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Book Review: Against the Machine

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Mahendra Mahey reviews a book which examines popular Internet culture and how it may be having negative effects on many of us.

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

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Era of the Electronic Mob. By Lee Siegel, Serpent's Tail, 2008, ISBN 978-1846686979, 192 pages.

As I spend a large part of my day (as I have for the last 12 years) in front of a computer screen connected to the Internet, I wondered what I was going to learn about a book that examines the effect that this technology has had on our culture, our minds and the way we socialise.

Lee Siegel is introduced as a cultural commentator and art critic who has written several books on these subjects as well as popular culture. He was also a writer and reviewer for The Nation [1], Slate [2], Harper's [3] and LA Times Book Review [4]. He lives in New Jersey in the US with his wife and son.

Content of the Work

Against the Machine comes in three parts plus an introduction and epilogue.

The introduction outlines the motivation for Siegel writing this book. First of all, he does not claim everything the Internet has achieved is bad. Siegel believes that there are many books that have been written praising the benefits and uses of the Internet (some of which he mentions); but he claims that few have been written questioning seriously, in a critical, detached way the effect the Internet is having on the way we live our lives.

Siegel believes that there are many negative forces that are driving the Internet in recent times: the cult and craving of popularity, a crowd mentality where individuals are continually looking to the masses for approval, originality being stifled by constant imitation, democratic principles being subverted, while many of the people driving development are being lead by commercialism and self-interest. By way of a metaphor he recalls the development of the car and how it too represented unstoppable progress, a kind of 'cool', that once we had it we could never go back to what existed before. If you tried to criticise cars in the early days, it was almost as if you were criticising democracy and freedom! However, in 1965, Ralph Nader wrote a book called Unsafe at any Speed [5] which was an exposé of the motor industry and car safety. The book criticised the industry for failing to make the changes to cars earlier which could have made them a lot safer to drive, preventing thousands of unnecessary deaths. Subsequently, as a result of this devastating critique, pressure grew on manufacturers to improve car design with safety in mind. Many people no longer saw cars through the rose-tinted spectacles they once wore. The author argues that even though the Internet also represents a kind of 'unstoppable, non-reversible progress', we need to examine the negative aspects on humanity carefully, and not blindly accept all its effects as beneficial.

Siegel contends that technology is merely a reflection of the people using it and therefore only serves to amplify existing human strengths and weaknesses; moreover that our personal values and sense of morality are what define technology as good or bad, not the technology itself. The Internet magnifies pathological behaviour but it does not create it.

Another possible motivation for writing this book derives from a 'misadventure' which befell Siegel when writing a cultural blog for the political journal The New Republic. Siegel had received some very hateful comments from anonymous posters and after complaints to his editors requesting they remove them fell on deaf ears, he decided (in frustration) to exact a somewhat childish revenge (which he admits in subsequent interviews). In response to 'thuggish anonymity' as he described it, he too created an 'anonymous' persona called 'sprezzatura' (meaning someone who makes difficult things appear easy) who then attacked the 'anonymous thugs' with their own tools. Unfortunately, Lee's pride prevented him from disguising his writing style and he was quickly discovered but not before he had enraged many in the blogosphere, ironically being pilloried for representing the worst of 'thuggish anonymity' and on the way, coining a new word 'blogofacism'. The 'incident' is described in more detail in an interview by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine [6] and subsequently in the Guardian newspaper (also available on online [7]).

Siegel's central argument is that we - or at least those of us with access - should not allow the Internet to tarnish our lives now that it has become a permanent feature.

Part one (in three chapters) sets the context for Siegel's main arguments of why we should be thinking critically about the impact of Internet culture on our humanity. He argues that we have not been given a choice, it has been foisted upon us, and we need to question its impact on us as a society.

Siegel examines the kind of world we have created where we sit at our screens and buy, chat, become someone else, etc. It appears that we are shaping a vast illusion. We seem to be spending more and more time alone and living in our minds, Siegel laments. Our primary reason for using the Web seems to be for immediate gratification. This has become particularly important with the collapse of families and more people living alone. For some the only reality that exists is the internal one.

He argues that the main message of the Internet is the 'ego' which is allowed to run riot. Society is becoming a 'look-at-me culture' where social networks are actually a contradiction; how is it really possible to have hundreds of 'friends'? What does this mean for real friendship and relationships? Siegel believes that this is having an erosive effect on the very fabric of society. The Internet is teaching us to package ourselves and perform as if in front of a camera. The best formula for success, i.e. to be loved and recognised, appears to be imitation. In fact, to be successful, you must sound more like everyone else than anyone else can.

