Against the Machine (Lee Siegel)

One of the common tropes of Modern fictional stories (novels and films) is the way in which technology enslaves and harms its creator – think of anything from HAL to the Terminator for an example, but the origins go back to Faust and Frankenstein – and this awareness in literature is not without real life application – just consider the words Bhopal, or Chernobyl, or, more recently, Deepwater Horizon. A new technological development like the internet is bound to give rise to questions about whether it will prove to be harmful for humanity. This is Lee Siegel’s thesis in ‘Against the Machine’.

Let’s start with some good points: Siegel can write well, with an arresting turn of phrase, “they were learning how to perform their privacy” (of bloggers), “If a Bach fugue went to sleep and dreamed of being another form of communication, it would be the Web”. He also has a point about the endemic narcissism that is so prevalent on the internet although his list of criticisms of blogging is rather overblown – “just fifteen years ago, blogospheric excesses would have been considered a democratic crisis”. Hmm.

Early in the book, Siegel talks about the difference between being in Starbucks with a notebook, and engaging with the wider world, and being in Starbucks with a laptop, and criticises the latter as a “social space [that] has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness”. The web, and the ubiquity of the culture associated with it, has destroyed community!

Well, no. Siegel would have been fairer comparing the laptop user to someone reading a book – which is also an extremely effective tool for cutting off human contact and distorting ‘normal’ patterns of human association. At the moment I am particularly delighted that my eldest has been bitten by the book bug, and can now be found at all moments of the day with his nose deep in a Bewilderwood book.

Scratching the surface of this book just a little, we find a journalist who had a bad experience with the web and who is now working out his anger. A particular target is Kevin Kelly (and here I declare an interest, as I have followed Kelly’s blog with great interest and benefit for a number of years now). It is a cry of anguish about the decline of one medium which the author finds congenial, and against a medium that he blames for all that has gone wrong in (his life) society.

There are some useful points in this book – enough to make a good long magazine article – but the book as a whole is lightweight and underwhelming. It didn’t help that he misuses Wittgenstein (grin). Not recommended.