Against The Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob  by social critic Lee Siegel questions the benefits and positive assumptions about the Internet and its resulting culture.
The author makes the most of 182 pages through sociological critique of internet culture through his noted ability to debate and offer critical thought.
I received a free copy of this book from a Search Engine Strategies expo during his presentation there a year ago, so I figured to give this small book a big whirl of a review.
“The internet’s assimilation to a familiar economic idiom is why its more disturbing and destructive side has been obscured…”
In terms of debate, Siegel feels online examinations of issues have the potential to be too corporate, “So what you usually get by with are sunny facile corporate-funded gestures towards criticism.” As an example, Siegel mentions the Pew Report, a 2006 assessment of the state of the Internet which forecast the death of newspapers due to the internet, but “maybe one reason the Pew report is so upbeat is that 8 of 12 who wrote it have a financial or professional stake in the internet.”
Famous for Being Talented or for Being Popular?
Siegel challenges the idea that people are being liberated by creativity and choice on the web; by posting videos on YouTube, for example, online users are merely becoming derivative of each other.
“Internet culture is 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.”
Siegel holds up the success of media competitions, such as American Idol, as how the online world has infiltrated the real world, “You get no sense, watching Idol, that fame is built on accomplishment.” He goes on to point out how “Bigness and popularity are all that matter. The reason for popularity is irrelevant.”
I disagreed with some of the tone that popularity has become the superficial standard of online worth … though Siegel’s statements about fame and narcissism on Internet culture are understandable. Online video and website metrics have existed in some form long before YouTube and Facebook grew popular.
Moreover, fan posts like webisodes from avid Star Trek fans display originality despite being based on a familiar show — the Star Trek webisodes incorporate the Federation universe, but usually contain characters not created by Gene Roddenberry. There’s not much consideration for those harmless perspectives in the world Siegel paints.
I found the book’s tone tough at times but fascinating because of how it compares with many of the business books on the market. It tempers some points raised by Seth Godin in “Linchpin,” for example, that creativity and output are linked, that success requires output to create value. Siegel, however, claims that the output possible by YouTube and other venues have diminished value, littering the net with unoriginal ideas and pseudo beliefs of free expression.
At times Siegel focuses on other thought leaders, particularly Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point.” Siegel does not denigrate his contemporaries too much, although whether the intellectual diss-fest encourage further research or avoidance are up to you. He also offers how many ideas espoused today had roots in the past, such as linking Alvin Toeffer’s Third Wave concept (activities that were private are converted into one transaction or another … “we produce as we consume, or prosume”) to modern books like Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail.”
Readers who are small business owners will gain some relevant thoughts on what can be important to maintain trust and offer honorable online behavior. Among these thoughts are the importance of expertise, and how without it…
“The result is often a crude caricature of egalitarianism….(people) suddenly realize that a professional skill and find themselves at a loss to practice what they claim to be, an incessant declaration of self that often takes the form of mockery or rage directed against privileged elites perceived to be standing in the majority’s way.”
Siegel then extends this thought to Wikipedia and blogs where, “Blogger’s ability to revise or erase writing … is the very antithesis of their claims of freedom and access and choice.” He saves some of his most direct and kid-gloves-gone commentary on blogs. Again you’ll find yourself understanding if not totally agreeing.
What Will Readers Gain?
Siegel’s book offers no specific answers. He does ask the reader to consider how we as the human race should relate to one another.
“We all need each other as means; we need each other as instruments of help, sustenance, and pleasure. But without experiencing each other as an end and not as a means, we will lose our freedom to live apart from other people’s uses for us, and ours for other people – the world around us will shrink to ourselves as the only reference point in the world.”
That may cross readers as a We-Are-The-World cop out. But what else can he offer? A call to end Wikipedia? No. The open-ended thought can be considered as the book’s punchline. Siegel is advocating for the maintenance of original thought, debate, and consequently the human spirit. While the book offers references that can seem unfamiliar Against The Machine is well reasoned enough to be a short intellectual exercise on a short flight.
Maybe deriving your own thoughts from Siegel’s words and taking pride in developing a craft outside of any voting system are among the best lessons Against The Machine can offer.