Two years ago, cultural critic Lee Siegel found himself thrust by his editors at The New Republic into the rough-and-tumble world of blogs, where anonymous readers could (and did) level harsh attacks against his every word. He rightly saw these attacks as a form of thuggery, though the remedy on which he settled—assuming an alias to join the exchange in his own defense—was as bad as the disease. Eventually, he was found out. He lost his blog but gained a book contract, and Against the Machine is the result.
Siegel’s thesis is that blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other recent upsurges of so-called user-generated content are culturally harmful. Those who think otherwise he dismisses as “Internet boosters” who respond to skepticism about this new smorgasbord by “crying ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’ and ‘don’t fight the future.’” Many advocates of the Internet are, of course, more thoughtful than Siegel’s straw men—and in neglecting to engage them, he shows that the uncharitable style of online argument he decries is no more appealing in print.
Nonetheless, Siegel has acute questions about the role that commerce plays in Internet culture. Others have cited the emergence of free resources such as the volunteer-written Wikipedia and open-source software as evidence that the Internet shrinks the domain of commerce, but Siegel says that’s only half the story. These new projects encourage people to see economic value in their leisure pursuits. Those who post videos of themselves on YouTube, for example, regard attention itself as a valuable commodity; to them, “doing their thing and doing business in the marketplace are the very same activity.”
In Siegel’s eyes, this phenomenon owes something to books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000), which argue that life “is wholly driven by commercial concerns.” He blames Gladwell’s book for creating the trend that it merely describes, namely, “populariz[ing] the idea of popularity as the sole criterion of success. Once the ‘tipping point’ became an established concept, the easy hijacking of the Internet by commercial interests was almost a foregone conclusion.”
It’s debatable how far this trend has extended—do online popularity hounds really think they are “doing business” in a “marketplace”?—but Siegel is right that we have traveled some distance down the road of conflating usefulness with intrinsic value. The mindset that makes the most sense online, in other words, may threaten “our freedom to live apart from other people’s uses for us, and from ours for other people.”
But if economics has been stretched to cover notions such as popularity and pleasure, and love, then economic terms are no longer purely pecuniary. Siegel fears that we may come to view love as an act of commerce, but when the two are blended, perhaps we will recognize commerce itself as more humane. The social goods that can be found in markets—the nobility of self-reliance, the creativity and freedom inherent in launching a new venture, the solid fairness of an even exchange—seem to strike Siegel as bastardized virtues, because commerce itself is morally suspect. Then again, perhaps the isolation of commerce as a neatly separate sphere of human activity—an isolation whose end this book laments—will turn out to be something we are just as well off without.
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David Robinson is associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.
Reviewed: "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob" by Lee Siegel, Spiegel & Grau, 2007.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Martin Kenny