Siegel’s “Against the Machine”

Just finished reading Lee Siegel’s book, Against the Machine : Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. His main point is that the “Internet boosters” seem to be operating in a critical free zone where every ‘rah, rah, Internet’ is accepted without question. Is the Internet as rosy as the Web 2.0 “techno-hustlers” would have us think? Is there a downside to the rise of the online social community and the democratization of everything? Spiegel is suggesting that we should be thinking about this and wonders why there haven’t been more people writing and talking about the Internet from a cultural context.

It’s a rather refreshing perspective and Siegel is a great critic. The Web 2.0 bandwagon is large and all encompassing and has a free wheeling momentum that has scooped up a large WWW “community”. But can we really be socially connecting while sitting alone with our computers? “… what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact its exact opposite,” Siegel says. He calls it “performing our privacy” noting that popularity is the currency of this participatory culture. It’s trying to hang with the high school coolies all over again.

And what drives popularity is a routine’s success in merging with the mass, in extending the most generic and derivative appeal. You must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else. Exaggeration, intensification, magnification of proven success, become highly effective means to success.”

He questions the claims that the more information there is the better informed and empowered society will be. But it really depends on the quality of the available information. He points out that there are currently about 70 million blogs and the blogosphere has “…forced the traditional news outlets to seek out more and more trivial news, in order to compete … [and] has engorged the ‘old’ media with streams of useless information.” And although information is important it is not knowledge; but in this chattering climate, “knowledge has been devalued into information.”

This is a very engaging book. Short, sweet and often insightful. I recommend this to anyone interested in cultivating a balanced view of the cultural shift that is the Internet. Some call his criticism sour-grapes and you might also be interested in reading this New York Magazine interview with Siegel to whet your appetite.

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