Against the Machine (for no good reason)
I have a mildly antagonistic relationship with my BlackBerry — I name all the significant inanimate objects in my life; this one's called "the Dingle," so there you go — but I admit that I haven't tried that hard to solve various connectivity problems. I could figure out how to get all my email sent to the Dingle, but I don't want all my email sent there. I could sit down with the manual and Lifehacker and game T-Mobile's weird web system, but I don't need it that badly, to whip out the Dingle the next time someone wonders hey what's the name of that guy in that movie, he showed up in that other thing with what's-her-face with the shirt, you know, from the miniseries. It's cool sometimes, but it's also cool just to spend a minute thinking and come up with it myself. The second way is more fun for me.
My approach to my "smart"phone is value-neutral. It's neither stupid nor preferred, neither Luddite nor smugly retro-pioneering. I don't want to have the internet always available — I don't want to have myself always available — but it's just one approach.
I'd assumed that Lee Siegel's Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob would talk about that approach, or varying approaches to connected living generally, but it's not a discussion of the differing boundaries we set for online life, or a history or examination of the internet's evolution from exciting/scary novelty to constant presence. Instead, it's a sour re-proach to the internet's ubiquity; social media and, somehow, reality television; thinkers associated with the web and Web 2.0; and, most fundamentally, the fact that Siegel must now keep track of more media — more basic-cable "stars," more status updates, more memes, more things he isn't an expert in and will have to catch up to learn about.
That's all I got from Siegel's 182 pages of grumping about, among other things, eBay, Idol, Gladwell, YouTube, and any other facet of online-community life he's determined to think the worst of: Siegel resents that he has to keep up with more stuff, that the internet doesn't care that he goes to the opera and reads The Financial Times, that nobody asked his permission before making this medium dominant.
The book is infuriating. Siegel is obviously bright and well-read; nothing he says about the internet is per se untrue. But man, what a pill. He speciously ascribes the internet's obnoxious excesses to the medium as a whole, and seems to believe that nobody therein is as bright or insightful as he is — often from the midst of a disingenuous argument.
A handful of the more exasperating examples follow.
Hilariously, the entire blogosphere now also uses "money quote" or "money shot" in the same way, though I would bet my hard drive that many of the people who toss these repellent little expressions around have no idea of their origins. (77)
The book in a nutshell, alas. Siegel clutches his pearls over a crass phrasing, then imagines in the next breath that neither the majority of internet users nor his own readers would know the derivation of a common expression (a labored explanation of the phrase's origins in porn came just before the quoted material). Also, "I would bet my hard drive"? Sure you don't want to up the ante with some floppies, there, Professor Bop? Maybe a ProDOS reference? FYI: a dismissive attitude towards online culture is easier to put over with current references.
Siegel doesn't do any better with an attempted takedown of Doug Rushkoff:
Rushkoff affects the kind of Internet utopianism Stewart Brand once pretended to … [a]nd on Time.com, he complains that "the Internet became the domain of businessmen." At the same time, he writes books like Playing the Future that preach the commercial potential of the Internet, and he receives up to seventy-five hundred dollars an hour from corporations that pay him to instruct them on ways to use the Web to get inside the heads of their youngest consumers. (84)
Siegel goes on to call Rushkoff a "techno-hustler," which is about as cutting as a foam finger, and I got the sense that what Siegel takes exception to isn't Rushkoff's alleged hypocrisy, but his skill at monetizing it. It's true that Rushkoff could present at times as one of those mid-nineties skate-sneaker douches who used words like "webizen" and consulted Details on which beer to order at a dive bar, but not in his recent writing; he's a smart guy with challenging ideas and a talent for presenting them. Why is he a dick for taking corporate money execs would just hand to someone else for the same hand-holding? Why is institutional insecurity about the internet Rushkoff's fault?
One of the book's recurring motifs is Siegel's grave disappointment that the internet is used by business interests, as though no previous medium had existed even in part to hawk product and every entertainment from more than 15 years ago served as a public trust. As if Burma-Shave billboards kept going up because the parent company felt a responsibility to the American tradition of clever doggerel? Siegel seems to want us to infer, from this and other remarks, that identifying a market and serving it is unethical — or that it's unethical when it happens on the internet, or that that breach of ethics is…unique to the internet? If Siegel's objection is to capitalism online, dude needs to get over it; that battle's long over. I suspect the real objection is to Doug Rushkoff making more money than he does, for doing what looks to Siegel like fuck-all, and somehow a scorching case of professional envy becomes an indictment of Rushkoff for betraying us all to Pampers.com, or some goddamn thing.
I could point to nearly a dozen other insufferable (or rhetorically Mobiused, or both) passages, in which Siegel objects to hyperlinks (…what?); deems Malcolm Gladwell a snobby popular kid (…what?); supposes readers have no interest in business history; corrects a commonly held misperception about Paul Revere just to show us he knows more about Paul Revere than we do; drops inaccurate generalizations about how "we" listen to mash-ups; and informs us that
There are exceptions, but 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. (102-3)
Nifty parallel structure, but it doesn't make sense — and if it does, it's nothing you can't say about, you know, life. Siegel does concede, this once, that you can't tar the entire online enterprise with the same brush. Pity he smothers the spark of goodwill he's just lit by calling us all sheep via his distinction without a difference. "Popular" means that many other people like whatever it is also, so…what's wrong with liking what everyone else likes? Unless, of course, everyone else liking what you like means you don't get to be King Shit of Pompous Know-It-All Mountain on the topic anymore.
Siegel considers particular aspects of online culture insipid, enemies of thoughtfulness. Agreed. Siegel wishes everything would slow the eff down, so that he can keep up and not feel like turning his back on Facebook for ten minutes is going to carry him away from his loved ones on a floe. Valid. Siegel is concerned that what he values, and is, will no longer be appreciated. Everyone feels that way sometimes. I have no problem with these thoughts and feelings, and I'd looked forward to a book about managing them. This isn't that book. Nor is this a book about outsider art, or the evolution of cultural standards in response to the evolution of cultural participation, or the future of investigative reporting, or any other take on the ostensible problem that engages it with the thoughtfulness Siegel posits is lacking in internet life and commerce. This is a book about experiences and people Siegel finds distasteful or silly, more than a couple of which relate only tangentially to the internet itself (I see why he included Idol and Gladwell, I guess, but if he wanted to write a book decrying groupthink, well, this isn't that book, either).
The internet is far from a perfect place, and on it, you often see the worst of human nature. This is also true of television, radio, film, and Brooklyn in a snowstorm. The internet is also far from a hopeless place, and on it, you often see the best of human nature. This is also true of theater, literature, capitalism, and Brooklyn in a snowstorm. I'll cheerfully grant Siegel that 80 percent of the internet, like anything else, is crap, but Siegel doesn't acknowledge the 20 percent that's pretty rad. He probably doesn't even think anyone besides him has heard that axiom before. He certainly doesn't think anyone on the internet is capable of synthesizing information, or of creating or deriving meaning from the online space. As a result, the book is a disagreeable, snobbish exercise in "am I the ONLY one who can see how STUPID everyone is getting?!" that tells us more about Siegel than it does about the internet. Skip it and dip into the 20 percent instead.
Tags: 100 customers 99 jars American Idol books Doug Rushkoff henh? Lee Siegel Malcolm Gladwell Paul Revere shut up technology