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Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob Hardcover – January 22, 2008
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
Siegel, a controversial former NewRepublic.com blogger and past Slate.com art critic, provides a fascinating look at how the Internet is reshaping the way we think about ourselves and the world. Siegel explores how the Internet affects culture and social life, particularly the psychological, emotional and social cost of high-tech solitude. Arguing that the Internet's widespread anonymity eliminates boundaries, Siegel discusses the half-fantasy, half-realism of online personas. Internet pornography, Siegel intones, collapses public and private, transforming others into the instrument of the viewer's will. By experiencing virtual selves rather than other individuals, a danger arises: people run the risk of being reduced to personas that other Internet users manipulate toward their own ends. Insightful and well written with convincing evidence to support Siegel's polemic, this book is a welcome addition to the debate on the personal ramifications of living in a wired world. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Acclaim for Lee Siegel
“Mr. Siegel is a zigzagging cultural omnivore…a confrontational enthusiast… an expert demolisher of critical group-think.”
--New York Observer
“One of the country’s most eloquent and acid-tongued cultural critics.”
-Deborah Solomon, New York Times
“To read him is to be reminded of what criticism used to aspire to in terms of range, learning, high standards, and good writing and--dare one say it?--values.”
-- David Rieff
“Savor his vigorous prose, and prepare to be surprised.”
“In every case, Siegel is wildly and satisfyingly unpredictable.”
"One of the heroic few."
-- The Guardian
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In some sense, based on Siegel's premise that anyone who has anything the least bit critical about the internet is marginalized and the mainstream press is unwilling to genuinely to engage in anything but the internet is only good, it is not surprising that he screams pretty loudly some of his opinions. He frankly doesn't believe anyone will listen unless someone is loud and bold.
I certainly do agree with some of his core sentiments, noted by another reviewer: "where the rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and access is often a fig leaf for antidemocratic and coercive rhetoric; where commercial ambitions dress up in the sheep's clothing of humanistic values; and were, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest." Much of the above is a good characterization of an enormous amount of content on the web in such large reach places like YouTube and Wikipedia, to the mass of blogs that proliferate. Is the ability of people to communicate, collaborate and share information across boundaries powerful and beneficial? Certainly. Does someone putting a camera on some form of America's Funniest Home Video and posting it on the web make it good? More beneficial and less inane to society than it being shown on TV because it is the internet? Hardly.
Do the most ardent supporters of Wikipedia really believe it is apolitical and not censored -- the same criticism they level at mainstream media and profess the web is above. Definitely no. Does this make the web bad? No.
Yes, the web may be the most profound tool unleashed on humanity since the printing press. Certainly it has, is and will have a profoundly positive impact on people and the world for generations to come. However, this does not mean that the changes unleashed are only positive or there has, is and will be a vocal group of individuals that lead this "coercive and anti-democratic rhetoric" to suppress those who question the "all is good" mentality.
Siegel opens his discussion with a scene in Starbucks where everyone is sitting speechless - if not on cellphone - in front of their laptops. Everyone is trying to achieve "connectivity" with the World Wide Web. What Siegel sees is disconnectedness and isolation. Social-networking sites, for example, are a contradiction in terms. They are asocial and atomizing. How can members of Facebook and MySpace have thousands of "friends." What are the consequences for real friendships? Siegel asks all the pertinent questions, even though he doesn't have all the answers.
Siegel has a special axe to grind with Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. He charges that Gladwell has made popularity the sole criterion for success. The Internet is keeping us at the level of high school, where popularity or "page views" is more important than originality or creativity. Webheads strive to be more like everyone else than anyone else. He cites "American Idol" as another example of contemporary mindlessness. The most successful performers are the best imitators.
Siegel wonders what effect 50,000 new blogs daily (presumably this one included) has on our culture. With the shear volume of information, knowledge becomes elusive. It becomes more difficult to separate rumor from truth. Reality shows are staged, some documentaries are staged, how long before the news is staged? Siegel argues that the blogosphere has a deteriorating effect on "fairness, honesty, and accuracy." Webheads will find that many of his arguments are difficult to refute.
As a professional journalist, Siegel laments the disappearance of the editorial standards of traditional print media, even though they too were imperfect. He also denounces the superficial freedom and democracy that the blogosphere claims for itself. Although his sentiments ring true, there is nothing that can or should be done about the electronic mob from above. Cultural gatekeepers are a thing of the past. We can only hope that the great digital unwashed can sort things out from the bottom up, and that truth and justice prevail.
To the interested reader I recommend a book that in some ways is more thoughtful than this admittedly erudite screed, and approaches the problems from a more philosophical and optimistic viewpoint. That book is The Internet of Us by Michael P Lynch.