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


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

ISBN13: 9780385522656
ISBN10: 0385522657
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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“The World Is All That Is the Case”

I GO TO STARBUCKS, sit down, open my laptop, and turn it on. In the old daysten years agoI would be sitting with a pen and notebook, partly concentrating on my writing and partly aware of the people in the room around me. Back in that prehistoric time, my attention faced outward. I might see someone I know, or someone Id like to know. I might passively enjoy trying to figure out why that couple in the middle of the room are speaking so intenselyare they moving closer together to relish their intimacy or because there is a crisis in their intimacy? And who is that guy with the fedoraand why the red sneakers? Is he an original, or the copy of an original? I might be watching everyone, but some people might be watching me, too. My situation is just as permeable as theirs. A stranger could come over to my table at any minute, his sudden physical presence before me unexpected, incalculable, absolutely enigmatic in the seconds before he becomes one kind of situation or another.

But here I am, sitting in the futureI mean the presentin front of my laptop. Just about everyone around me has a laptop open also. The small mass of barely variegated gray panels looks like a scene out of Fritz Langs Metropolis, but with modems and Danishes. I can hardly see anyone elses face behind the screens, and no one seems to be doing anything socially or psychologically that might be fun to try to figure out. They are bent into their screens and toward their self–interest. My attention, too, is turned toward my ego. But I am paying attention in a different way from what I do when I read a book or a newspaper. I am opening e–mail sent to me, writing e–mail expressing one or another desire that belongs to me, clicking on Google looking for information to be used by me. Ten years ago, the space in a coffeehouse abounded in experience. Now that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness.

The new situation doesnt represent the “lack of community” suddenly produced by the Internet. That is the hackneyed complaint made, again and again, by people who don't seem to have thought through the unlovely aspects of “community”its smug provincialism and punitive conventionalism, its stasis and xenophobiawhich was in any case jeopardized and transformed by the advent of modernity two hundred years ago. The simple fact is that sometimes you don't want the quiet conformities induced by “community”; sometimes you simply want to be alone, yet together with other people at the same time. The old–fashioned cafe provided a way to both share and abandon solitude, a fluid, intermediary experience that humans are always trying to create and perfect. The Internet could have been its fulfillment. But sitting absorbed in your screenworld is a whole other story. You are socially and psychologically cut off from your fellow caffeine addicts, but mentally beset by e–mails, commercial “pop-ups,” and a million temptations that may enchant in the momentaimed as they are at your specific and immediate interests and desiresbut in retrospect are time–wasting ephemera. Its not community that the laptopization of the coffeehouse has dispelled. Its the concrete, undeniable, immutable fact of our being in the world.

Before our screens, experience is collapsed into gratifying our desires on the one hand, and on the other either satisfying or refusing to satisfy the soliciting desires of other peopleor entities. As the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “The world is all that is the case.” We have been flung into the world whether we like it or not. But the Internet creates a vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist. In this new situation, the screen is all that is the case, along with the illusion that the screen projects of a world tamed, digested, abbreviated, rationalized, and ordered into a trillion connected units, called sites. This new world turns the most consequential fact of human lifeother peopleinto seemingly manipulable half presences wholly available to our fantasies. Its a world controlled by our wrist and finger.

Yet the untamed, undigested, unrationalized, uncontrolled world is still there. People as thinking, feeling beings still exist. What form, then, do we take, in a world where there ishow else can I put it?no world at all? To put it another way: What kind of idea do we have of the world when, day after day, we sit in front of our screens and enter further and further into the illusion that we ourselves are actually creating our own external reality out of our own internal desires? We become impatient with realities that dont gratify our impulses or satisfy our picture of reality. We find it harder to accept the immutable limitations imposed by identity, talent, personality. We start to behave in public as if we were acting in private, and we begin to fill our private world with gargantuan public appetites. In other words, we find it hard to bear simply being human.

