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 ‚Äúwhat the Internet hypes as ‚Äòconnectivity‚Äô is, in fact, its exact opposite.‚Äù People sitting on their own in front of computer screens ‚Äî this once would have been called disconnectedness or atomization. Siegel is blistering on the ‚Äúsurreal 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‚Äôs 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.‚Äù
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 ‚Äúthe Internet‚Äôs vision of ‚Äòconsumers‚Äô as ‚Äòproducers‚Äô has turned inner life into an advanced type of commodity.‚Äù 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. ‚Äú ‚ÄòWhich character are you most like?‚Äô ‚Äù he asks, citing a question posed about ‚ÄúGrey‚Äôs Anatomy.‚Äù And parenthetically: ‚Äú(You‚Äôll also have to read an ad for a vaccine against genital warts. Ask your doctor if it‚Äôs right for you.)‚Äù
The price of such diversions is, in Mr. Siegel‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúspeaks to us even though it doesn‚Äôt know we‚Äôre there‚Äù). 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.