Review Of Against The Machine, by Lee Siegel

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/8/08


  Sometimes the mere knowledge that one is not alone in the cosmos is enough to suffice one’s view. But if that ‘other’ not only exists, but elucidates their own similar and cogent viewpoints well, it is cause for celebration. Such was my feeling when I finished Lee Siegel’s latest book, Against The Machine: Being Human In The Age Of The Electronic Mob. In just under 180 pages, Siegel illustrates, in very simple language, and lucid terms, what is wrong with the current state of the Internet. Or, more precisely, the many things that are wrong with the current state of the Internet. Yet, so deep is the diagnosis, and so sharp the rapier, that its analogues can also be applied to the current states of the arts, the sciences, and much of general life lessened by the slow erosion of the constant dumbing down of all things to the Lowest Common Denominator.

  Before reading this book I had encountered Siegel’s The New Republic columns online only a few times, when linked to by others, sent to me in emails, or whilst reading a blog. Nothing much stood out about them as being far above other online commentators, known or not. This is not because his comments were not well-written, simply the things others thought cogent rarely interested me enough to read. Thus I missed what, to Siegel detractors, was his Scarlet Letter episode: apparently, in 2006, he lost that magazine post when he was found to be sockpuppeting his own online blog in defense of himself, under the pseudonym sprezzatura; an activity that many bloggers and their readers do, and is easily seen through, but when done by someone actually getting paid to write for a living, one supposes, is seen as somehow verboten, regardless of the nonsense the online trolls may have accused him of. I only mention this episode because it seems to be what most online reviews of the book, especially the negative, devolve down to; that and the idea that, like me, he actually takes his role as a critic seriously. Therefore, the fact that he kicked ass under another guise is ‘shocking,’ and he is nothing but a ‘disgrace’ whose opinion about things online is hopelessly biased. Boo! Hiss!

  However, Against The Machine amply demonstrates why such hard critical tactics are often needed, as it exposes the Internet as what most intelligent people know it as, ‘a vast wasteland,’ far more corrosive in our time than television ever has been, even back in 1961 when former FCC chairman Newt Minnow famously derided tv with the above mentioned label. From wealth scams to penis enlargement ads to Myspace and Facebook, to porno websites, mindless blogs that are ill wrought and intellectually nihil to laughable bastions of learning such as Wikipedia, the Internet has taken the Lowest Common Denominator to a new nadir.

  And while most critics lambaste Siegel for ‘droning on’ and being some sort of Luddite, the book and critic are nothing like that, and Siegel’s book suffers from, if anything, almost shortshrifting its voluminous subject matter with far too few examples, even though he gives a few dozen. The utter stolidity and hostility online, as example, is far beyond what some reader from Mars might take it for if just depending on Siegel’s examples and assessment. Yes, in many ways- mostly superficial, the book might seem to be something a pretentious blowhard like Harold Bloom or senescent intellectual like Jacques Barzun might pen, except for two things. Siegel is a) almost always correct in his assessments, and b) pithy and cogent in his attacks, rather than pontificating endlessly. Bloom and Barzun could learn something from the relative diminutive length of Siegel’s book, and its arguments. The book is therefore more like a duck shoot, conducted by an excellent shot, rather than a systematic slash and burn example of total warfare.

  Siegel attacks the corporate mindset and the conglomeration of ideas, the stratification of corporate elitists even as the blogosphere claims to have opened up the world to new voices- the overwhelming majority of whom demonstrate there was a good reason the old media rightfully wanted nothing to do with them. Yet, even if someone succeeds as an online talking head, they jump at an opportunity to join the old guard media’s talking head brigade. Siegel demonstrates, in numerous ways, that the very constraints the old media plays by is actually far more daring and exciting than the salacious world the anonymous blogger or poster lives by; after all, just how daring is gossip? He also shows how the Internet enforces conformity rather than opening up creativity, because, as he puts it, one ‘must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else.’

