(ESSAY) Breaking the time-loop: Regurgitating Grafton Tanner’s The Circle of the Snake
Ever heard of the snake that eats its own tail? Ever found yourself in the Netflix infinity room of another high school tv drama? Ever wondered why Instagram keeps trying to sell you those mystery ~vintage garms~? In this essay, Dan Power unravels the coils of nostalgia, clickbait and algorithmic feedback loops online, engaging with Grafton Tanner’s recent book The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech (Zer0 Books, 2020). Reflecting on Kanye’s presidency run, the twitterscapes of Dril’s ‘outsider art’ and personal encounters with sentimental regression in lockdown, ‘Breaking the time-loop’ gives an overview on the temporal, affective and aesthetic factors that hold us in our digital addictions.
In The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech (Zer0 Books, 2020), Grafton Tanner deftly dispels the illusion of a twenty-first century Big Tech utopia. He doesn’t just lament the current state of affairs, and he doesn’t just explain how we got to the precipice of dystopia — he reveals clearly, and alarmingly, why we appear unable to leave.
The Big Tech utopia is an illusion perpetuated by endemic nostalgia. Nostalgia is at worst a trauma response, at best an escape from a melancholic present. It takes us back to a point in our lives where insurmountable problems didn’t have to be contended with. In the twenty-first century, it takes us to a time when technology was a swelling sea of emerging possibility. Nostalgia today pervades many parts of our culture, and it’s embedded into the structure of the sites that guide our lives. Society is glitching out, looping over, and we are caught in its time warp. We’re encouraged to ignore the emerging reality of disinformation, chaos, political division. We’re instructed not to mourn but to blindly embrace the coming post-internet utopia. Problems matter less when solutions are on their way. The harder we believe, the less we need to do.
In The Circle of the Snake, Tanner writes that in the past, ‘technophilia’ had ‘led many to believe the Internet would knock down the last known pillars of oppression. And the technology-to-come, such as virtual reality, would allow humans limitless forms of expression’. In the early days of the internet this freedom was exercised by its population. People would make blogs and sites, carving out their own space online. We built the plaza in our own image, and this creative control over the internet — the idea of the internet as a space of communion and not just communication — has been steadily eroded by the Big Tech giants. Instead of building our own homes within the virtual plaza, we now rent them from corporations. Some might let us decorate, but for the most part we’re lucky to be given the option of day or night mode, of turning the lights on or off. Our lived experience of the plaza is managed from above. To escape this management is to exit the big building complex, to wander into the edgelands of small blogs and independent stores. But this is difficult to do, because these locations are poorly signposted and potentially dangerous.
It’s in this wilderness-turned-wasteland that we’re losing touch, not just with a sense of place but also an awareness of time — content from today sits side-by-side with reposts and reimaginings of songs and images from years before, each echo of the past pasted straight to the top of the timeline, as if brand new. ‘For some, confusion eventually sets in: what is real and what am I imagining?’ (Tanner 2020). The timeline is expanding, sinking into ether. We are divorced from history and location, the virtual plaza is wrapped around the world, turning it into a characterless, timeless, commercial non-place.
This erosion of cultural identity is perpetuated by diluted sincerity. According to David Foster Wallace, even the worst TV actors are ‘absolute geniuses at seeming unwatched’, and in our hyper-connected world — increasingly since lockdown has pushed us further into the digital sphere — this principle is extended to everyone. Sincerity is impossible in the internet’s intrinsically performative spaces: the closest we can get is a carefully constructed illusion. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) Oscar Wilde writes: ‘is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities’. What is the internet if not one being with a million personalities, one single text with a million authors? Tanner touches on this too: in the formless whirlwind of the virtual ‘there is no longer any proscenium, no barrier between actor and audience. There is only a smooth, flat stage extending in all directions at once...’ (2020). The virtual plaza, the flat infinity grid of a vaporwave video; a mesmerising, restless, glistening nothing. Perhaps we built the internet in the image of the world — we certainly transcribe its contents into compatible, sharable forms. What the internet offers us might once have been a warped reflection of reality, but now it has grown and swollen and mutated into something entirely of its own. Discourse has become a babble (see Tanner’s 2016 book Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts) with no discernible language. Events still occur but within substantial disreality. We shout and flail into an ever-expanding void.
All the world’s a stage, yes, and the virtual plaza is no different. Here our masks and costumes are profile pictures, our characters simplified and hyper-realised personas, marionettes of ourselves projected onto screens. But who is pulling the strings? As Tanner argues, the goal of the social media giants ‘is to harvest as much information from a given person as possible in order to recommend and even predict that person’s desires’ (2020). Once our desires are anticipated, mediated and ultimately decided by million-dollar algorithms, aspects of society from cultural trends to the results of elections become malleable in the hands of anyone who knows how to game the system. As Tanner makes clear, ‘because Valley technocrats believe the brain to be like a machine, they think they can hack it’. One of the most potent tools for manipulation that these algorithms wield is weaponised nostalgia.