This situation is not a crisis of technology. Rather, it is a social development that has been embodied in the new technology of the Internet, but not created by the Internet. The sudden onset of Web culture is really a dramatic turn in the timeless question of what it means to be a human being. What a shame that transformative new technologies usually either inspire uncritical celebration or incite bouts of nostalgia for a prelapsarian age that existed before said technologyanything for an uprising against cellphones and a return to the glorious phone booths of yore! The advent of new technologies pretty quickly becomes a pitched battle between the apostles of edge and Luddites wielding alarmist sentiments like pitchforks. Because each side is a caricature of itself, no one takes what is at stake very seriously at all.

And they are caricatures, for anyone who thinks technological innovation is bad in and of itself is an unimaginative crank. (I would rather go live on Pluto than return to the days of the phone booth and the desperate search for change.) But anyone who denies that technology has the potential to damage us if it is not put to good use is either cunning or naive. In the case of the Internet, the question is whether we let this remarkably promising opportunitywhich, as well see, has until now largely been developed in service to commerce and capitalshape us to its needs or put it in the service of our own. Do we keep acquiescing in the myopic glibness and carelessness that characterize how so many of us are using the Internet? Do we keep surrendering to the highly purposeful way vested interests are foisting it upon us?


The future, we were once told, shocked. Well, the future is here. But no one is shocked.

The sensational evidence of upheaval is everywhere. You can read about it in the newspaper or see it on the news by the hour. A lonely middle–aged carpenter in Arizona meets a Brazilian woman online, visits her in Rio de Janeiro twice, and then, on his third encounter with her, is murdered by his new girlfriend, her real boyfriend, and a hired assassin. A sting operation sweeps up hundreds of pedophiles luring their prey in Internet chat rooms. Computer hackers use the Internet to nearly bring down the government of Estonia. An anonymous Web site reveals the identities of federally protected witnesses in capital cases. Social–networking sites like MySpace and the videoblog site called YouTube turn the most graphic inhumanitya Texas policeman puts up photos of a dismembered woman; anonymous users post footage of American soldiers in Iraq being gunned downinto numbing new forms of entertainment.

The Internets most consequential changes in our lives, however, are the ones woven into our everyday routines. Maybe your teenage sonor daughterspends hours every day and night corresponding with dozens of new “friends” on MySpace or Facebook; perhaps hes uploading a forty–minute–long video of himself dancing naked, alone in his room, onto YouTube, one of the worlds most highly trafficked sites. Maybe your officemate is addicted to political blogs like Little Green Footballs, or Instapundit, or Firedoglake, in which dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people, argue with each other passionately, sometimes abusively, on interminable threads of commenters. Or your other officemate spends all of his time buying merchandise on eBay, or your boss, a high–powered attorney, closes her door on her lunch hour and logs on to JDate, a Jewish dating service, where she fields inquiries from dozens of men.

Perhaps your husband is, at this very moment, shut away in his office somewhere in your home, carrying on several torrid online affairs at the same time under his various aliases: “Caliente,” “Curious,” “ActionMan.” When he emerges from his sequestered lair, red–faced and agitated, is it because he has been arguing for moderation with “KillBush46” on the political blog Daily Kos, has failed in his bid to purchase genuine military–issue infrared night goggles on eBay, or has been masturbating while instant–messaging “Prehistorica12”?

Then again, maybe your husband died four years ago from a rare disease, and thanks to information you discovered on the Web, you were able to find a drug that kept him alive for twice as long as he would have lived without it. An Internet grief support group helped get you through the pain of your loss and introduced you to people who are now trusted friends. They led you, in turn, to an online dating service where you met your second husband, and began a new life.

