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Literature

Self-expression is not art

Lee Siegel takes down the Internet in Against the Machine

T.R. Witcher

Lord knows we could use a critical eye on the Internet—given how much time so many of us spend on it, straining to recall what we did with our lives before it came along. I’ve had my fill of the online boosters who tell us all about the coming global village, the creation of real democracy and utopian visions of free access to total information. Surfing the Internet to me often feels like visiting a string of malls lined up on one long street. Some glitter. Some smell. It is impressive and numbing in equal degree. But a catalyst to a better world? I’m not so sure.

Cultural critic and essayist Lee Siegel’s new book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, attempts to provide us the corrective with an expose on the Internet’s destructive side. One of the problems for Siegel, and there are many, is that his book almost can’t recover from its opening scene, where the author goes to Starbucks and notes that everyone is deep inside their laptops, oblivious to one another. What has been displaced, he intones, is “the concrete, undeniable, immutable fact of our being in the world.”

You want to shout at him, “Lee, for fuck’s sake, just look up!” The claim that the Internet creates a “vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist” is simply not true for anyone who’s just gotten married, been laid off, given birth, seen a loved one pass, broken up, gotten promoted and so on.

At this moment, just a few pages in, you begin to worry for the whole book, that it will be full of the misguided disappointment of a man who just can’t get with this generation’s new modes of cultural production. Or that it will be weighed down with dubious claims, like that all online interactions are entirely devoid of social context or prohibitions, or that the Internet is the “first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.” (What about the car?)

Read on and you worry that Siegel is trying a bit too hard to convince us that his is the first sustained criticism of the Internet, while ignoring the perpetual warning bells that have already sounded about the online universe—dystopian sci-fi, let us say, or the reams of journalism at the dot-com collapse, or, more simply, those vast millions who implicitly criticize the Internet by spending little of their time on it.

All of that is true, and Siegel has written livelier, sharper criticism elsewhere. Still, over nine essays, he happily takes on all comers in what is best thought of as a mostly entertaining, occasionally insightful rant that attempts to link what happens on your web browser with other parts of the culture. Some of his targets are paper tigers: the business gurus and futurists trumpeting the Internet as the beginning of some new world order. Some are no-brainers: Wikipedia, American Idol. Some are unexpected and fun: New York Times columnist David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, which charts the emergence of bourgeois bohemians, and especially author Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s bestseller, about how ideas or products achieve a “tipping point” and cross over into the mainstream, brings out, in Siegel’s reading, the lowest common denominator in people, “the mob-self,” a world driven solely by commercial concerns where you’re either a winner or a loser. The book, and American Idol, and pretty much the entirety of the Internet, are emblematic of a “participatory culture” where popularity matters more than achievement.

What Siegel fears in the Internet is not the chaotic expansion of popular culture, but rather its destruction. In the former, artists create original works, and audiences surrender their egos so that those works may carry them away. Escapism, literally. The Internet culture, he argues, is just the opposite: “Enchantment of the imagination has given way to gratification of the ego.”

And so, the heart of the book, and its most persuasive sections, is not a critique on the Internet per se—but rather a critique on a society that has replaced professional creators, disseminators and evaluators of culture (that would be the critics, journalists, writers, artists and thinkers) with, well, the rest of us. It is an elitist argument, and not a little self-serving. But Siegel’s charge is strengthened when you realize that what Web 2.0 is offering—you and me as content creators, producers of our private selves, with our amateur porn, Internet photo slide shows and multimedia mash-ups—is a lot of work.

Self-expression, Siegel argues, is not art. One’s take on the book may depend on how one comes down on that claim.

“Information, we are told again and again these days, is the guarantor of a free society,” Siegel writes. “But this is simply not true.” Information without insight is just noise. Or, put another way, why is Paula Abdul judging singers?

Toward the end, Siegel lays out several hilarious “open supersecrets” of the blogosphere: Not everyone has something meaningful to say; few people have anything original to say; only a handful of people know how to write well. If Siegel is often guilty of one and two, he does see through the Internet to a more meaningful question: How can we “keep an obsession with the bottom line from overwhelming our lives?” He frames this in terms of the Internet’s growing influence in our day-to-day activities, but it’s a question that was relevant long before the Internet was created, and, no matter which way the Internet shapes us, for good or ill or both, will remain with us long after. And it’s one no search engine can answer.

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

***

Lee Siegel

Spiegel and Grau

$22.95

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