  This sort of useful observation occurs numerous times in the book, and leads Siegel into what he terms the transvaluation of cultural and political norms; the first effective and cogent application of any of old Friedrich Nietszche’s ideas I’ve ever read, be it in a serious philosophical tome or a reader-friendly work like this, because the old philosopher is likely the most misunderstood human to have ever written. Naturally, this insidious inversion of ideals leads to a place (the Internet) 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’s clothing of humanistic values; and were, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest.’ In short, vapid celebrity replaces earned fame and people want to be known just to be known; celebrity thus becoming itself a new form of currency, and this new ‘monetary exchange’ or ‘economy of the self’ is the main thing driving Internet ‘innovations’ like Facebook and Myspace- large unreal social hivings, rather than acting as a disseminator of knowledge, much less real wisdom. Real knowledge thus becomes mere facts, or worse, trivia, excellence is seen as a sign of elitism or bigotry, and historical significance becomes mere ephemera. Naturally, the book suffers its worst idiotic barbs from those unwitting trolls who are its target, yet blithely unaware they are. Here is a typical angry Amazon.com swipe at the book:

  The most egregious problem the book has is its reification of its topic center. Mr. Siegel writes about ‘The Internet’ as if the global digital network were a single person, with independent volition and agency.’

  An interesting statement, but utterly at odds with the actual book’s written words- yes, dear reader, it is called READING, for Siegel is very deft at flaying the Internet for its mob psychology and unwitting gravitation towards same. So, the reviewer both does not get Siegel’s critique even while exemplifying one of its most corrosive aspects he flays- the growing inability of most people to even read coherently- a thing I term deliteracy, an active choice to not read things of depth and value in favor of conversing in gossip and AIMspeak. Yet, Siegel is no Luddite, as so many cyber-refuseniks are, but an ardent champion of the technology who damns only its mindless applications, and the refusal of the government to try to harness that power for the commonweal.

  Are there some areas I disagree with Siegel? Of course, but these are minor ancillaries to his overall thesis. As example, Siegel laments the joy felt by most literary bloggers over book review sections being discontinued by many major newspapers as being foolish. He claims that most of the online writing that has replaced it is as bad, or worse, due to no real editing. In this he is correct, but there are a few websites, such as The Complete Review, which follow the same basic review formulae The New York Review Of Books and New York Times follow- both for good, and mostly ill (sucking up in blurb-laden reviews to further writing careers); and then there is my own website, Cosmoetica- laden with reviews of books and films that far surpasses anything the above mentioned on- and offline venues have ever put out, in terms of depth, style, and quality, so Siegel is a bit too broad with his brush. In fact, Cosmoetica’s popular success is due to precisely going against the very grains that Siegel details- being singular, qualitative, and laden with depth and breadth of subject matters and approaches. But, to return to Siegel’s lament about the demise of newspaper book review sections, if the best the old guard can offer in reviews of books are hack poets, delusional pseudo-intellectuals like Harold Bloom, and shrill, biased know-nothings like Michiko Kakutani, the onus is on Siegel to prove that the online world has not rightly supplanted the old media. Another minor quibble is his annoying coinage of the term homo interneticus. This method of cutesy faux science used to define a passing cultural fancy simply lost its charm sometime in the mid-1970s.

  But, on the major points, Siegel is astute and cogent. As example, he rightly rails against Wikipedia’s loathing of expertise, and details its entries’ being loaded with poor writing and flat-out false information, something I detailed here. Yet, he goes beyond that and assails the utter apathy that propels such a venture because Wikipedia exists for no other reason than convenience, since the answers can be found elsewhere- online and off, and more often than not with far greater accuracy. Yet, despite the abundance of false and factually wrong information it pushes, its users treat that reality as a joke, something not even worthy of comment, much less outrage, save for being fodder for bad television talk show hosts’ jokes. Yet, apathy is not alone in Siegel’s sites. Just look at how diverse his range of argumentation ranges. He writes:

  As with the car, criticism of the Internet’s shortcomings, risks, and perils has been silenced, or ignored, or stigmatized as an expression of those two great American taboos, negativity and fear of change. As with the car, a rhetoric of freedom, democracy, choice, and access has covered up the greed and blind self-interest that lie behind what much of the Internet has developed into today.

