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02.13.08

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

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


In this a compact rant, cultural critic Lee Siegel nails some of the shibboleths of a Web 2.0 world in which too much connectivity results in social atomization. He is spot-on when he notes some "open supersecrets" of the web: "Not everyone has something meaningful to say" and "Few people have anything original to say." Unfortunately, blogs and user-generated content mean that everyone is saying more and listening less. But much of Siegel's brief sounds like forelock-tugging. He is still upset over the fact that Lonelygirl 15 was a hoax—to paraphrase Barack Obama, that's like building a bridge to 2006. More to the point, Siegel argues that computer users are starting to live in "comfortable self-enclosure" and forgetting about the real world. Restraint is thrown out the window (or maybe Windows), and "The border between private desire and public behaviour begins to slip and slide." On Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, we are putting our personal lives up for examination and commodified exchange. The ultimate goal, Siegel writes, is to become noticed by "merging with the mass, extending the most generic and derivative appeal." The web is turning into a popularity contest straight outta the halls of high school, and we all know where that leads: Heathers. Siegel has some smart things to say about how the mainstream media genuflects to the blogosphere. Unfortunately, his argument goes completely off the rails when he speculates that the collapse of the social and private spheres began when Hollywood switched from medium shots to close-ups in the 1950s. The same effect, according to Siegel, happened in music: "It's easier to assimilate rhythm's sameness to your fantasies than to step out of yourself and follow melody's different changes. Rhythm is music's first person, as the close-up is film's." So once again, rock & roll is to blame. (By Lee Siegel; Spiegel and Grau; 182 pages; $22.95 hardback.)


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