Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob [Amazon, Bookshop (Random House new edition), Publisher (Random House new edition), Local Library] by Lee Siegel.
I made two errors in selecting this book to read. First, I confused the author with the other Lee Siegel, Indologist and novelist, who I thought could have some interesting things to say on this topic, as any contemporary intellectual might. This Lee Siegel is however a journalist, reviewer, and culture critic with a history of work at Slate and prominent US print periodicals. Second, I failed to notice that the book was published in 2008, making it as much a matter of historical interest as contemporary analysis, with respect to circumstances on the internet. It was slightly prior to the first Avatar movie–which it instances in discussing the increasingly immersive qualities of media, after a rather puzzling and factually dubious digression about the effects of “method acting” on media culture (114).
Still, without much in the way of overt prognostication, the book was in some respects prescient. The “Electronic Mob” of the subtitle mostly predated the (today still steeply increasing) usage of “Twitter mob,” as that platform was then in its infancy and didn’t even rate a mention. Instead, the cutting-edge internet landscape in this book consists of now-matured (if not in some cases decrepit) platforms such as MySpace, YouTube (not yet acquired by Google), Second Life (now relevant as a de facto Metaverse beta trial?), eBay, and Match.com.
Seigel positions himself squarely against “Internet boosterism” that trivializes the social and cultural hazards of the ‘net while advancing claims for it to enhance freedom, democracy, “self expression,” and choice. He remarks convenience as the sole genuine benefit of ‘net use. He has a cast of “booster” futurologists and pundits whom he excoriates, and these include Alvin Toffler, Stuart Brand, David Brooks, and Malcolm Gladwell, all of whom are fair marks I think. But he seems to err in targeting Douglas Rushkoff–a conspicuous critic of ‘net “social media”–confusing some of Rushkoff’s diagnoses of internet culture with blithe endorsements. (On p. 84 Siegel doesn’t allow for the possibility that Rushkoff’s “eerie mechanistic idiom” and “outlandishness” might have been calculated to produce the negative reaction towards ‘net indoctrination that Siegel experienced reading it!) Like the old-line cyberpunk Rushkoff, Siegel objects to “the commodifying of ideas and emotions behind hyperbole about liberating avenues of fantasy and play” in characterizations of the internet (36).
He claims that the 20th-century broadcast media which addressed the masses were not yet the “mass culture for the first time” manifested in an internet which surrenders itself to the banalities of sensationalism, hyperbole, and fraud (74-9). He wants to draw a bright line where ‘net-driven culture leaves behind merited fame in favor of “viral” popularity, and he objects to the ubiquitous metaphor: “It depresses me to equate illness with success even in a quotation” (105). Ruminating on the internet devaluation of expertise in culture, Siegel uses medicine as his counterpoint: “That’s why you never hear about the Internet causing a ‘revolution’ in law or medicine … Professions and trades require training. You could not have the equivalent of Jay Rosen creating ‘citizen heart surgeons'” (139). He thought medicine was immune to the assault on expertise! And now a non-metaphoric pandemic virus has killed millions, many of whom refused the preventive measures supplied by establishment medicine, in favor of “doing their own research” on the internet.
Ever so briefly, Siegel brushes up against the hazard of epistemic closure, where “users customize their news sources so they only read news that suits their own interests and tastes” (109), which a reader might be tempted to dismiss as a mere extension of the general human failing of confirmation bias. He misses how this failing can become catastrophic when covertly reified through Google page rank, Facebook feed algorithms, and other subtle devices of surveillance capitalism. Indeed, the surveillance dimension escapes him altogether, and he doesn’t acknowledge the rational, defensive role of internet anonymity in the face of unregulated corporate control.
Against the Machine places a premium on its exploration of the subjective isolation of the ‘net user, with introspective passages about what it is like for Siegel to sit down at his computer and what it is that he is doing and trying to do when he interacts with the ‘net there. As a professional writer, it seems he was unable to perceive the extent–even in 2008–that the main interface for ‘net users had shifted from laptop to smartphone. The nowhere of the internet is now more everywhere than before. When he contrasts the transactional, ulterior nature of internet experience with the exploratory nature of a walk in the park or browsing in a bookstore (174-5), he seems not to have imagined that the internet could so colonize the quotidian that the walker in the park would be listening to a podcast, or the bookstore shopper checking her phone for a recommendation she had read online. (Nor does he seem to have experienced the aleatory pleasure–no matter how contrived–of “surfing” the ‘net!)
This book-length essay interestingly complements the recent and widely-hailed article in The Atlantic by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt’s piece is a retrospective on the damage done by social media, justifying and amplifying many of Siegel’s indictments, such as those regarding “virality,” the commodification of private life, the erosion of social institutions, and the magnification of hate and outrage. Haidt, like Rushkoff but unlike Siegel, also pays particular attention to consequences for the children of the 21st century, for whom the ‘net has been an inescapable ingredient of social and emotional development. Another point emphasized by Haidt (which Siegel touches far more incidentally) is the fact that ‘net discourse overrepresents the whitest, most affluent, and most ideologically rigid (whether “conservative” or “progressive”) participants.
No one encountering even just the title of Siegel’s book should expect anything other than a jeremiad. His defense of inherited media institutions (despite their complicity in the internet developments he decries) often makes him seem like a reactionary, and some of his arguments are a bit muddled. But most of his concerns have been borne out by the dismal developments of the last decade and a half, and the book is written thoughtfully enough that almost any given paragraph could be meat for earnest intellectual argument. Despite it being not at all the book I had thought I was reserving at my local public library, I thought it was still worth my time to read.