

The project is meant to make the stories of Holocaust survivors more compelling to contemporary audiences who might otherwise be indifferent, and further the project of remembrance in the face of rising anti-Semitism and denialism. But putting what are essentially computer-generated words in the mouths of survivors, speaking for them as though they cannot speak sufficiently for themselves, is a questionable method for honoring and prolonging their memory. As Lee writes, "the project offers a solution that competes with history, blurring the lines between simulation and reality. These alterations not only disrupt our understanding of the past but also undermine how we perceive the survivors themselves."

By foregrounding interactivity, the project centers the audience at the expense of the survivors. As Lee writes:

The project orients audiences away from a qualitative experience of listening and attending to the experience of another, toward a parlor trick preoccupied with fidelity and authenticity. Dimensions in Testimony invites audiences to measure its success not in terms of what they learn but rather by the quality of their interaction. Does the system retrieve proper answers to difficult questions? Is it fast enough to properly simulate conversation? Do the holograms seem real? In doing so, the project re-enacts a process of dehumanization, positioning the audience in a role reminiscent of the perpetrator’s: to judge whether someone is “authentically” human.

Interactivity is not a form of listening, and simulation is not history. It's understandable to want to find ways to attract and engage broader audiences, but "engagement" itself is not a neutral condition. Within the context of the broader "experience economy," engagement carries with it an ideological orientation toward novelty, status display, and gimmickry. These threaten to nullify the point, if not the possibility, of remembrance, which is an entirely different project than "relatability."