Against the Machine

August 21st, 2017

I picked up this book as an afterthought at a garage sale last week — Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, by Lee Siegel.  You can get a CHEAP copy at abebooks (love those independent booksellers!).

This book has a lot to say that resonates today, resonates?  Well, it hums so loudly!  Particularly about truth and falsehood.  Quoting Wired’s Kevin Kelly, p. 24-25, Siegel writes:

What will entertainment technology look like in 20 years? Let’s listen to what technology says. First, technology has no preference between real and simulations — (so) neither will our stories. The current distinction between biological actors and virtual actors will cease, just as the distinction between real locations and virtual locations has almost gone.  The choice will simply come down to what is less expensive.  The blur between real and simulated will continue to blur the line between documentary and fiction.  As straight documentaries continue to surge in popularity in the next 20 years, so will hybrids between fiction and non-fiction. We’ll see more reality shows that are scripted, scripted shows that run out of control, documentaries that use actors, actors that are robotic creations, news that is staged, stores that become news and the total collision and marriage between fantasy and the found.

Hey, that’s all about FAKE NEWS!  Seigel takes off from there…

Yet in his feverish devotion to “technology,” he sees nothing wrong with fake documentaries, deceitful “reality” shows, and “news that is staged.” If technology decides that truth and falsehood shall be blurred, then for Kelly their “total collision and marriage” — whatever that means, exactly — is as historically determined, inevitable, and necessary as the Marxist belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Despite the fact that Kelly cheerily predicts the imminent extinction of “old” media, nearly the entire journalistic establishment has embraced, in various degrees, his exuberant view of a dystopic future.  For it is dystopic.  What sane person wants a culture in which the border between truthfulness and lying is constantly being eroded? Nothing affects our values and perceptions, our thoughts and feelings, like the shows we watch, the movies we see, the books we read — and we watch far more than we read; Americans spend a large amount, if not a majority, of their leisure time being entertained…

We know where we stand on a politician’s lies; we know how to respond when we feel, for example, that the government’s deceptions and lies led us into the Iraq war. But no one is making a cogent connection between the rise of the Internet and the accelerating blur of truth and falsity in culture — even though culture’s subtle effects on our minds are a lot more profound in the long run than a politician’s lies, which usually get discovered and exposed sooner or later.  Instead of crying out against the manipulation of truth by “entertainment technology,” as Kelly chillingly calls what used to be described as “having fun,” we watch the general mendacity get turned into a joke — the comedian Stephen Colbert’s celebrated quip about “truthiness” — and turn back to our various screens with a laugh.


Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain – POLITICO Magazine

Donald Trump just keeps lying – CNNPolitics

Back to “Against the Machine,” p. 79

Exaggeration, intensification, magnification of proven success, become highly effective means to success.  The loudest, most outrageous, or most extreme voices sway the crowd of voices this way; the cutest, most self-effacing, most ridiculous, or most transparently fraudulent voices sway the crowd of voices that way. A friend of mine calls this “mega-democracy,” mean democracy about to tip through perversion of its principles into its opposite.  I call it democracy’s fatal turn.

Transparently fraudulent voices… does that remind you of anyone?  And Siegel goes on…

What cultured, thinking people have been suspicious about since the advent of the written word is the herd thinking that commerce encourages.  They fear that the supplanting of independent thought will result in the victory of prejudice and bias and of the stereotypes that they produce.  That it will result in the rule of the mob.  p. 93.

And in blasting the blogosphere:

Writers distributing their thoughts to great numbers of people without botherin to care about the truth or accuracy of what they were writing…

This is a primary issue I have with facebook, and those who use it, that there’s no concern for the truth, and I’ve been unfriended by a few after I’ve pointed out that what they’re saying is flat out false. Earth to Mars, with freedom of speech comes responsibility of speech. And that some people don’t care whether something is true or false, and when gently exposed as writing demonstrably false information, get hostile rather than correct their errors, that they have no sense of ethics or moral behavior, is so disturbing, rhetorically sauntering into the wilderness slinging about toxic garbage! How did we as a culture get to the point where someone regards this as acceptable?

And back to Siegel:

To put it another way: knowledge means you understand a subject, its causes and consequences, its history and development, its relationship to some fundamental aspect of life. But you can possess a lot of information about something with out understanding it.  An excess of information can even disable knowledge; it can unmoor the mind from its surroundings by breaking up its surroundings into meaningless data. Distraction has the obvious effect of driving out reflection, but because we are reading or watching the “news” rather than enjoying a diversion, we feel serious and undistracted. Never mind that the news has often been more diverting than the most absorbing diversions, and now more than ever.  The more we concentrate on the news, the more distracted we are…

… As for more substantial news, you could have disclosures of political corruption or social injustice being broadcast throughout the day, yet if you lacked the ethical and historical bearings to make sens of them, they would have no beneficial effect on your life or anyone else’s.  Many Germans had information about the slave labor and the concentration camps during the 1940s, but because the entire society had lost its ethical and historical bearings, such terrible revelations roused no serious protest.  Americans throughout the country had information about blacks being tortured and killed in the American South or decades after Reconstruction.  But it wasn’t until brave leaders and writers changed the nation’s ethical and historical framework that the era of civil rights began.  It is knowledge that gives us our ethical and historical ballast, and knowledge also brings the critical detachment necessary to arrive at that humane stability.  Critical detachment, not the multiple diversions and distractions of information, is the guarantor of a free society.

In 2017, it appears we have again lost our ethical and historical bearings.

What happens when the language of argument and the language of ridicule become the same?

So much of our societal ills comes down to ethics, and our sense of responsibility. The lies, lack of knowledge and self-awareness, and the culture of irresponsibility must be challenged at every turn.  For each of us, within our circles of influence, we have a lot of work to do!

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