Lee Siegal, enfant terrible of the eminence grise, whose essays cover everything from literary fancy to Groucho Marx wrote (when the internet was still aborning) that laptops were destroying the cafes. The book in question is “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob” and I recommend it though with a disabled person’s admonition–Siegal is too “normal” to grasp how the digital age has improved the lives of folks like me–blind or isolated by mobility obstacles–for us the internet “is” the cafe.
Before proceeding let me attest–yes I spend too much time on the computer; I’ve been trolled on Twitter; have spent gelatinous hours trying to free myself from the radar forest of super-egos who’ll smack you down for the most innocuous things. As the poet Robert Bly wrote to a dead bird: “forgive the hours spent listening to radios”–we’ll not get this time back. Siegal is correct that “more and more people are able to live in a more comfortable and complete self-enclosure than ever before.” If we’re doing the Hollywood game, his book is “The Culture of Narcissism” meets “Amusing Ourselves to Death” with a hint of Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White. The internet “is” our first true “mass culture” and it’s the ark with all the social animals aboard.
Siegal is at his best when describing the moist and vain forms of internet solipsism and one should expect no less for he’s one of the funniest public intellectuals in the US. I’m fond of these passages:
“The Internet’s most consequential changes in our lives, however, are the ones woven into our everyday routines. Maybe your teenage son—or daughter—spends hours every day and night corresponding with dozens of new “friends” on MySpace or Facebook; perhaps he’s uploading a forty-minute-long video of himself dancing naked, alone in his room, onto YouTube, one of the world’s most highly trafficked sites. Maybe your officemate is addicted to political blogs like Little Green Footballs, or Instapundit, or Firedoglake, in which dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people, argue with each other passionately, sometimes abusively, on interminable threads of commenters. Or your other officemate spends all of his time buying merchandise on eBay, or your boss, a high-powered attorney, closes her door on her lunch hour and logs on to JDate, a Jewish dating service, where she fields inquiries from dozens of men.”
“Perhaps your husband is, at this very moment, shut away in his office somewhere in your home, carrying on several torrid online affairs at the same time under his various aliases: “Caliente,” “Curious,” “ActionMan.” When he emerges from his sequestered lair, red-faced and agitated, is it because he has been arguing for moderation with “KillBush46” on the political blog Daily Kos, has failed in his bid to purchase genuine military-issue infrared night goggles on eBay, or has been masturbating while instant-messaging “Prehistorica12”?
Then again, maybe your husband died four years ago from a rare disease, and thanks to information you discovered on the Web, you were able to find a drug that kept him alive for twice as long as he would have lived without it. An Internet grief support group helped get you through the pain of your loss and introduced you to people who are now trusted friends. They led you, in turn, to an online dating service where you met your second husband, and began a new life.”
Siegal captures the terrible and ordinary qualities of loneliness in the digital age, though as a poet I’m reminded that nothing is new under the sun when it comes to vulnerability and solitude. Here’s “Danse Russe” by the poet William Carlos Williams, a poem written in the early years of the twentieth century:
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
(Of course these days we know the answer to the last couplet, the Twitter troll will say he’s not the happy genius of his household–why to even have a house means the writer is privileged and clearly contemptuous of all those who cannot dance and sing softly while alone. Why this is a terrible man! And by the way, who does he think he is comparing himself to a happy genius, some mythic force, really–talk about patriarchal privilege!) Yes, that was a long parenthetical, but you’ll admit it does have merit. If you won’t admit it you can go on Twitter straight away.
So Siegal is funny and his thesis that we’re less and less independent of the delivery systems is a sound one.
Still as a blind person I must say I’ve experienced more than marginal freedom from the machine. Siegal’s nostalgic cafe is presented this way:
“I GO TO STARBUCKS, sit down, open my laptop, and turn it on. In the old days—ten years ago—I would be sitting with a pen and notebook, partly concentrating on my writing and partly aware of the people in the room around me. Back in that prehistoric time, my attention faced outward. I might see someone I know, or someone I’d like to know. I might passively enjoy trying to figure out why that couple in the middle of the room are speaking so intensely—are they moving closer together to relish their intimacy or because there is a crisis in their intimacy? And who is that guy with the fedora—and why the red sneakers? Is he an original, or the copy of an original? I might be watching everyone, but some people might be watching me, too. My situation is just as permeable as theirs. A stranger could come over to my table at any minute, his sudden physical presence before me unexpected, incalculable, absolutely enigmatic in the seconds before he becomes one kind of situation or another.
But here I am, sitting in the future—I mean the present—in front of my laptop. Just about everyone around me has a laptop open also. The small mass of barely variegated gray panels looks like a scene out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but with modems and Danishes. I can hardly see anyone else’s face behind the screens, and no one seems to be doing anything socially or psychologically that might be fun to try to figure out. They are bent into their screens and toward their self-interest. My attention, too, is turned toward my ego. But I am paying attention in a different way from what I do when I read a book or a newspaper. I am opening e-mail sent to me, writing e-mail expressing one or another desire that belongs to me, clicking on Google looking for information to be used by me. Ten years ago, the space in a coffeehouse abounded in experience. Now that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness.”
I don’t know how many internets there are but in these paragraphs there’s a lost world of the flaneur, the cafe goer, whose causal watching represented the true bounty of modernism. To me as a blind man this was never real, and moreover, having lived an isolated life in an industrial nation without good public transportation my experience of space couldn’t be more different than Siegal’s version. The internet has made it possible for me and those like me to enter civic spaces.
I won’t say Siegal has “sighted privilege” as that’s the problem with instant solipsism (forgive us John Lennon). That he doesn’t think as I do is a good thing. And so the true problem is we’ve got the instantaneous but not the civic collaborative to make glorious use of this moment, one when I can debate you, learn something, and you too, you can learn. But learning, true education, depends on the absence of fear.
Referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s essay collection “Tipping Point” Siegal writes:
“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. Gladwell, however, doesn’t fear the mob. Rather, he aspires to bring out the mob-self in the individual. He speaks of “the mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing.” Like that boy or girl we knew in high school who would do anything to please anyone, Gladwell sees other people not as people but as an audience.
He writes, “When we are trying to make an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: we’re trying to infect them.” Where the Internet creed is “connectivity,” Gladwell’s ideal social type is the “Connector.” The Connector is a person who knows lots of other people. If you want to win an audience, sell an “idea or attitude or product,” you go to a Connector. Because they know a broad range of people, Connectors can be the starting point of a tipping point:
‘The Connector belongs to many different worlds—politics, drama, environmentalism, music, law, medicine, and on and on—and one of the key things she does is to play the intermediary between different social worlds.’”
I do not know what it means to see other people not as people, but as an audience for potential sales though I believe Facebook and Twitter prove the point.
I do know that digital spaces have made a more connected series of engagements for those of us who have often been shut in or out.
As for the mob inside myself, that’s the work of poetry. See Williams.