Lee Siegel wants to tell you why he doesn't like the internet. But wait, you might protest, all this new-media talk is tiresome. Well, shut up: Lee Siegel is not interested in your opinion. This isn't some dirty blog, where the author's prose mingles with commenters' "thuggish anonymity," but serious work by a cultural critic lamenting the State of Online Discourse. But still, you might wonder, Lee Siegel? The writer who was suspended by the New Republic for blogging under an alias to praise his own blog posts—now he's an expert on what's wrong with the internet? Yes, but there's a bright side. Even if you detest this elitist attack on participatory culture, you don't have to shoot the messenger; he's already bleeding all over the keyboard.
Bloggers thrashed Siegel in 2006 for creating a fake web persona to praise himself, a superfan who wrote that Siegel was his "hero," a "brave, brilliant, and witt[y]" writer, with the "fire and guts of a young man." A reader outed Siegel, the New Republic placed him on probation, and Siegel marched into that special limelight the media reserves for public sinners, nabbing PR and a book deal.
Against the Machine is not (consciously) about Siegel's web transgressions, which are dismissed as a "prank" in two cursory pages. The book takes a wider view, contending that the internet makes us more self-centered, crass, and uncivil. In a breezy, generalizing style, Siegel muses that the web rushes thought, commodifies content, and undermines merit. Few can "write well" or "have anything original to say," he says, unoriginally, but the web lets them compete with established writers.
This virtual world thrives by sapping life from the real world. Siegel concedes that young people talk politics online, but it's so surreal—and the anonymous attacks so harsh—that they do less offline. "College students used to be the active arm of society's conscience," he writes. "They often took to the streets to demonstrate... Now they tremble helplessly before the internet's Alice-in-Wonderland, truth-eliding, boundary-busting juggernaut." The book is studded with such sweeping claims, sans data, as if everyone accepts the trade-off between blog comments and marches. But is this even accurate?
Students were a key part of the immigration rallies in March 2006, gathering 500,000 people for "one of the largest demonstrations for any cause in recent U.S. history" (AP). So many students learned about the rallies through MySpace—the internet!—that one paper reported it was the largest political gathering ever organized on the site. Yet Siegel thinks the web "is a parallel universe that rarely intersects with other spheres of life outside its defensive parameters." Oddly, he never mentions MeetUp or MoveOn, which organize offline action. In fact, the Guinness record for the largest protest ever was a series of 800 coordinated antiwar marches across the globe in 2003, organized online. Then there's the hopemonger: Barack Obama raised money from a record-shattering one million small donors online. He literally could not have funded his historic, 15-month campaign without the web.
Readers won't hear those stories on this terrible tour. Instead, Siegel provides awkward descriptions of mundane sites, sounding like a grandfather narrating web surfing—in 2003:
Your boss... logs on to JDate, a Jewish dating service, where she fields inquiries from dozens of men. Perhaps your husband is... 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" ...has failed in his bid to purchase genuine military-issue infrared night goggles on eBay, or has been desperately masturbating while instant-messaging "Prehistorical2"?
He could go on. This passage is followed by more hopeful activity. "Maybe your husband died four years ago from a rare disease," Siegel offers, and an "internet grief support group helped you get through the pain." (Was this the same husband toggling from sex chatting to eBay? Unclear.) All these hypotheticals are building to an insight: "Like all significant technologies, the internet is a blessing and a curse."
By combining the fact-free observations of a futurist pundit and the hypocritical tirades of a sinful preacher, Siegel's book is as unreliable as it is insufferable. Ironically, he sounds like the caricature of bloggers he denounces: uninformed, shrill, defensive, and self-obsessed. The nascent web culture does have problems, which fine thinkers have tackled before (Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler, for example). But Against the Machine fails to support its antiweb hostility, let alone offer specific reforms, because it's too busy ranting in the mirror.