February 10, 2008

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

The New York Times Book Review published a review last week of Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

The reviewer, John Lanchester, distinguishes two types of critics of the internet, those who think it’s trivial and those who think it is transforming culture in a negative way. Siegel is in the latter category. As the Lanchester writes,

Siegel makes the strong point that “what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact, its exact opposite.” People sitting on their own in front of computer screens — this once would have been called disconnectedness or atomization. Siegel is blistering on the “surreal world of Web 2.0, where the rhetoric of democracy, freedom and access is often a fig leaf for antidemocratic and coercive rhetoric; where commercial ambitions dress up in the sheep’s clothing of humanistic values; and where, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest.”

Another reviewer for the Times, Janet Maslin, reviewed this book last month. Actually, if you’re only going to read one of the reviews, I’d recommend this one. Here’s a bit from it:

He is quick to insist that most of those opportunities [for creativity and interactivity on the web] boil down to business matters, and that “the Internet’s vision of ‘consumers’ as ‘producers’ has turned inner life into an advanced type of commodity.” At the risk of harping heavily on this central point, Mr. Siegel provides example after example of how surreptitiously this process of co-option works.

He shows, for instance, how the fan of a television show can be led to a Web site where the show can be approached in a supposedly interactive fashion. “ ‘Which character are you most like?’ ” he asks, citing a question posed about “Grey’s Anatomy.” And parenthetically: “(You’ll also have to read an ad for a vaccine against genital warts. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.)”

The price of such diversions is, in Mr. Siegel’s succinct appraisal, devastating. It turns our passive, private, spontaneous appreciation of popular culture into something active, public and market-driven. It leads us to confuse self-expression (which is, of course, all about us) with art (which more generously “speaks to us even though it doesn’t know we’re there”). It has created what Mr. Siegel calls the first true mass culture, though he cites critics who in 1957 worried about how culture could be degraded by the masses. Culture for the masses, he says, was a worry of the past. Culture by the masses is what is being born in the present and will shape the future.

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3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for pointing out these reviews. I think it’s important to note, though, that there are more than two ways to think critically about the Internet, and it’s possible to have a more nuanced argument or understanding than that of Siegel.

    Siegel is of course right that a lot of the democratic rhetoric about the Internet is overblown, but it still holds great possibility for democracy, for example in the way it has made alternative news sources available to a much wider audience, or as Lanchester’s review points out, the online proliferation of non-English material.

    It’s important to read critics like Siegel who shake us out of our unthinking optimism, but if we really want to understand the Internet we need to follow that with some careful thinking.

    Comment by Bo Kinney — February 11, 2008 @ 9:25 am

  2. Bo, have you read the book? If you’re saying that Siegel is not a careful thinker without having read his book, then I think your comment is a good example of the shallowness of much discussion on the internet. No offense, but what I see is a statement based on what you would like to think.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — February 11, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  3. No, I hadn’t heard of Siegel until I came across your post, which is why I appreciate your links to the reviews of his book.

    My comment was based on Lanchester’s review, which describes Siegel as “angry” and “provincial”:

    “Against the Machine” is an intemperate book. Siegel is too quick to attribute mercantile or otherwise venal motives to people with whom he disagrees…He is hasty, and at times careless…The ramped-up affect of “Against the Machine,” its air of haste and its ad hominem quality are uncomfortably reminiscent of the blogs Siegel so dislikes.

    So if this is true, I think it might be a good idea to read muckrakers like Siegel with the same critical approach you would read unthinking technological optimists.

    My point, incidentally, was a small one: mainly I’m glad that you linked to these reviews because Siegel seems like an important thinker to bump up against. I just don’t agree that critics of the Internet can be so neatly grouped into the categories you specify. (Those are your categories, by the way, not Lanchester’s. He only says that Siegel doesn’t fit into the first category, not that he is representative of a second.)

    The best Internet critics I have read (Cass Sunstein comes to mind) neither write it off as trivial nor condemn it for being negatively transformative. I don’t think it’s helpful to suggest that these are the only possibilities.

    Comment by Bo Kinney — February 12, 2008 @ 11:23 am

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