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Home » Culture and Criticism

Against the Machine (for no good reason)

Submitted by on January 3, 2011 – 9:31 AM22 Comments

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, 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, 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.

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  • Melissa says:

    King Shit of Pompous Know-It-All Mountain! That phrase alone is enough to make even a crank love the internet.

  • MsC says:

    How exactly does the internet require you to suddenly keep up with the current popular flavors of the moment? Does he work in the entertainment industry? I find that I am astonishingly able to go about my life without knowing or caring who Ke$ha is besides a name I see in sidebars when I check the news. Nothing forces me to click every link, watch every viral video, or participate in online life any more than I want to. And I speak as a software engineer, so I'm pretty much attached to a computer most of the day.

  • Alan Swann says:

    Looks as if you're going to have to write "that book," Sars. In your copious spare time, natch.

  • Mary says:

    I really hope he runs across this when he googles himself. (ZOMG! Is that a repellent expression?!?)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Well, maybe if you explained to us as though we were teeny children the origin of the verb "to Google," we could decide.

  • Brian says:

    Now I'm curious to know what he objects to about hyperlinks. I believe that there are right and wrong ways to use them, and I try to be careful when I do, but does he object to the concept of the hyperlink in general, or what?

  • Suzanne says:

    I personally liked how you went from "money shot" to "Siegel clutches his pearls." And "nutshell" was right in the middle. :)

    Also, in re: "to Google" – remember that one Calvin & Hobbes strip in which Calvin concludes: "Verbing weirds words"? I love how that has become reality!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Brian, I believe his argument is that, say, a blog entry that links to another blog entry or entries doesn't create or say anything new, but merely repackages or redirects. Of course, sometimes this is true, but the way Siegel puts it gives the impression that this is all he thinks blogs ever do — that this is their purpose, and that it's a negative a priori. It's part of his "the only purpose of the internet is popularity, which is automatically bad" platform; it's clear he considers wanting attention or other compensation for one's internet product eminently contemptible, and perhaps even dangerous on the crowd-psych level. (Evidently he was plucked from a factory line and forced to write this book. Oh, wait. HE IS A MEDIA GUY.)

    I had a passage in which I highlighted his snitty comments on hyperlinks and made a super-acidic comparison with footnotes, but I cut it, because why bother? If he's going to impugn the way correct credit is given, it's like, he's not interested in examining it, really. He's interested in shitting on it, and he will bend any datum into a toilet shape for that purpose, so fuck it.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    God, Siegel, if you're so worried about your precious little brain crystals evaporating from Teh InterWeb's hot blue all-seeing eye, just, I dunno, quit surfing the damn Web so much. I know he's a media person and has to keep up with this stuff, and I certainly agree that tech knowledge and hardware is mutating faster and faster towards an unknown event horizon, and that can be scary with a hard metallic "nobody loves me here" vibe, but still.

    I'm not about to argue that anybody in the first world can completely opt out of technology unless they want to go live in a shack in the woods and hunt game with a pointy stick, but the fact is, a good fifty percent of what we feel we "need" to keep up with is completely optional. I don't own a cell phone. I'm not on Facebook. I have my little laptop and it takes me to the relatively few places I want to go. Does that make me a Luddite? Nope, just a person who's not as into being "connected" as the majority of the Net using populace. The only difference is I don't write tomes of how intellectual and important I am while denigrating all the other users of a tool I USE MYSELF ON A DAILY BASIS.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I would actually love to see the proposal drafts for this book, to hear what the original intent was. These things can mutate between sale and publication; editors can feel that you need more of A Tone or An Angle; the sales department or the PR team may mention that (read: "order you to tweak the plan because") it's a lot easier for them to move/book contrarians. I don't think that's what happened here, for various reasons that I won't get into because it's not as interesting as Paul Revere (hee), but I do wonder if the original inception was as pissy and cherry-pickerish as the final product.

  • Mollie says:

    You know what Lee Siegel REALLY hates about the Internet? It lets people disagree with you — just any old people! — and then you have to go into the comments on your own blog pretending to be someone else just to explain to them that they're wrong and you're right. It's such a hassle.

  • Soylent Green says:

    I really enjoyed your hatred of this book. I was going to comment more thoughtfully, but that's all I want to say.