The author points to a myth of 'self- expression' on the Internet, as in reality we are far too preoccupied with being liked and accepted to dare to express anything that would attract derision. Page rank, viewing figures, and 'friends' (who are in reality just 'connections') represent the new currency. Many who use this currency, he contends, appear isolated, asocial individuals who are not fully formed adults, more 'pre-adults', especially in the language they use. Siegel believes that the Internet provides the first social environment to serve these people's needs. Yet other voices, the quiet ones, are being drowned out.

Siegel warns us of the 'Internet boosters', people who use the rhetoric of freedom and democracy, choice and access to justify the Internet; but in fact they conceal their greed and blind self-interest and what they are really promoting: either themselves or some money-making opportunity.

Siegel introduces the term 'transvaluation', i.e. where a word or concept is taken out of its original context to mean new things, where words are distorted and manipulated. He argues that the language of many Internet evangelists or Internet boosters is littered with such transvaluations. For example, they 'transvalue' words like 'revolution' and 'rebellion' to describe the effect of the Internet on our lives and where 'self-expression' equals 'creativity'. The ability to write what you want, create video, etc, does not always mean it is 'creative', indeed most is imitation. Siegel argues that in reality the Internet is a marvel of convenience and a technical innovation but should not be seen in 'revolutionary terms'.

Much of what motivates Internet boosters is commercial. There always seems to be the bottom line; seemingly innocent ventures eventually reveal themselves as commercial in essence when someone asks where is the business model to continue to support them. The Internet is the most deliberate, purposeful environment ever created according to Siegel.

Part two, again with three chapters, focuses much more specifically on the cult, exaltation and indiscriminate hunger for popularity on the Internet by many of its regular users and contributors. The author argues that many on the Web will do anything for popularity and approval even suppressing their own originality.

Many Internet boosters had predicted that demassification, more choice and access would result because of the Internet. However, Siegel suggests that was is in fact happening is a 'homogenization' largely because of the cult of popularity, fear of disapproval and possibly the way the technology is ranking content. Siegel argues that to a large extent Internet culture is about finding a clique or group and striving to reproduce its style with the possibility of adding some adorable non-threatening superficial twist. It resembles schoolchildren wanting to be with the 'in-crowd' or even any 'in-crowd'. As a result, a new mob is emerging, the mob motivated by popularity.

Siegel again talks about concepts taken from the business world such as the 'tipping point' where 'trends', 'styles', 'tip' into craze because of popularity and illustrates how such ideas shape the development of the Internet. Siegel argues that we need to wake up to the highly purposeful way vested interests are imposed upon us.

Siegel bemoans the decrease in leisure time as more of us spend more time online, for example trying to sell ourselves with carefully crafted profiles, blogs etc. The separation between work and play grows fuzzier. We send e-mails, check eBay, keep up to date with latest news gossip, and read Facebook updates.

Siegel writes entertainingly about the popular TV programme American Idol, a singing contest where the most successful performers are those who can imitate previously popular singers. He believes that such imitative features are being aped in many ways on the Internet.

Part 3 (three chapters) is a really scathing attack on Web 2.0.

Lee Siegel invites us to imagine a world where we could write what we want, to millions of people, with impunity. He argues that is exactly what blogging allows us to do. Yet strong opinions need little research or fact checking, yet the blog has quickly gained influence and popularity, especially in the news media. He fears this trend will reduce what the truth is to whoever shouts the loudest. Who is going to listen if your considered insights are obscured and buried deep in the Google's search rankings under a mountain of unchecked facts and opinions?

Siegel emphasises that not everyone has the skill to be a writer. He decries the elevated status accorded badly written or ill-chosen content that is without merit. He wants to value skill and expertise and the fact that not anyone can be a journalist for example; we would never accept 'citizen heart surgeons', yet we seem to accept 'citizen journalists' readily enough.

Siegel admits that old print-based media are terrified of new technology and many journalists and media companies are now embracing blogging. In fact many professional journalists have managed to edge out other bloggers in terms of popularity with their own respected blogs in similar subject domains. He also warns that many journalists have become sheepish and ingratiating when online.

