Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Age of the Electronic Mob

Against the machine:  Being human in the age of the electronic mob

By Lee Siegel

Spiegel & Grau  (2008)

We are all under attack from the “electronic mob,” according to Lee Siegel.

Lots has been written about the democratic potential of the internet.  For example, Howard Rheingold’s book on the topic is called Smart Mobs: the next social revolution.

 Author Lee Siegel takes aim at this idea in his book, Against the machine:  Being human in the age of the electronic mob.  Siegel characterizes Web 2.0 as a “crude caricature of egalitarianism.”

 Siegel’s challenge to the wisdom of crowds theory of the internet falls into three categories:  its commodification, standardization and radical individualism.

 Commodification is no surprise.  In an amazingly short time, the non-commercial internet morphed into the huge profit centre that it has become.  The commodity for sale is really attention, much as has been the case for the newspaper, radio and TV.  However, in the case of the internet, ironically, what is for sale is frequently the content that has been created by the very person who is also the consumer.  Leisure time is, in effect, turned into work; private experience into a public commodity.

 Some 70 million blogs exist in the blogosphere, growing rapidly toward 100 million.  Siegel see this, rather than imperialism, as the true final phase of capitalism.  It reflects the individual learning to “retail his privacy as a public performance.”  Leisure play is fused with production and consumption.  The internet culture, Siegel claims, operates on a belief “that the market contains all values.”

While boosters of the internet talk about “demassification,” in fact it produces more standardization.  Many of the information sources on the internet provide information through algorithms based on popularity—such as Google search returns.  The New York Times online replaces “All the news that’s fit to print” with sidebars giving links to the 10 most e-mailed, blogged and searched items.

The individual gets customized information through tools like Google Reader—what Nicholas Negroponte calls “The Daily Me” and others call “crowdsourcing.”  Siegel has another word for it—the “youniverse” that only reflects back to the user what he/she wants to hear.  Mass customization is really a new form of standardization.

But it is a standardization that at the same time promotes an extreme individualism through the illusion of choice, access and increased opportunity for individual expression.  These produce the feeling of individual agency, but not the reality.  The anonymity of putting out ideas without a real name attached, as is often the case, encourages a lack of accountability and reflects an absence of the positive influence of institutional ethics.

So what does Siegel want?  Siegel sees his work as being one of unmasking “the emperor’s new modem.”  

Like Neil Postman, who laments “the surrender of culture to technology,” Siegel wants some institutions that operate on ethical principles and social responsibility.  For example, Siegel contends that the “the culture needs authoritative institutions like a powerful newspaper.”  Without that, he suggests, we are subjected to the “electronic mob.”

Yes, but….. Short of a total global ecological disaster, we are not likely to abandon the new tools and networks.  But we can try to shape them, to work at creating responsible, democratic and ethical communication systems that are not new forms of commodification and profit centres.

Ironically, Siegel himself was caught up in 2006 in a blogging situation that was not either responsible or ethical, in the view of many.  He had been a blogger at the New Republic magazine and had come under attack by others in the blogging world. 

Siegel created a pseudonym and joined in the blog wars in defense of himself and against what he called ‘blogofascism.’  Creating a pseudonym to defend your self is labeled as creating a ‘sock puppet’ and he got fired from the magazine when it was exposed. 

Despite this, Lee Siegel does us a favour by challenging the hyper-promotion of the new technologies by those who profit from them and by those who are uncritical proponents of a new world, without looking below the surface at the social dangers that lurk in the very structure of the technology.  Without challenges like his, we will never get to the task of shaping technology to fit our social values, rather than the other way around.

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