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.

Now Here

I haven’t been watching very much television these days; I prefer to play chess or stumble around the internet. But I was at loose ends after picking my son up from his volunteer stage hand gig last night and happened to catch the last 5 minutes or so of Boston Legal. The Shatner character was talking about the importance of being in the now, especially in this age of crumbling ice caps, and Osama sitting in a cave somewhere planning his next attack, impending cancer, fuel shortages, etc., etc. In the face of all that staying in the ‘now’ becomes just that much more important. Be here, now; don’t spend time worrying about the future; enjoy what you’ve got. I liked the idea. It even seemed comforting.

Thinking about it today I was reminded of the ‘long now’, the Long Now Foundation (LNF) and in particular Brian Eno’s essay, ‘The Big Here and Long Now‘. Eno begins by describing a visit to ‘a multi-million dollar palace’ situated in a dilapidated building in a run down neighborhood somewhere in New York. Inside, surrounded by opulence, the resident was very good at living in the now, blocking out or ignoring what lay outside the walls of her ‘palace’. An extremely short term view of life to be sure. But it’s a perspective that seems very popular and, as seen on Boston Legal, even encouraged in our present day culture.

Eno: “‘Now’ is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.”

In 1995, or in LNF parlance, 01995, Danny Hillis wrote an essay on the ‘millennium clock‘ which Eno has dubbed the ‘Clock of the Long Now’. In his piece Hillis gives a great example of long term thinking.

I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing.”

This is amazing to me. It is this way of thinking that needs to be reawakened and become part of our everyday thinking, well, now. Enough with the short term gain already. Try the long now, it looks 10,000 years ahead. Hard to fathom for sure. Maybe seven generations into the future like the Ojibway in the Rainy Lake tribal area is a little easier to grasp. How can we start planning for the future like those carpenters at College Hall?

Hillis ends his essay with this:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.”

I’d like to think that we can do this. That we can imagine a more ‘desirable world’. Eno thinks this can be encouraged through art where the ‘imaginative process can be seeded and nurtured by artists and designers’.

Like Hillis I have hope for the future. How about you?