Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Against the Machine - Being Human

I read with interest as certain bloggers nobly ceased their proclamations during Lent this year and, indeed, some have decided to cease altogether. The fear that the time spent reading, composing and publishing blogs drags you away from more worthwhile pursuits is definitely something I can relate to....

Stephen Siegel, author of 'Against The Machine, Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob' was one of the 'Talking Heads' on the excellent BBC TV series 'The Virtual Revolution' broadcast early 2010. Having been so impressed by his relatively short contribution I purchased his book which turned out to be an excellent read, full of illuminating facts about the last 20 years of the virtual world and the contributory factors to the successful aspects of the web. Certainly he reinforces fears and concerns many feel and although in interview he comes over as pretty cynical and sarcastic, on the written page his arguments are measured and totally reasonable.

Intriguingly the back cover sports Marshall McLuhan's famous quote: 'The Medium is the Message' which turned out to be at the core of the next book I chose to read, more soon!

So, what makes this book so compelling is, as mentioned, the confirmation that behind so much of what we may consider to be the worthwhile aspects of the applications available are specifically geared to 'capturing' more information about you. Now that might not sound particularly original, Google searches and online shopping forays are obviously giving merchants detailed statistics and buying patterns that they can tap into to attempt upselling you alternative or similar products that other folk with similar stats have bought. It is more how Lee Siegel reveals the poiltical and financial drivers behind our movement to what we now term as 'Social Networking'.

Bearing in mind this book was written prior to the Twitter explosion, so the main analysis is based on Blogging, MySpace and Facebook. What he is saying is that we are trading our privacy for popularity. In earlier times we would come home and have dinner and chill out together... now we tend to go onto our computers and start revealing more 'private' information for the rest of the world to absorb, not just our family and close friends. Whilst we may be careful about our credit card numbers common sense seems to evaporate as we pour out deeply personal information via our keyboard, sacrificing our identity and withdrawing into a world of physical solitude.

He then moves on to the sense that we are drawn into this world to the extent that if we are not repeatedly checking our Facebook page (and now, Twitter, of course) we fear we might miss something really 'important'. So now we move from a bit of fun to compulsive behaviour which then escalates the more we share and absorb.

Added into this equation is the vast and ever expanding amount of false information out there. He quotes examples of where large corporates are tweaking their Wikipedia entries to cover up their blunders and, indeed, to be fraudulent to bump up their stock and impress their shareholders. Even in the last few days I noticed some blogs that had fallen for some 'jokes' and considered them to be real, one which is now accepted as just a prank, the other is still considered 'real'!

Siegel is particularly scathing of corporate America where the multinationals will rent so called Social Media gurus who will charge obscene amounts of money to portray the internet as a magical world under its own independent control and destiny! He also puts into perspective issues which people perceive the internet has cause and effect, such as the Obama presidential campaign.

Finally I must stress that he is not saying all web, blogging and social media is totally wrong and, in fact, he highlights examples of where excellence and philanthropy is clear. What he does do, though, is highlight the 'copy culture' where information with scant provenance, a blog post, for example, gets re-circulated numerous times and perpetuates total nonsense or effectively re-writes our history!

I found this a fascinating read, both confirming and re-assuring and very challenging all at once. It has reinforced changes in my on-line behaviour that I had started and may well have more impact still and I give it a hearty 5 star recommendation.
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Anonymous said...

The book sounds fascinating - It is now in my "Amazon" basket.

Peter Banks said...

Well done... (and welcome!). You won't regret it but be prepared to change some of your views ;-)