Book Review: Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine

by on October 20, 2008 · 25 comments

Siegel Against the Machine book coverOf the titles I included in a mega-book review about Internet optimists and pessimists that I posted here a few months ago, I mentioned Lee Siegel’s new book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.  It is certainly the dourest of the recent books that have adopted a pessimistic view of the impact the Internet is having on our culture, society, and economy. Because Siegel’s book is one of the most important technology policy books of 2008, however, I decided to give it a closer look here.

Siegel’s book essentially picks up where Andrew Keen’s leaves off in Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture (2007).  I posted a two-part review of Keen’s book here last year [Part 1, Part 2], but here’s a quick taste of Keen’s take on things.  He argues “the moral fabric of our society is being unraveled by Web 2.0” and that “our cultural standards and moral values are not all that are at stake.  Gravest of all,” Keen continues, “the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows, and our movies are under assault as well.”

As I noted in my earlier “Net optimists vs. pessimists” essay, after reading Cult of the Amateur, I didn’t think anyone else could ever be quite as over-the-top and Chicken Little-ish as Keen. But after working my way through Siegel’s Against the Machine, I realized I was wrong. It made Keen seem downright reasonable and cheery by comparison! Keen and Siegel seem to be in heated competition for the title “High Prophet of Internet Doom,” but Siegel is currently a nose ahead in that race.

Keen and Siegel are both essentially channeling the ghost of the late Neil Postman, the one-time dean of the modern school of techno-pessimism. Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, was the first major anti-Digital Age diatribe and it remains the reigning champion of anti-technology screeds. “Information has become a form of garbage,” Postman argued, “not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.” If left unchecked, Postman argued, America’s new technopoly — “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” — would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

Although Lee Siegel doesn’t bother citing him, he owes much to Postman’s brand of social criticism. Indeed, in large part, Siegel is simply bringing Postman’s critique of the Information Age up to date. Like Postman and Keen, Siegel is concerned about the “destructive side” of the Internet and the Information Age, which they all feel is being overlooked. Specifically, the attack these authors mount on the Information Age and the Net can be boiled down to two major themes:

  1. The Net is destroying (or at least greatly diminishing) the role of experts, authority, “truth”, and traditional societal norms and institutions. This is having (or eventually will result in) dangerous ramifications for our culture, economy, and democracy.
  2. The personalization and customization that the Information Age and the Internet have spawned is an unambiguously negative development for our society and culture. Moreover, in large part, the entire Web 2.0 experience is largely just about commercial interests furthering their ends.

Let’s take a closer look what Siegel says about each.

Experts, Authority, and “Truth”

Like Postman and Keen, Siegel doesn’t mix words when it comes to his contempt for the disintermediating influences of modern information technology. He is particularly concerned about the loss of “truth” and “authority” in our new environment. “Culture needs authoritative institutions like a powerful newspaper; it needs them both to protect its critical, independent spirit and to make sure that culture’s voices heard in the louder din of more powerful economic and political entities.” (p. 140-1) By empowering the masses to have more of a voice, Siegel says, “unbiased, rational, intelligent, and comprehensive news… will become less and less available.” (p. 165) “[G]iving everyone a voice,” he argues, “can also be a way to keep the most creative, intelligent, and original voices from being heard.” (p. 5)

Like many other Net skeptics, Siegel views Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, and almost all user-generated content with a combination of confusion or contempt. “[S]elf-expression is not the same thing as imagination” or art, he argues. (p. 52)  Instead, he regards the explosion of online expression as the “narcissistic” bloviation of the masses and argues it is destroying true culture and knowledge. “Under the influence of the Internet,” he says, “knowledge is withering away into information.” (p. 152) Our new age of information abundance is not worth celebrating, he says, because “information is powerlessness.” (p. 148).

One reason Siegel gets nostalgic about the age of scarcity is because elites like him — and others who were lucky enough to have access to mainstream media — had a more privileged place in the old media world.  As a social / cultural critic, he can’t be happy with all the competition he now faces in that field from the blogosphere and online media outlets.

But it’s difficult to sympathize with Siegel’s position that others should be excluded from having a voice now in an effort to preserve the old order. After all, for the past seven decades, public policy has largely been preoccupied with getting society out of the scarcity mess (even though public policy created much of that mess!) by ensuring that citizens had more choices and outlets. Now that we have more options, some people like Keen and Siegel aren’t happy about the fact that the hoi polloi have been empowered. But, even if some traditional institutions lose the dominant position they once held in society, plenty of “authoritative” and “professional” media options and outlets continue to exist. Our new Information Age simply empowers millions of other voices to join the conversation and offer alternative perspectives and input.

But Siegel also disputes what he regards as such romanticized notions of “online participation” and “personal democracy.” To him, everyone is just in it for the money. “Web 2.0 is the brainchild of businessmen,” and the “producer public” is really just a “totalized ‘consumerist’ society.”  But what about all those bloggers who (like me!) are in it for the love of the conversation and debate?  Well, says Siegel, we just don’t realize the harm we are doing by trying to have our say!  “[T]he bloggers are playing into the hands of political and financial forces that want nothing more than to see the critical, scrutinizing media disappear.” (p. 141) And as for those true believers and Net evangelists who believe that something truly exciting is happening with our new online conversation, according to Siegel, they are simply “in a mad rush to earn profits or push a fervent idealism.” (p. 25-6)

It’s difficult for me to imagine anything more insultingly stupid than those last two statements.  The insulting part about them is that Siegel is essentially telling us all to shut up!  We all need to put down our pens — or, rather, our keyboards — and understand that we are doing great harm to those journalists, institutions, or other enlightened few who are really providing the “critical, scrutinizing” function so essential for a healthy democracy and culture. It’s just blatantly elitist for Siegel to suggest that only a select few have any business sharing their views with the world, and he even acknowledges that several times in the book. But he wears that elitist tag like a badge of honor as he stares down his nose at the newly empowered masses, snorting in disgust at everything he sees.