Like all significant technologies, the Internet is a blessing and a curse. Or, rather, it is obviously a blessing and obscurely a curse. It would be tedious to recite the Internets wonders as a tool for research and a medium for connectivity in detail herein any case, those wonders have been touted far and wide for the last decade by an all–too–willing media. But the transformations are real. For the first time in human history, a person can have romance, friendship, and sex (sort of); be fed, clothed, and entertained; receive medical, legal, and just about every other type of advice; collect all sorts of information, from historical facts to secrets about other peopleall without leaving home. For the first time in human history, a technology exists that allows a person to lead as many secret lives, under a pseudonym, as he is able to manage. For the first time in human history, a person can broadcast his opinions, beliefs, and most intimate thoughts--not to mention his face, or any other part of his bodyto tens of millions of other people.

The simple fact is that more and more people are able to live in a more comfortable and complete self–enclosure than ever before.

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Andrea Learned, May 20, 2008 (view all comments by Andrea Learned)
Siegel tells it like no one else has yet - and I hope he is not the last to write about this topic. He points out that knowledge is different than information (information being what the Internet serves up and knowledge being what contributes to wisdom) and he offers up much due criticism of the 24/7 news cycle (the airport gate waiting area always comes to my mind - exactly who decided all passengers wanted to be blown away by CNN?): "The manic news cycle, in which the hottest, newest stories immediately give way to hotter, newer stories, gives its audience the illusion that they and the world they live in are ageless. Information has become fashion cycles for the mind."

He criticizes the blog realm for it being solely (pretty much) a popularity contest, and on and on with points that will likely resonate with a lot of readers (even bloggers). I recommend this book as a counterpoint and voice of reason for anyone who's had the sneaking suspicion that information overkill isn't necessarily a positive cultural development.
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Product Details

The Comedy of Existence
Siegel, Lee
Yale University Press
Media Studies
Popular Culture
Information technology
Social Aspects - General
Social aspects
Internet - General
Entertainment & Performing Arts
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Jewish Lives
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
1 b/w illus.
8.25 x 5.5 in

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Related Subjects

Computers and Internet » Internet » General
Computers and Internet » Internet » Information
Computers and Internet » Internet » Web Publishing
History and Social Science » Sociology » General
History and Social Science » Sociology » Media
Reference » Science Reference » Sociology of Science

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob Used Hardcover
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Product details 184 pages Spiegel & Grau - English 9780385522656 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "What makes Siegel's book so thought-provoking is the way he delineates the economic forces behind the Web."
"Review" by , "One of the improbable virtues of Against the Machine is that it presents a rigorously sane, fair and illuminating incarnation of its more often hotheaded author."
"Review" by , "[An] intelligent and tautly written challenge to online's conventional wisdom."
"Review" by , "[A] healthy dose of iconoclasm on a service that so many accept as crucial."
"Synopsis" by , In the manner of great works of criticism like Susan Sontag's On Photography, Siegel forces readers to radically rethink a familiar medium. Like On Bullshit and Letter to a Christian Nation, Against the Machine offers a bracingly original perspective to an essential ongoing debate.
"Synopsis" by ,
A trenchant examination of an iconic American figure that explores the cultural and psychological roots of his comic genius
"Synopsis" by ,
Born Julius Marx in 1890, the brilliant comic actor who would later be known as Groucho was the most verbal of the famed comedy team, the Marx Brothers, his broad slapstick portrayals elevated by ingenious wordplay and double entendre. In his spirited biography of this beloved American iconoclast, Lee Siegel views the life of Groucho through the lens of his work on stage, screen, and television. The author uncovers the roots of the performerandrsquo;s outrageous intellectual acuity and hilarious insolence toward convention and authority in Grouchoandrsquo;s early upbringing and Marx family dynamics.


The first critical biography of Groucho Marx to approach his work analytically, this fascinating study draws unique connections between Grouchoandrsquo;s comedy and his life, concentrating primarily on the brothersandrsquo; classic films as a means of understanding and appreciating Julius the man. Unlike previous uncritical and mostly reverential biographies, Siegelandrsquo;s andldquo;bio-commentaryandrdquo; makes a distinctive contribution to the field of Groucho studies by attempting to tell the story of his life in terms of his work, and vice versa.

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