Against the Machine

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-03-17
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

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From the author hailed by theNew York Times Book Reviewfor his "drive-by brilliance" and dubbed by theNew York TimesMagazineas "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 inlife 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-productssuch 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 usingthe language of freedom and democracy, we cede more and more control of our freedom and individuality to the needs of the machinethat 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 howit is transforming us all. Dazzlingly erudite, full of startlingly original insights, and buoyed by sharp wit,Against the Machinewill force you to see our culturefor better and worsein an entirely new way.

Author Biography

Lee Siegel is the author of the essay collections Falling Upwards and Not Remotely Controlled. In 2002 he received the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.



“The World Is All That Is the Case”

I GO TO STARBUCKS, sit down, open my laptop, and turn it on. In the old days—ten years ago—I 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 I’d like to know. I might passively enjoy trying to figure out why that couple in the middle of the room are speaking so intensely—are they moving closer together to relish their intimacy or because there is a crisis in their intimacy? And who is that guy with the fedora—and 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 future—I mean the present—in 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 Lang’sMetropolis, but with modems and Danishes. I can hardly see anyone else’s 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 doesn’t 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 xenophobia—which 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 moment—aimed as they are at your specific and immediate interests and desires—but in retrospect are time–wasting ephemera. It’s not community that the laptopization of the coffeehouse has dispelled. It’s 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 people—or 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 th

Excerpted from Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture and Commerce -- and Why It Matters by Lee Siegel
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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