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Caught in the Web

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Reviewed by Ellen Ullman
Sunday, February 10, 2008

AGAINST THE MACHINE

Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

By Lee Siegel

Spiegel & Grau. 182 pp. $22.95

We must first address biography, as the author does in his introduction. Lee Siegel, an editor at the New Republic, wrote a culture blog for the magazine. When readers responded with slurs and curses (as is common on the Web), Mr. Siegel posed as a member of his own audience, whereby he delivered a screed against his detractors and a paean to himself. This ended his blogging career. Siegel describes his actions as a "prank." Later in the book, however, he shakes his fist at a succession of online liars and frauds (some of whom might also consider their actions to be "pranks"). It would at least be sporting if the author had made a nod toward himself as a possible member of that tribe.

Siegel's book is a jeremiad against the ills the Internet has visited upon our lives. He raises important points, many of them previously made by others but forcefully recapitulated here: the Web's role in promoting social isolation; the confusion of popularity -- voting for favorites -- with true democracy; the economic motives driving the Web, and the use of "participatory culture" as a lure for customers; the constant delivery of undigested information bits, knowledge "withering away into information."

As an antidote, he calls for the return of the editor, reviewer, expert, artist -- all the learned and experienced people swept out in the Web's shameless glorification of indiscriminate self-expression. His position is unpopular, branded "elitist," but it needs to be said: All people are created equal, but all opinions are not.

But the author does himself no favors with his presentation. He writes in the pitch of what he himself has criticized as "the sound of the blogosphere": that hectoring, angry, bragging, unforgiving tone. Among his specialties are hyperbole -- "Shopping on-line at eBay," he says, "is an absolute, totalizing experience that fills your mind and appropriates your will" -- and undifferentiated scorn -- "All these mostly young people on this supposedly wild, egalitarian, hierarchy-shattering medium, where anything supposedly goes, are cautious and derivative." Even readers inclined to agree with him (such as this one) will feel pummeled. We're punched left, right, left -- at one point cornered by nine heavyweight recruits (including Marx, Schumpeter, Nietzsche, Nero and Jesus) within two pages. Sections like these show off Siegel's bookshelf but leave the reader without a moment for reflection.

The problem at the heart of this book is its oppressive cynicism. The author paints everyone he sees as a huckster, poseur, opportunist, hypocrite, liar or pornographer. He cannot admit it's not all evil out there. Despite the junk shown on YouTube, the lies told on Facebook, the anonymous trash talk that passes for reader comments -- despite all that, there is a generation that has been born to the Web and is finding its way through it. It does no good to brand them all as lazy makers of mash-ups and vapid self-displays. Siegel quotes Spinoza: "All things excellent are both difficult and rare." He should expect that most of what he's going to see on the Internet will be flotsam. Why shake a finger and scold?

It's appropriate that 12-year-olds should swoon before the Web: It's the defining tool of their time. They are thinking about the Web in ways that the 50-something Siegel (and this reviewer) cannot possibly comprehend. Maybe he doesn't remember the curiosity, the excitement, the sheer joy one feels when trying something new and unbounded.

The author also makes a critical mistake in believing that technology is "neutral, value-free, neither inherently good nor bad." The internal structures of complex technologies have a way of recreating themselves in the social world. The Web runs over a network: isolated machines communicating through the limited, though growing, vocabulary of what can appear on a Web page. People are not (necessarily) the villains; they are struggling mightily to turn their isolated computers into a means of drawing closer in a fluid world.

Siegel's most original comments concern his own field, journalism. He notes that newspapers have not been critical of the Web but have been cowering in its wake, leaving experienced, senior journalists trembling to be taken seriously by 20-somethings with their barely literate blogs. The entire profession -- a pillar of our democracy -- seems on the verge of drowning in the wild, dark sea of "citizen journalism."

How, then, can professional journalists like Siegel regain their stature? Not by writing a book full of scorn and anger. In the face of his relentless cynicism, even the most devoted technology critic will feel the need to stand up and say something nice about the Web and the mass of humanity using it, which is probably not what the author intended. *

Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer, is the author of "Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents" and "The Bug: A Novel."


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