AGAINST THE MACHINE: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/03/books/review/Lanchester-t.html
By JOHN LANCHESTER
Published: February 3, 2008
One of the oldest and soundest rules in intellectual life is “never get in a parsing contest with a skunk.” It is a principle that the lively, intelligent, combative cultural critic Lee Siegel forgot in autumn 2006, when he gave in to the temptation to respond to comments about him posted on his blog at The New Republic’s Web site. Some of the comments were anonymous and abusive — featuring allegations of chromosomal deficiencies and pedophilia — and Siegel replied under the pseudonym “sprezzatura,” praising his own work and denouncing his critics (“You couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces”). When it emerged that Siegel was sprezzatura, he was pilloried in the blogosphere, suspended by The New Republic and, “in good American fashion,” he writes, rewarded with the opportunity “to write the book on Web culture that I’d long wanted to write.”
By Lee Siegel.
182 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $22.95.
'Against the Machine,' by Lee Siegel: Spinning Out Into the Pileup on the Information Superhighway (January 17, 2008)
New Republic Suspends an Editor for Attacks on Blog (September 4, 2006)
Questions for Lee Siegel: Bye-Bye Blogger (September 17, 2006)
Under the circumstances, no one would expect that new book, “Against the Machine,” to be a valentine to the Internet. The book describes itself, in its first sentence, as being “about the way the Internet is reshaping our thoughts about ourselves, other people and the world around us.” The view it takes of that reshaping is an angry, dark one. Siegel sees the Internet as “the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.” “Against the Machine” sets out to explore the consequences of that fact.
There is a variety of Luddite cultural pessimist who sees the Internet as inherently trivial, a gigantic nonevent in the history of man. Most Net naysayers are in that camp, but Siegel isn’t one of them. In that sense, he agrees with the Net’s boosters and hucksters. He thinks that “the Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind.” The trouble is that “from the way it is publicly discussed, you would think that this gigantic jolt to the status quo had all the consequences of buying a new car.” Siegel’s mission is to make his readers think about the negative effects of the Internet — its destructive impact on our culture, on our polity and, perhaps most important, on our sense of ourselves.
The indictment comes with a number of counts. Siegel argues that the Internet invites people to “carefully craft their privacy into a marketable, public style.” In doing so it creates an environment in which everything is on display all the time, whether on YouTube, on Internet dating sites or in the blogosphere. This turns the culture into a giant popularity contest, an expanded and never-ending version of high school. “You must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else,” Siegel writes. Thanks to the Internet, and to shows like “American Idol,” we are encouraged to believe in a phony idea of interactivity, as “all popular culture aspires to full viewer participation.” “Popular culture,” he argues, “used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what everyone else likes.” Siegel makes the strong point that “what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact, its exact opposite.” People sitting on their own in front of computer screens — this once would have been called disconnectedness or atomization. Siegel is blistering on the “surreal world of Web 2.0, where the rhetoric of democracy, freedom and access is often a fig leaf for antidemocratic and coercive rhetoric; where commercial ambitions dress up in the sheep’s clothing of humanistic values; and where, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest.”
Most good cultural critics are instinctive moralists, and Siegel is a fine example of the type. But criticism of this type often leaves the reader wondering, as James Joyce wondered apropos Wyndham Lewis’s attacks on “Ulysses”: Even if all of this argument is granted as true, how much of the truth is it? How much does it leave out, and how much could be said on the other side of the story? Pretty much everyone not madly in love with the Web will agree with some of what Siegel says about Internet culture. Anonymity may be a desirable quality for a corporate whistle-blower or a Chinese political blogger, but it is an almost entirely destructive force in the online discourse of the West, and Siegel is right to say so. But there are counterpoints to be made and counterexamples to be offered at more or less every stage of Siegel’s argument. For example, although Siegel notes that there are “about 70 million blogs in existence, with between 40,000 and 50,000 being created every day,” he doesn’t point out that most of those blogs aren’t in English — doesn’t, in fact, acknowledge the impact of the Internet anywhere outside America. That, in the context of this discussion, is a little provincial. If the Internet changes everything, the rest of the planet has to be part of the story.
It also doesn’t help Siegel’s case that he is so angry all the time. “Against the Machine” is an intemperate book. Siegel is too quick to attribute mercantile or otherwise venal motives to people with whom he disagrees, and the range of interesting thinkers at whom he takes potshots is pretty wide: Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, Lawrence Lessig and many others. He is hasty, and at times careless, as in this paragraph on the Lonelygirl15 affair, a YouTube stunt from 2006 featuring a young actress who turned out to be represented by the Creative Artists Agency:
“By the time the Lonelygirl hoax was revealed, the country had long been reeling from a series of public betrayals. Enron officials had lied to their shareholders. A New York Times reporter named Jayson Blair had lied to his editors. James Frey had fabricated events in his best-selling, Oprah-endorsed memoir. Most consequentially, and outrageously, of all, President Bush had clearly lied to America and to the world about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and also about a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. You might have expected an exasperated American public, or at least the American media and blogosphere, to be equally angered by the revelation that YouTube and MySpace had been infiltrated by dishonest and powerful vested interests.”
The fact that a man as smart as Siegel came to put Lonelygirl15 and Iraq into the same train of argument is a sign of the Internet’s power to make people lose all sense of perspective. The ramped-up affect of “Against the Machine,” its air of haste and its ad hominem quality are uncomfortably reminiscent of the blogs Siegel so dislikes. There are moments when it seems that Siegel is baring psychic wounds in public, and the reader comes to suspect that he was much more troubled by his bruising experience with the blogosphere than he is willing to let on. Why is so much to do with the Internet — so much of what’s said on it, and so much of what’s said about it, by its advocates and its detractors — so angry? “Against the Machine” doesn’t solve that mystery. But at least Siegel signs his arguments with his own name.