We live in the past, in a culture of reboots and remakes and recirculated ideas. What is a meme if not the reboot taken to its logical conclusion, a thriving economy of repetition? To maintain their market dominance and cultural capital, Big Tech relies on our continued favour, on us delving into the past and diverting attention from the present. The delusion that technology will save us from all current catastrophes is maintained by keeping us locked in an era when the technological revolution is still yet to come, before it’s had a chance to fail. We have not fallen into this feedback loop by mistake.
The loop isn’t solely sustained by the regurgitation of the past, the repackaging of music and fashion one decade at a time. Considering the instant nostalgia of social media, Tanner describes ‘the experience of scrolling down early Instagram feeds [as] flipping through photo albums from lost decades’ (2020). Filters rework HD reality into a hazy nostalgic dream. Going beyond the aesthetic veneer of the past, Facebook and Snapchat will often bring posts from your past lives up to the top of your feed, reminding you a whole year has passed since you did something that feels like yesterday — and sometimes it’s comforting to look back, or to feel like time has passed and your life is progressing. But also it can be alarming — have you really lived a year’s worth of life since then? Do you have anything to show for it?
Has anyone else felt like they’ve regressed in the last year? I’ve been rewatching a lot of things, rereading a lot of things, picking and mixing content experiences from my past in a desperate attempt at time-travel. Is it a coincidence that nostalgia has been amplified in lockdown, a time where the internet replaced the front door as our entrance into the outside world? Through online recursion, attachment to the present is turned into a horror. Facebook’s reminders link your present inactivity to whatever wild party you were at in 2019, making personal nostalgia a problematic escape — but even when personal nostalgia becomes painful there’s dependable, familiar content, content kept pristine in the Netflix archives, ready to be played and replayed when required.
Nostalgia takes us to the past when the present becomes unbearable. The worse things get the more nostalgic we become, and so the more algorithms pick up on this desire and feed nostalgia back to us. This is the feedback loop, the circle of the ouroboros. As Tanner warns, ‘when predictive analytics determine taste, the result is a culture of recursion’ (2020).
Twitter was until recently entirely timeless. If I remember correctly — and it’s possible I don’t — tweets used to appear entirely in chronological order. Scrolling down the feed, layer after layer, was an act of calibration, like flicking through the thinnest sheets of sedimentary rock and peeling back layers of the past a few seconds at a time. The site design was OLD and the format rarely updated – it felt perfect, comfortably outdated but still compatible with the emerging society it would be instrumental in shaping. So maybe that’s why its recent updates have been widely regarded as naff. With Fleets the present was dismissed – by offering Fleets as a fleeting alternative to the tweet (which could previously have been considered a throwaway morsel of content) the focus for tweeting changes, and by contrast tweets could be seen to make a relatively lasting impact. Maybe this reframing is a product of the news media’s changing relationship to Twitter (remember Donald Trump?), or maybe it’s simply a way of Twitter maintaining engagement from their followers. Either way the effect is the same — tweets are no longer throwaway snippets or snapshots of thought, but become statements buried in code, waiting to be unearthed by any amateur internet archaeologist. A program once listed all of these snippets, stacked them in chronological order and flushed them down the timeline into the sewers of the past. Now an algorithm sifts through them, sanitises them, and arranges them for us to view. The structure of a social media database is inherently timeless. With regurgitation comes temporal displacement, opening the door for nostalgia. And when nostalgia is determined by the output of an algorithm and then shared instantly to millions of people, those with the ability to manipulate or game the system have the power to manipulate culture itself, by altering what the internet presents to us as an impartial recreation of the world.
Tanner is keenly aware of this, stating ‘those in power have the authority to conjure myths by which the rest of us live. Storytelling is a privileged art’ (2020). Trump was at heart a salesman, a storyteller. Despite playing the fool he knew how to harness the networked power of online information peddlers, making outlandish statements which seemed engineered to bait the headline writers of the plaza, and on a daily basis they were seized upon and widely circulated through the cables and veins of the network. Trump was also a reality TV star — attention was his medium. Tanner writes at length about the machinations of the attention economy, and how it can be harnessed or hijacked by those with insidious intentions. ‘Operating for years at the periphery of legitimate political debate, the alt-right coalesced online thanks to the extremism that drives the attention economy’. It’s no secret that extreme emotion gets clicks, and click-bait consciously taps into this market. But when this clickbait is distributed instantly, temporally displaced then widely dispersed by algorithms, its effect ripples far beyond the moment of the original post. Toxicity seeps into the timeline itself, it echoes and is echoed, appearing to come from all directions instead of one. It replays at delayed speeds, seeming to be a call and response rather than one single ugly cry.