    Plus, I don't have much time because of my busy Keeping Up With Pop Culture Schedule. Damn you, Snooki, why won't you let me sleep?

  • Rachel says:

    I wonder if he's given any thought to the fact that the internet has given rise to a specialist culture. Before, we all watched the same three channels and THAT WAS IT. Pop culture was a lot more monolithic than it is now. No one can keep up with it all, you almost *have* to be a specialist, be discerning in what you pay attention to because if you try to get it all, your brain will go 'splody.

    I've only skimmed this one so far, but that was the sense I was getting from his "I can't keep up" bitchery. Also, I think he wants us all off his lawn.

  • Jane says:

    It also sounds to me like he's doing the same kind of decrying that has been for some time traditional of every generation upon finding itself becoming previous: "Kids these days, with their hair and their Elvis and their hyperlinks." He's got the weary, exhausted tone of a parent who bumblingly bought his adolescent daughter a magazine featuring the wrong Monkee. Yeah, "popular," "good," and "important" are concepts that don't always completely overlap. We'll alert the media–that Hearst fellow seems like a comer.

  • Gralnger says:

    @Mollie: Only if you have unmoderated comments sections. With moderated comments you can just ban the people you don't like!


    What I'd say is that the internet does allow people to be famous RIGHT AWAY. You do something silly on YouTube and you're popular RIGHT NOW; you write a blog post that Kos likes and you're well-read RIGHT NOW; you make a big sandwich with bacon in it and you're a famous chef RIGHT NOW. People out there in the media world really don't like that, because they're still in a world where they have to pay their dues and go through the process and work on the line and keep plugging away and wait their turn.

  • Sandman says:

    Mollie FTW! And I say this as one who has had more than my share of Grandpa Simpson moments about the stupidity of the Internet. ("Definately" is going to make it into the dictionary one day, and I am going to hate it.)

  • Sigrid says:

    Sars, I adored this review. Siegel's posture of superior disdain is soooo familiar The quote you pulled could have been taken verbatim from the writing of a guy I used to date. Like Siegel, he had huge complexes about the pop culture in general and the internet specifically. He was one of those dudes whose web presence had a bit of prestige in the early days the net, who never get over the idea that the internet was built to please him. He would write condescendingly about how the other kids are crapping in his sandbox, but it doesn't matter because the sandbox was poorly designed and uninspiring to use anyway, so nah. On his blog, of course.

    The way you take that shit down is like a cool breeze. My ex and King Shit of Pompous Know-It-All Mountain should go bowling.

  • Maren says:

    Ugh, I borrowed this book because I saw him on the Daily Show promoting it and what he had to say then sounded good — then I got halfway through and had to get rid of it fast. Besides the horrendous stuff you've outlined above, I also hated the way that his internet references were all at least five years, if not ten years, out of date. But like @Mollie says, the worst thing is how he smugly recounts the time he got some nasty comments on his Slate column, so he put on a sockpuppet hat, trolled the people back, and then couldn't understand why everyone was so angry. Someone with that poor an understanding of anonymity vs. pseudonymity (and why it might be necessary to use a nickname but equally necessary to maintain the *same* nickname in one community) is eminently disqualified from talking about modern internet culture. He came into it thinking he was an Important Media Person and thus should automatically be granted special standing, and pretty much went home crying with his toys when he was *forced* to earn it like everyone else.

  • Karen says:

    THANK you. I had to cover this book for my New Media and Inequality class (sociology, thank you very much), and I could not get past Siegel's whining that now any old person can say any old thing. The horror! There are bits and pieces where he starts to make good points, but then he gets all foaming at the mouth again. Sigh.

    And, yes, I *do* know what a "money shot" is, TYVM.

  • Jaybird says:

    Yoicks. Reminds me of the time some chick sent my SO a snotty e-mail in response to something on his blog, thinking that the e-mail was utterly anonymous and the world would never ever know, ever. She was actually upset that he called her out.

  • Sandman says:

    he got some nasty comments on his Slate column, so he put on a sockpuppet hat, trolled the people back, and then couldn't understand why everyone was so angry.
    @Maren: Heh. I can't help thinking that not understanding why this kind of sockpuppetry might get people upset ought to disqualify him automatically for, well, most things.

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