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

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Spiegel & Grau, 2008 - Social Science - 182 pages
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From the author hailed by the New York Times Book Review for his “drive-by brilliance” and dubbed by the New York Times Magazine as “one of the country’s most eloquent and acid-tongued critics” comes a ruthless challenge to the conventional wisdom about the most consequential cultural development of our time: the Internet.

Of course the Internet is not one thing or another; if anything, its boosters claim, the Web is everything at once. It’s become not only our primary medium for communication and information but also the place we go to shop, to play, to debate, to find love. Lee Siegel argues that our ever-deepening immersion in life online doesn’t just reshape the ordinary rhythms of our days; it also reshapes our minds and culture, in ways with which we haven’t yet reckoned. The web and its cultural correlatives and by-products—such as the dominance of reality television and the rise of the “bourgeois bohemian”—have turned privacy into performance, play into commerce, and confused “self-expression” with art. And even as technology gurus ply their trade using the language of freedom and democracy, we cede more and more control of our freedom and individuality to the needs of the machine—that confluence of business and technology whose boundaries now stretch to encompass almost all human activity.

Siegel’s argument isn’t a Luddite intervention against the Internet itself but rather a bracing appeal for us to contend with how it is transforming us all. Dazzlingly erudite, full of startlingly original insights, and buoyed by sharp wit, Against the Machine will force you to see our culture—for better and worse—in an entirely new way.

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Q. What did you think of this book? A. I think Lee made some very good points, and it was courageous of him to speak out against what he calls the electronic mob. Q. What were some of his good points? A. The Internet was shaped by and will continue to be shaped by commercial interests, profit making. Protest against the establishment has been subtly incorporated into the establishment through supposedly cool ads and cool spokespeople, like actors or musicians or athletes. That we are losing much when we begin spending time interacting online in place of interacting person to person. Q. So you agree with these points? A. Yes, but on the downside, his style is rambling and disconnected, like viewing webpages, oddly enough. This may turn off readers who are looking for a cohesive argument. Also on the downside, he does not give any real solutions to the problems he brings up. Q. Are there any solutions? A. Yes, for example, if he does not like the bawdy and cheap amateurism on You Tube, he need only not look at those sites. It is really as easy as turning off the television. You also have the choice of looking at pornography on the Internet or not doing so. I suppose for his book, Lee had to research these sites, but the rest of us do not have to go there if we choose not to. It is really as easy as that. Q. Are you sure that will solve the problems Lee raises? A. Use balance in all things. The Internet has many good things to look at, and television also, I suppose, though I do not watch it. Balance the good things with physical activities, other hobbies, your job, whatever, even your spiritual life, which we all have though we do not all admit it. Q. Are you a philosopher? A. Hardly, but I know not to let the Internet take over my life. 

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About the author (2008)

Lee Siegelis the author of the essay collectionsFalling UpwardsandNot Remotely Controlled. In 2002 he received the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

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