Against the Machine: Being Human in the Era of the Electronic Mob, by Lee Siegel

A superficial account of the putative consequences for civilisation of its embracing of cyberculture, Against the Machine offers a political and sociological critique of online culture, which the author sees as a threat to individuality, political consciousness, plurality of cultural production and meaningful public discourse. He posits the death of originality and a creeping atrophy of the life of the mind, a culture in which our inner lives are commodified as packaged performances and which is rendering us incapable of true intersubjectivity or genuine affect. In this grim world we will all become consumers of ‘truthiness’, unable to sort real information from opinion, debate from vituperation,  truth from spin. We are doomed to become lonely social atoms desperately, semi-awarely reaching out to online entities as unreal  as the personas we ourselves project into cyberspace. Our lives will be hollow performances of inauthenticity. Noble democratic institutions will give way, crumbling before the onslaught of trashmongery and false gods. In short, civilisation will fall.

Siegel forgets that just as 99% of everything online is rubbish, so it is with offline culture; this is how it’s always been since the advent of mass communications with the invention of the printing press and probably before then too. He fails to detail exactly what differentiates ‘good’ culture from ‘bad’, confuses categories, attacks long-established forms as some kind of new-fangled horror, peddles nostalgia, and seems unable to imagine the producers and consumers of cyberculture as anything more than a mindless hive of braindead, passive dupes of capitalist/bourgeois mystification.

He rightly debunks the shiny happy sanguinity of the boosters of the Internet who self-interestedly promulgate a vision of a democratising cyber-Utopia while seeking to dominate it and make it in their own image. He traces this tendency back to Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’, which outlined a view of a society of ‘prosumers’ perpetually marketing themselves and their personalities in a homogenised post-industrial information-based culture. But beyond this his attempts at describing the psychological outcomes for individuals and the collective do not convince. He cites examples from offline to critique ‘Net culture while failing to account for sociological conditions outside the parameters of cyberculture. That he commits this serious error is ironic for a cultural critic so obviously influenced by Adorno and Horkheimer.

This book merely rehashes the familiar vague fears of a mass culture unpoliced by an intellectual elite of producers, tastemakers, critics and distributors, a Moronic Inferno of relativised product substituted for Art and Knowledge. Siegel is pessimistic to the point of defeatism and his arguments are shallow. Add this to the vast pile of nonsense written about the Internet.


About misterdzhimbo

Anarcho-hippy fantasist, poetaster, psych-blues guitar strangler, co-author of Red Phone Box, a beautifully illustrated Urban Fantasy/New Weird story cycle ( I like tea.
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