  As someone with a popular website whose popularity has been achieved by positivity and change in the face of sloth and ignorance, I can attest to the absolute certitude of Siegel’s claim. Furthermore, he is deadly correct in nailing most of the mindless boosterism of the Internet being based solely on perceived financial benefits, regardless of concomitant social or personal ills, such as morphing one’s personality quirks, not any immanent real talent, into a commodity just to suit the hive mind. And his linkage of this trend with the 1960s and 1970s Futurist Movement, headed by such unfortunately prescient folk as Future Shock author Alvin Toffler, is also smack dab correct and cogent.

  He concisely sums up his gripe this way:

  Internet culture is all about finding a clique or group and striving to reproduce its style with your own adorable, unthreatening, superficial twist. Popular culture used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what everyone else likes. From ‘I love that thing he does!’ to ‘Look at all those page views!’ in just a few years.

  Again, is any of this even remotely arguable to anyone who has ever turned on a computer and clicked away with a mouse? No. And, just on a purely stylistic note, whether or not you agree with Siegel’s analysis and conclusions, it is terse, epigrammatic shots like this which make Against The Machine such a good read, and is designed that way precisely because Siegel wants to reach out to the younger emailese reading text messagers who have such short attention spans- especially concerning issues where the appearance of a personal pronoun every other sentence does not signify to them the importance to the self that such readers seem to depend on for sustenance. Of course, one such stolid and self-serving reader and critic wrote of the last quoted passage, ‘But as you can see, this really is just a gloss of an argument.’ Well, no, it is précis, which is different from a gloss- which is a smug, superficial approach, or the very description of the critic’s gripe about Siegel’s argument. Siegel dissects and dives into his above claim through much of the book, whereas I can say with some confidence the aforementioned critic likely just glossed and glanced his way through Siegel’s book, Googled a few reviews, and cobbled together his own.

  In fact, in Googling the critical reaction to Siegel’s book, this sort of claim is actually one of the more intelligent (however wrong) objections. Most of the rest are simple examples of ad hominem, masqued as ‘deep parsings,’ that ask questions of what Siegel means even as they quote his very answers in Siegel’s own lucid sentences and metaphors; a tack which displays the critics’ own deliteracy. A final example:

  You really have to marvel at how the blogosphere has turned a quintessential product of democracy like the American newspaper into an obstruction to democracy.

  He then talks about how the media is always first target by tyrannies of the very sort that the blogosphere rails against, then ironically notes how eager most bloggers are for any hint of approbation from the mainstream media edifice they rail against. It’s true, and Siegel lays out a damning indictment involving both big and small names from the online world who were eager to sell out to the very devil they reviled, or at least claimed to revile before remuneration was mentioned. In short, there’s simply nothing to argue over with in the book, unless one has a personal (read- financial) stake in the dumbing down of culture, or even more importantly, the inuring of individuals to all real world experiences. Furthermore, Siegel asks the semi-rhetorical question, ‘How did the egalitarian, self-expressing, hierarchy-busting, anti-exclusive Internet end up standardizing its users?’ and answers it with a myriad of psychological and social reasons that, while some in print have touched on here and there, no other book has yet to even come close to Siegel in fully marshaling, even to taking a chapter from the dumbed down culture itself, in a sort of semi-spoof, by listing a humorous yet scary set of not so open secrets and super-secrets of the Internet.

  Thus, because of this pithy, pointed, and precise mode of dialectic, I highly recommend Against The Machine: Being Human In The Age Of The Electronic Mob. It will not simply be one of those books that is forgotten of in five years- a sort of critical Jonathan Livingston Seagull of the early aughts, but rather an oft-quoted resource for longer, more in-depth, and scientific studies of the burgeoning phenomenon of the sheeplization of society. I’ll save the ominous Orwellian stentorian warning, and suffice to say, ‘Read it now, because later may be too late.’


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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