Book review of “Against The Machine – Being Human In The Age Of The Electronic Mob” by Lee Siegel

On: September 17, 2009
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About Maarten Hoogvliet
I am a MA student of the Media and Culture master New Media at the University of Amsterdam and I have a BA degree in Communication and Multimedia Design at the HRO in Rotterdam, formerly a part of the Willem de Kooning Academy of Art. Next to doing my masters I am a graphic designer/illustrator.

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Lee Siegel was born in New York in 1957 and has Bachelor, Master and Master of Philosophy degrees from Columbia University.

While working as a staff writer at The New Republic, an American magazine on politics and the arts, he encountered anonymous comments on articles in the blog section: “Mr. Siegel came onto many peoples sanctuary, pissed in the urns, farted and then put his dick upon the altar”; “Siegel is a retarded mongoloid”; “Siegel wanted to fuck a child.” (p. 8)

After The New Republic’s decision to keep an open discussion and not deleting the comments, Siegel began replying under the name “sprezzatura”, attacking anonymous commentators and praising himself and his work.

This behavior, pretty hypocrite when reading his book, was discovered by The New Republic and Siegel was suspended. This “conveniently” gave him the time to write “Against The Machine”.

Against The Machine, as one would expect after the incident described above, is an angry complaint against modern technology (especially the internet) reshaping society. Siegel compares himself to Ralph Nader, the American novelist who exposed the car industry criminally neglecting safety issues for financial benefit in “Unsafe at Any Speed (1965)”, which cost thousands of lives.

Identity theft, addictions and child abuse (relating to or caused by online activities) are quite often in the news, leading to discussions about the Internet and its possibilities. The media, being reluctant to accept Internet’s downsides, silences this critique, Siegel writes. The Internet seems to be impervious to criticism, it is quickly done away with as hysteria. Like with the car industry, someone has to set off the bomb. Luckily we have Lee Siegel to open our eyes.

“Criticize the car and you were criticizing democracy. […] that’s just the way things were.” (p. 2)

The Internet is a global hit, Siegel presents himself as one of the pioneers of debunking its hype, and he is debunking it heavily.

The book has two main points; 1) The Internet is an anti-social medium and 2) User generated content is overrated and degrading our culture.

Web 2.0 is generally viewed as connecting individual users and giving them possibilities never imagined, while actually it isolates individuals, sitting home alone, staring at their screens. As an example Siegel situates himself sitting in a Starbucks coffee bar in the pre-internet days, watching people, thinking, listening to stranger’s conversation, etc. It was a social environment where lots of things happened. While Starbucks nowadays has turned into a digital no-man’s land, with people only staring at their laptops, immersed in their own wi-fi reality.

Everyone gets the opportunity to be a producer of content on the Internet, you can write about your day at school or film your pet dancing in a tutu, you name it and it’s online. Siegel argues that user generated content degrades culture and standardizes its users. The only measure for the quality of the content on the Internet is popularity, resulting in high-school-like copycat behavior. Internet culture is finding a group and copying its style (possibly with a little twist). Participatory culture has made the “Youniverse”, as Siegel calls it, into an endless pile of rubbish.

Siegel is heavily techno-deterministic and a fan of Marshall McLuhan (chapter 3 is called “The Me Is The Message” after McLuhan’s “The Medium Is The Message”).
We know techno-pessimism like Siegel’s from scholars like Neil Postman and Andrew Keen, but “Against the Machine” draws an even graver image. Siegel presents the Internet as a dark phenomenon, destroying everything that once was good in the lives of its users. The Internet is the cause of a widespread shortage of simple social, psychological and emotional stimuli.

So, “Against The Machine” is very negative about contemporary technology and culture. Siegel’s arguments do make sense; I myself am not much of a fan of user-generated content and its quality opposed to professional journalism, but in this book there seems to be no space at all for relativity or searching for explanation.

Siegel does not look for deeper cultural or social needs or arguments to explain the rise of technology on this scale. The Internet simply is there and everyone is a victim. Does the Internet really have such horrible effects on both culture as a whole and the individual users? It is simple to say everything is bad, bad, bad. Maybe Siegel and his generation are just to old to lecture about the activities of people who grew up using computers and the Internet, the generation who will be actively shaping society in the future? Siegel didn’t even bother to ask some of the (younger) people actively blogging, or putting home videos on YouTube for their experiences or motivation. A little empirical research wouldn’t have hurt his arguments..

Furthermore, the arguments Siegel makes sometimes seem unilateral, leaving the reader wondering if Siegel’s side of the story is all there is to it. Siegel’s example on Wikipedia (as a means to prove the degradation of information) for instance, discusses a journalist who’s Wiki-page falsely stated “he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby” (p.143). This severe error haunted the journalist for several years afterwards. Of course Wiki can be false, or a vehicle for very bad jokes, but naturally there are counterpoints to be made and countless examples of Wiki being a success.

“Against The Machine” is culturally critical, and that’s fine, the Internet is probably praised too much. Many people will recognize Siegel’s frustrations about petabytes of YouTube video without any cultural value or millions of users blogging away while only a handful of people know how to write well. Everyone is now a potential producer, but the fact is that not everyone has meaningful information to share.

The weakest point is that “Against The Machine” does not look for explanation, it simply identifies; and that lacks historical, cultural and social perspective.

So, if you like the idea of nearly 200 pages of angry Internet-bashing, you’ll be happy reading “Against The Machine”, but don’t expect something much deeper than only the bashing..

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