And the stupid part about those statements above is that the vast majority of bloggers or online participants are absolutely not in it for the money, or even out to take down mainstream media. They just want to be heard. But, again, Siegel believes that what you all have to say is not worth hearing anyway.

The Supposed Perils of Personalization

Indeed, Siegel’s primary gripe with the Web 2.0 world is that while most of us appreciate the growing personalization of information and content as well as the increasingly participatory nature of the Internet, he sees that as an unmitigated evil.  “The Internet is the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, asocial individual.” (p. 6)  The “Daily Me” (personalized, instantaneously delivered content) that Nicholas Negroponte predicted and longed for in his prescient 1995 book Being Digital, is viewed by Siegel as nothing more that the creation of a “narcissistic culture” in which “exaggeration” and the “loudest, most outrageous, or most extreme voices sway the crowd his way; the cutest, most self-effacing, most ridiculous, or most transparently fraudulent of voices saw the crowd of voices that way.” (p. 79)  He goes so far as to refer to it as our “democracy’s fatal turn” in that, instead of “allowing individuals to create their own cultural and commercial choices,” Web 2.0 has instead created “a more potent form of homogenization.” (p. 67)

In this regard, Siegel is channeling another Net skeptic, the prolific Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School.  In his 2001 book, Sunstein also referred to Negroponte’s “Daily Me” in contemptuous terms, saying that the hyper-customization of websites and online technologies was causing extreme social fragmentation, isolation, and alienation, and could lead to political extremism. “A system of limitless individual choices, with respect to communications, is not necessarily in the interest of citizenship and self-government,” he wrote. As I said in my review of his book in Regulation magazine that year, Sunstein was essentially saying that the Internet is breeding a dangerous new creature: Anti-Democratic Man. “Group polarization is unquestionably occurring on the Internet,” he proclaimed, and it is weakening what he called the “social glue” that binds society together and provides citizens with a common “group identity.” If that continues unabated, Sunstein argued, the potential result could be nothing short of the death of deliberative democracy and the breakdown of the American system of government.

Siegel continues this line of reasoning in Against the Machine but, like Sunstein, completely fails to offer anything more than a few random anecdotes in defense of their thesis that the Net is leading to close-mindedness, homogenization, and the death of deliberative democracy. Worse yet, they also both completely fail to look at the other side of the story, which is that the Internet and Web 2.0 may be having the exact opposite effect. I made that argument in my 2005 book, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership (p. 39):

The reality is that citizens do face an overwhelming number of media choices today, and that probably does make it somewhat more difficult for them to have “shared experiences” involving any individual news or entertainment program. But that isn’t really such a lamentable development. Government need not take steps to make sure everyone watches or listens to the same programs each night so they can all talk about them around the watercooler at work the next day. It’s just as good that everyone can discuss something different that they saw or heard the night before. And the very fact there are so many distinct media options available to citizens is better for a healthy democracy than a limited range of media options. Again, regardless of who owns what, the fact remains that we have more sources of news, communications, and entertainment than ever before in this country.

Still, some media critics wax nostalgic about a mythical time — a supposed “Golden Age” of newspapers, radio, or television — when the populace was more closely linked or unified in some grand sociological sense by common reporting or programming options. But that is a stretch. The days when William Randolph Hearst dominated media, or when only three TV networks brought us our news at a set time each night, could hardly be labeled the “Golden Age” of those respective mediums. If that’s the world media critics want us to return to, then this represents, as Jonathan Knee argues, “an argument for homogeneity hiding under the pretext of diversity.”

And, indeed, that’s exactly what Siegel is proposing in his book, as Keen also does in his. They want to roll back to clock and return us to the mythical “good ‘ol days” of media. Again, when were those days? I simply cannot fathom how anyone can claim that the age of media scarcity — with its limited outlets and opportunities — was truly better than the world we find ourselves in today. As I noted in the first part of my two-part review of Keen’s book, which was entitled “Why an Age of Abundance Really is Better than an Age of Scarcity”:

What Keen doesn’t seem willing to tolerate is that when everyone has a voice, a lot more silly things are going to be said and heard. Back in the days before we all had our own soapboxes (websites, blogs, social networks, YouTube posts, etc.) we all had opinions, but we had few ways to get those opinions out. Now that the Internet has become the great leveler and given everyone the ability to be a one-person newspaper or broadcaster to the world, the dream of a more fully empowered citizenry is slowly becoming a reality. The upside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard. But the downside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard! That is, with the good comes some bad. There are wonderful contributions to culture and human communications being made by average Joes and Janes across the globe because of the Web. But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crap out there too. Cutting through the cultural clutter can been a real challenge, and even with the best search tools in the world at your disposal, it can still be difficult to find that diamond in the rough.

But aren’t we better off as a society because of the opportunities now at our disposal? Isn’t an age of media and cultural abundance — warts and all — still preferable to the age of scarcity which preceded it?

I believe it is. And as I concluded in my review of Keen’s book, which seems like an equally sensible way to conclude this review of Lee Siegel’s tedious screed:

I think we are definitely better off because of this seismic shift in our communications and media environment. The human conversation is more diverse than ever before, and we have been empowered to experience the full range of culture and human creativity (for better and for worse!)

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