The Curmudgeon Cometh
Granted, we all hate the Internet. Well, given that you are reading this on a computer screen facilitated by said Internet, maybe not hate the thing in and of itself, but hate what it’s come to stand for, that mentality which it represents. The Internet, in its mass hive mind, the vast and wave-like sweeps of its many moods and trendlets, can seem at times like nothing more than the seething representation of our species’ collected id.
At least, the broadband-connected and YouTube-addicted segment of said population, the ones who think nothing of blasting psychotic profanities in an anonymous comment directed at some blogger who had the gall to present an opinion they disagreed with, the ones who greet each new boom of Webbed techno-advancement with giggly glee. The ones who wait in line for iPhones. The ones who upload videos of themselves singing an acapella reggae version of the Star Wars theme music. The ones who never look further than the nearest Wikipedia entry for any question life can throw at them. You know of whom we speak.
It is these people whom Lee Siegel rages, froths, and fulminates against in his slim little attack volume, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. And it is the fact that his book is motivated more by his irritation with today’s online addicts than any serious intellectual engagement with the effects of online culture on our society, that ultimately keeps it from being anywhere near the call to arms that Siegel seems to believe it to be.
It’s unfortunate, because he starts off with a nice analogy, that of the car industry in the postwar, pre-Nader years, when countless thousands were dying in preventable accidents, due at least in part to an industry and accepting culture that only wanted to celebrate the great majesty of the automobile and damn the consequences. The same kind of blinkered, blindly optimistic ignorance is visible today, Siegel believes:
As with the car, criticism of the Internet’s shortcomings, risks, and perils has been silenced, or ignored, or stigmatized as an expression of those two great American taboos, negativity and fear of change. As with the car, a rhetoric of freedom, democracy, choice, and access has covered up the greed and blind self-interest that lie behind what much of the Internet has developed into today.
This is hardly an argument that anybody who has kept their eyes open over the past decade and a half would seriously argue with. The snake oil of blue-sky freedom and limitless informational access has been peddled almost nonstop since the World Wide Web first emerged from its educational/ military-industrial-complex lair and entered the commercial market. As much as the rhetoric of all the connectivity ad campaigns for broadband or B2B services, or breathless media stories from the local news to Wired to Newsweek endlessly touts whatever newest gift of online convenience that the gods of the Internet have delivered to us from the rainy Pacific Northwest, it can’t obscure the fact that what the Internet does for the most part is increase the amount of time that people spend alone looking at a computer screen.
It’s this patently false bait-and-switch that (understandably) seems to drive the considerable vitriol in Siegel’s book, a work that is long on anger but short on focus. Siegel, a senior editor at the New Republic, identifies himself upfront as something less than a Luddite, instead someone who quite cheerfully uses the Internet for his research and entertainment. No Sven Birkerts, he. More like Paddy Chayevsky, raging against the dying of culture, trying to stem the unstoppable tide of mindless change. To Siegel, the Internet is a font of convenience but also a perturbing wasteland of mindless babble, where the simple-minded wile away their days trading amateur videos and snarking about reality TV.
Sadly, it is this line of argument (venting of spleen, really) that Siegel chooses to pursue instead of analyzing the quite astounding ways in which the Internet is changing us as a society and a people. He is quite right in presenting the Internet as a place in which some of the worst aspects of mass human behavior—particularly mob rule and brutally cruel commentary sniped in from safe anonymity—are magnified and exaggerated to an occasionally terrifying degree. But for the most part this book doesn’t delve into that topic with any real seriousness, instead spending its pages berating the second-rate taste of much of what is available online; snarking the snark. Siegel does identify quite astutely one of the Internet’s most worrisome aspects, namely the obsession with ratings and popularity:
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. From “I love that thing he does!” to “Look at all those page views!” in just a few years.
But as you can see, this really is just a gloss of an argument. A gripe, really. Siegel may have the truth on his side, but it’s not a weapon that he wields with any power. Civilization may indeed be threatened by the barbarians, but Against the Machine doesn’t exactly inspire one to man the barricades.