The Circle of the Snake notes that far-right rhetoric doesn’t simply hark back to times which disgruntled people might think better than the present, but insists that these misguided ideals are still alive in the present moment. ‘Nostalgia is an emotion of control. What we participate in when we reboot the past is a desperate mission to control history — to revise, relive, or possibly reclaim it... But as nostalgic people yearn to control time, so too are they controlled’ (Tanner 2020).
In 2020, Kanye West launched a bid to make himself the President of the United States. At his first campaign rally in South Carolina the audience were just a few feet away, encouraged to record and subsequently share much of what occurred. Kanye’s dumb jokes, outlandish problematic statements, and even a tearful confession — a full range of potentially viral clickbait content — was delivered directly into these cameras, and then shared widely across the internet.
A desire to break free from cultural stagnation is apparent in the campaign message. The way we get there is not clear, but a manic drive for radical social upheaval exists. As Kanye said during the rally, ‘I went through a process of one thing leading to the next thing, leading to the next thing, leading to the next thing... [but] the next thing is the same thing! It’s a cycle, it’s the same thing. We are trapped in a loop. We are going to break that trap’.
While the ideas were muddled and conflicting, the feelings of desperation and uncertainty were clear. As well as delivering a message which was emotionally affecting (and so claimed a stake in America’s attention economy), and which seemed designed for wide and rapid circulation online, Kanye’s rally was a moment, a real-life event tied to a specific point in time. The number ‘2020’ was shaved into the back of his head, immediately dating the performance. The merchandise already feels retro.
Perhaps in 2024 if Kanye runs again (as he has hinted he will) these videos will resurface, and the datedness of the event will generate a nostalgic image of an outsider struggling to break into the political sphere (although of course Kanye is far from an outsider), and a nostalgia for a time when anything was possible and nothing was off the table in American politics. This nostalgia of course would be manufactured, created from scratch, but it might still hold the same potency. Perhaps creating a nostalgia which new ideas later thrive on is one way we can break out of the cultural feedback loop? Culture has stopped progressing naturally, but it might be possible to kick-start it artificially.
This is a problematic notion, since artificially sustaining culture has been done in the past, and is one of the main culprits of cultural recursion and subsequent regression. How many totalitarian states have used or still use state-owned media to sustain the illusion they want their citizens to live in? In Hypernormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis makes the case that when things start seeming not-quite-real then your society is failing — it performs itself to reinforce (or rather enforce) the claims to authority it never needed to justify before. The fakeness of society, the performance of government, becomes illuminated and hyper-real. The internet may have handed power from governments to individuals, allowing them to recreate society their own way, developing their own subcultures at a turbocharged rate, but then this power was taken back from internet users, being bought up by the Big Tech corporations who are only kept in check by governments whose claims to control are looking increasingly fragile. Unrest persists. Things get extreme to the point of unbelievability.
As the alt-right grows online and spills from its dark corners of the web into the light of mainstream discourse, so too the collective action by left-wing groups (Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion) becomes more consistent, more forceful, more effective. Collective action is what is needed to drive change within this networked reality, to modify the simulation. Maybe through collective networked good intentions we can update our reality from a dystopia into a utopia.
At the moment, there are certain unwritten codes of conduct that dictate what content performs well on social media platforms. ‘Anything challenging monocultural expectations on Instagram — anything grotesque, mundane, or truly strange that risks falling into oblivion because it’s so outré — is often overshadowed by doctored photos of beautiful landscapes and fitness drink advertisements’ (Tanner 2020). Of all the mainstream social medias, Twitter was perhaps the last bastion of genuine emotional expression. Unlike Instagram (where the ability to filter and perfect your pictures, and the peer pressure from every glossy influencer friend or ad urges you towards curating the most picturesque version of your life story), or Facebook (where you have to post as the version of yourself that all your different friend and family groups will recognise / not be alarmed by), Twitter is more frequently anonymous, and full of brain-dead and willfully moronic content. Consider Dril as an outsider artist, an alt-hero, an underdog beating the algorithmic odds.
Maybe this is heroism, maybe stupidity will save us. Alternatively, it might be self-destruction. Tanner is less optimistic that internet users can create change within the parameters Big Tech has set — this would require true freedom, and not the post-internet’s pacifying simulation of choice. We are addicted, held captive by the digital — ‘technology has us by the brain stem’ (Tanner 2020) — and we have to play by the rules Big Tech has written. While nostalgia traps us in the past, fake promises of coming utopia push us towards a future which might never exist. The result is that we feel removed from the present, feel powerless to change what happens here. Culture has stopped, the world has ended. And now we wait.
The Circle of the Snake is out now — you can pick up a copy from the SPAM shopfront on Bookshop.org.
Text: Dan Power
Image credits (in order of appearance): Matt Groening