Monday, July 07, 2008

Criticizing the Internet: Ur Doing it Wrong

Yesterday the band got back together at a rehearsal space here in Toronto to put our set together for our performance at Phog on January July 18 [come for us, stay for Explode When They Bloom]. Since some new songs were being worked out, I brought my camera and tripod and took some single shot video of the rehearsals, thinking I might toss them on Facebook if anyone was interested.

Turns out they're too large for Facebook [or YouTube], so I've spent a total of about five hours between yesterday and today trying to find a freeware program that could compress the Quicktime files created by my camera into smaller MPEGs, with decent picture quality and audio/video sync. Only just now am I finishing the rendering of the second video I wanted to post [Sony's Vegas Video demo was the one to get the job done, btw].

The entire frustrating experience reminded me of all the others I've had like it and left me wondering why we seem so eager to work so hard during our free time? At what point did we start coming home from our job only to plop our ass in front of the computer and start working again, 'for fun'?

Continue reading this entry.
This 'commodification of leisure time' is just one of the many problems former New Republic blogger Lee Siegel highlights in his recent book Against the Machine. Normally I steer clear of such books, since even a cursory read reveals them to be little more than the fist-shaking of some pundit calling for the kids to stay off his virtual lawn [see Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation]. Siegel addresses this concern in his early chapters: how no one ever wants to say anything bad about the Internet for fear of seeming behind the times, especially old media types. Siegel differentiated his book for me by courting some of the issues I have with the great online revolution, and have written about on this forum before. Among them:

The aforementioned erasure of leisure time, and the way it causes us as a people to further withdraw into ourselves. Shopping is fun. You go to a store, you're with other people, you browse the racks, maybe you bump into someone you know. Searching for something on eBay is not fun. You sit glued to a monitor scrolling screen after screen of items, making mental notes of details you'll need to remember, like the highest bid or time remaining. Take another example: flirting with girls at a bar is fun. Searching for potential mates on Lavalife, less so. Siegel [with more than a little snot in his tone] compares the two processes with identical language. But his point remains: these activities sound a lot like work.

The Internet loves to talk about freedom of choice and connectivity, as it limits our decisions and pushes us further inside our own heads. When I write, as does Siegel, I usually do it longhand in a cahier. Ideally, I do it in a coffee shop where I can be easily distracted by conversations around me, the music on the sound system, an argument being had on the sidewalk outside the window, etc. More and more, I'm the only one doing that. Everyone else in the place who's doing any sort of work is on a laptop with a pair of noise reducing earbuds jammed in their heads. Nothing gets out, nothing gets in. As well, those people on the laptops are probably browsing through their bookmarks, the customized list of content that speaks to their issues and concerns from a viewpoint they sympathize with. They can read Daily K-Os or Michael Geist, watch a video of Keith Olbermann and listen to their favourite underground Brazilian baile funk song. At no time does anything they disapprove of have to enter their experience. Is this democracy?

The Internet erodes originality, replacing it with imitation, and placing popularity as the primary currency of success. While I've written at length about the benefits of remix culture, I doubt Siegel would appreciate it. And he has some validity. Anyone can predict the first thing that happens when something breaks online: within minutes, hundreds of people will take the basic premise, add a minimum of innovation, and reap the page views. The subsequent success might prove the creation has a certain novelty, but it doesn't say much for the direction of Western culture as a whole [look at Family Guy]. And yet, could anyone in a million years have predicted the absurd beauty of Chocolate Rain?

The Internet encourages your life to become a performance. Those videos I'm rendering as I type this, who are they really for? I could say I'm trying to market the band, but really now. When I or anyone else throws fifty photos of a night out onto Facebook, who are those for? For whose benefit are we posting them? We want our 'friends' to look at them, comment on them, tell us we look good or they like the photographic composition. When I post here, how much of it is for your benefit, Windsor students, and how much for my own ego or to squeeze my 'Google juice'? We're all putting ourselves out there, selling ourselves every minute of the day for popularity points, and then we cry foul when someone notices the fine print of Facebook quietly claims ownership for anything you put there.

So if I agree with a lot of what Siegel says, why does the book ultimately fall apart so spectacularly for me?

For one, despite his constant reminders that anyone who criticizes the net gets mocked for being out of step, to try and prevent the same from happening to him, he admits early in the book that he suffered the effects of bad online publicity, relating an anecdote of the abuse he took at his New Republic blog from anonymous commenters. When he then created a fake name to sign up and leave derisive comments at the people berating him, his deception was revealed and he was suspended by his work and tarred and feathered all over the blogosphere. As Siegel's tone turns combative [comparing Web 2.0 to Stalinism, equating the writing skills of Tim O'Reilly with that of a toaster], it's hard not to conjure up the image not of the old man shaking his fist at the clouds, but of the sour grapes of someone who got burned. For someone who says bloggers conduct no original investigations, they sure exposed Siegel's duplicity pretty quick.

But the book's ultimate failure is that it never fulfills it's basic premise. From the book's subtitle [How to be Human in the Electronic Mob] to his introduction [with its plea that "things don't have to be the way they are,"] Siegel gives you the sense that he has at least some semblance of a thought on why the issues he raises are damaging, and how we can use the Internet to correct them. But he never does. He has no hypothesis why the issues he raises are so bad, he just knows he doesn't like them. Siegel so stubbornly adheres to his anti-Internet rhetoric that even as he slams new media and old media coverage of it with being unbalanced, he does the exact same thing for two hundred pages.

Not once does Siegel acknowledge that the Internet has done anything well, even as he alludes to its sucesses. In his closing screed on bloggers [in short: leave it to the professionals], Siegel offers a list of lies and falsehoods mentioned on blogs, later proven false. Siegel doesn't mention that the proof a blogger is lying is 90% of the time presented on the blogger's own comment thread. Bloggers are kept honest by the people who read them. Unless you're one of the top percentile of bloggers [and how many of those are there really? Five hundred out of 500,000?], getting caught in a lie can destroy whatever readership you had.

Part of Siegel's distaste for the web seems to stem from his decidedly Western perspective on it. The most popular online destinations might involve celebrity gossip and videos of people acting stupid, but the National Enquirer and America's Funniest Home Videos existed long before anyone knew what e-mail was. American culture versus the Internet is a chicken/egg scenario, and one Siegel can't answer and doesn't try to. Siegel's willful ignorance of the people in the rest of the world who are trying to harness the Internet to tell their stories [the college student in Iraq, the Chinese journalist] is frustrating and unacceptable.

Despite my hopes for a balanced read debunking the hype of the Internet, Siegel practically begs those who see any value in the web to condemn his shrill cries of how better things were in his day. What a wasted opportunity.


Anonymous Hollywood said...

January 18th? don't you mean July 18th.

1:22 AM

Blogger The Trail said...

1,000+ word entry, and that's all you have to say. I love you, interwebs.

5:31 AM


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