Another Web 2.0 feature in Siegel's sights is Wikipedia. He strongly criticises the fact that anyone can add entries and he highlights the issues where false entries are added and not checked for accuracy. He argues that Wikipedia could be one of the first encyclopaedias to include gossip. Traditional publishing models may be flawed but they retain more checks, balances and accountability. There are many lessons to be learned from old news media, which is where Siegel originates from professionally.

Siegel goes on to say that most of Wikipedia is 'information' masquerading as 'knowledge'. He points to the distinction between the huge amount of 'information' which is not in a context and 'knowledge' which is essentially about real understanding - understanding the causes, consequences, history, development and context. He makes the strong case that you can be armed with a lot of 'information', yet have very little understanding. Real knowledge is being buried while many of us crave irrelevant information from random multiple divergent sources (guilty as charged!).

Siegel contends that the only way to be free of all these negative influences is to practise critical detachment and seek knowledge and understanding. This is the only way we can guarantee a free society with personal autonomy.

In conclusion, Siegel points out that Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom.

In the epilogue, Siegel predicts a new species 'homo interneticus', which may already describe many of us. He predicts that we will lose our freedom to live apart from other people's uses for us. The world will shrink to ourselves. We we will become very impatient (which is already happening), especially when our basic desires are not being met. We will surround ourselves with goods and services, and we will be more distracted and appear busier, even though we have actually become more isolated. We will measure people by their capacity to please or gratify us, and eventually the only face we will be able to face is our own.

Personal Reactions to This Work

The book was published in early 2008 (originally in hardback) and if you would like to see and listen to interviews / presentations that Siegel has given since publication, there are several: in February 2008 on The Daily Show with American satirist John Stewart [8] (around 5 minutes), a presentation and discussion at 'Authors@Google' he gave in April 2008 [9] (just under a hour) and an interview with BBC Click (a computer technology magazine) [10] (6 minutes) in July 2008. I must admit they helped a lot in understanding Siegel's arguments.

It is important to note that the book is written from an American perspective. One minor point is that a bibliography would have been helpful as I was not aware of some of the works Siegel mentions. Beyond that, it is certainly written in an entertaining and controversial way.

It is not a balanced piece of writing, and deliberately so. From the beginning he takes a combative stance and possibly exaggerates some of the negative aspects in an entertaining yet serious way. Siegel calls for serious reflection on the effect the Internet is having on our culture. I feel that Siegel believes that he is trying to take on the Web's show-offs and bullies. It does seem that many more people are choosing to interact with various Web 2.0 technologies; yet that does not necessarily mean that such a take-up is having a positive effect on human relationships.

A fair amount of repetition in the book leads me to wonder how the book was created, i.e. to speculate whether it is a collection of essays put together at different times? Throughout, the 'Internet' is almost characterised as a person or single entity - perhaps a literary device to bolster Siegel's standpoint. I am sure Siegel realises that in reality cyberspace is more than one person and not everyone is driven by the negative forces he mentions. There are plenty of examples of genuine humanity out there. Because of this I think Siegel's microscope is on the popular aspects of the Internet, there is no examination of scholarly work for example - possibly because there are too many communities on the Web to be able to focus on all.

Siegel's call to remove anonymity from the Web is unrealistic, in my view, at least for the foreseeable future. To choose anonymity may be childish, it may be cunning and cowardly, but it can also be beneficial on occasions, e.g. whistle blowing (e.g. Anonymous (group) [11]). One could argue that the Internet provides a voice for shy people too who would not normally feel brave enough to say something in a social situation. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Siegel provides no space to discuss this and I am not sure whether this is deliberate or not. Siegel should acknowledge that many people will only chat to others they know, and they are part of the Web also.

I agree with Siegel that just because people can go online and contribute to the Web, especially using Web 2.0-type technologies, does not guarantee an increase in intelligent, competent, knowledgeable contributions to discussions and debates. Expertise, skill, knowledge and wisdom do need to be respected and valued more than either popularity or de-contextualised unchecked information on the Web. Siegel does not really provide any answers on how this may be done in his book, but has done so in subsequent interviews, such as creating an 'anti-google' that does not page rank and is based on contextualised knowledge.

There have been many initiatives that have tried to quality-check information on the Internet and provide rich metadata, for example Intute [12] (formally the Resource Discovery Network), Tim Berners-Lee's recently established World Wide Web Foundation [13], FactCheck.Org which (according to its Web site) has been trying to check facts in the Obama / McCain 2008 presidential campaign [14] to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. How technology or media can be harnessed to spread lies, conspiracy theories or fake history is nothing new and is well described in Counterknowledge by Damian Thompson [15].

Siegel's point about a lot of content on the Web becoming 'homogenous' definitely holds water, as do his warnings about the cult of popularity, the 'ego' running wild and imitation.

The distinction he makes between knowledge and information also holds true. Knowledge requires considerable effort, time, reflection, consideration and understanding. Knowledge is drowning under the weight of 'information overload'. Information which is easy to obtain, requires little analysis and therefore provides immediate gratification. This information may consist of opinions, trivia and unchecked facts. As a result untruths are being perpetuated and accepted as fact to a greater extent than ever before, because of the ubiquitous nature of the technology propagating them.

However the phenomenon of our increasing insularity and and a society driven by personal demands has been a topic for debate by philosophers, sociologists, social scientists for many years before the advent of the Web, at least since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Although Siegel quotes some work into cyberscepticism [17] [18] he could have used both sources more effectively throughout the book to back up his arguments.

I agree that there are many things from traditional media such as editorial standards that should not be lost even though they are also flawed. But surely they have to be better than the lack of editorial control in various places on the Web. I feel that the editorial process is all about trust, respect and a little humility as not everyone can be a great writer. When you know the public eye will be on you it is good to go through that process, as will this article text.

I agree with Siegel that people do change when the camera is on them and that cannot be good for society especially when people are performing and packaging themselves for other people all the time. Again, nothing new, the Web is just another means, and therefore raises all sorts of questions about our sincerity in social situations.

Siegel makes many relevant points about blogging and I do feel that although the original purpose for blogs was for individuals to set up and express their opinions, I think I have to agree that their value has been artificially inflated. It must be said that there are bloggers whose opinions, knowledge and judgement are well respected and they can be useful places to visit for particular types of information e.g. a personal view on a conference, event, news item. Some of the more popular blogs do appear to be a clique or 'in-crowd'. Perhaps their current elevated status should be reconsidered when we realise they are often ranked higher than more scholarly sources of information.

I must admit many of the social networking sites feel like a popularity contest. My teenage son was appalled by a well-known social networking site because it obliged him to rank his friends in order of popularity. He was horrified when he realised that they were able to see where they stood in the 'pecking order'. To his credit he decided that was all wrong, and withdrew from the site in disgust.

Conclusion

I would say that this was not an easy book to read as it required a fair bit of research. However, it is certainly an entertaining, controversial and thought-provoking work. I am sure it will evince strong opinions among many who read it. Siegel's fundamental question is: are we changing for the worse and has the Web contributed to this decline? I am not certain (though some of us are), but I probably agree.

Editor's note: Readers may be interested in a potential travelling companion of Lee Siegel in the form of Andrew Keen, whose book The Cult of the Amateur was reviewed in Ariadne in the Autumn 2007 issue.

References

  1. The Nation http://www.thenation.com/
  2. Slate Magazine http://www.slate.com/
  3. Harper's Magazine http://harpers.org/
  4. Book Reviews and News - Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/features/books/
  5. Nader, R. "Unsafe At Any Speed', Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass, 1965
  6. Bye-Bye Blogger - New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/magazine/17wwln_q4.html
  7. The critic bites back: How the US writer Lee Siegel went undercover to confront an army of bloggers http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/may/27/art.culture
  8. Lee Siegel, The Daily Show, Comedy Central http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=156816&title=lee-siegel
  9. YouTube - Authors@Google: Lee Siegel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNMUtau8D30
  10. Experts' warnings of Web's future http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/click_online/7466085.stm#2
  11. Anonymous (group) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_(group)
  12. Intute - the best Web resources for education and research - http://www.intute.ac.uk/
  13. World Wide Web Foundation - http://www.webfoundation.org/
  14. FactCheck.Org - http://www.factcheck.org/
  15. Thompson, D. Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History, Atlantic Books, 2008

Author Details

Mahendra Mahey
Repositories Research Officer
UKOLN, University of Bath.

Email: m.mahey@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/

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Date published: 
30 October 2008

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How to cite this article

Mahendra Mahey. "Book Review: Against the Machine". October 2008, Ariadne Issue 57 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue57/mahey-rvw/


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