Raging against the internet machine

Cultural critic and author Lee Siegel believes the time is ripe for a mature debate about the web's impact on society, personality and culture

Lee Siegel is a cultural critic who has written for The New York Times, Slate and The Nation. However, he is perhaps best known for what happened in 2006 when writing for The New Republic.

Exasperated by anonymous attacks made against him through the site's talkback facility, he created a pseudonym to exact revenge on his critics via the message board. Quickly exposed, Siegel was suspended from the publication but eventually reinstated in early 2007.

Following his experiences at the sharp end of Web 2.0, Siegel wrote a book, Against The Machine, which criticises what he sees as the web's mob mentality and antipathy towards those who dare to be different.

Suggesting that commerce's intrusion into the internet goes hand in hand with people's packaging of themselves through phenomena like social networking, Siegel argues that a war for culture is currently underway. ZDNet.co.uk interviewed Siegel in London, to see whether we are really all doomed.

Q: You're upfront in the book about your experience on The New Republic's message boards. How much did that influence the tone of this book?
A: The book does not come out of that; I've been criticising the internet for some years, most intensively in my blog. I'd tried to get a book contract [on the subject], but I guess that doesn't matter for those who think this is an act of revenge. I have been thinking for a long time about the tension between culture and democracy, and that tension is crystallised on the internet, supposedly the most democratic medium.

Is the internet not inherently democratic?
Some would argue that we live in somewhat limited democracies, and the pathologies of democracy are amplified on the web. You have an egalitarian anti-democracy, with the illusion that everyone can have a voice; if everyone sits around the table and shouts at the same time, the loudest voices drown out the more softly spoken voices. It's a popularity contest; people will do almost anything to get noticed. A lot of the stuff that happens on the web that passes for social interaction would never happen in real life.

But social interaction has changed with many communications media, even with the telephone.
The changes wrought by the internet are more radical even than the telephone. On the phone you have the fluctuating intricacies of presence.

The book focuses very much on the negative aspects of the internet age, but surely the internet is a boon for some.
Ideally that's what it should be but, with kids on social-networking sites, there is a type of personality being developed. Web boosters talk about breaking down hierarchy, but there's always a hierarchy in human engagements. Some people are sneaky and so on, and those who are there to share things are vulnerable to the more cunning animals.

Should the children of today not be more adapted to the new medium?
Ideally, yes. There's this rift in the discourse about the internet — there is the 'ought' and the 'is'. A lot of people present the 'ought' as the 'is', but it could also be that the type of personality being developed is very conscious of numbers of friends and developing a sense of false intimacy. [The web] magnifies the high-school nightmare. There are good things being done [on the web]. Modern life is more atomised and isolating, and these sites should bring people in touch with others and allow them to find like-minded spirits. But it quantifies friendship.

Your book talks about people packaging themselves like products and links this to a growing commercialisation of the web. Is that not quite a logical leap?
I probably pushed it a bit too far to make my point. Maybe I'm guilty of quantifying what I think is a social trend. People are more complicated than that, after all. But, where you have everyone seeming to...

...disclose secrets from their private life, you have people faking their secrets and privacy to attract other people. This is a new style of personality. It's a new wrinkle in social life.

People have a way of adapting and it's not necessarily bad. You're opening up a larger space for yourself, but we have to also look at the dark side of that. In America you have the new genre of the fabricated memoir — lonelygirl15, for example. Instead of people being appalled, people are delighted and embrace it. The hoax is becoming a whole new brand of entertainment. It's liberating but where does it leave us? Why are we tolerating lies?

The internet is also, clearly, very effective at exposing lies.
That's a really interesting issue. Is it making politicians more honest or is it making people ever more careful about what they say? Is it creating more artifice in the public realm? Look at what happened with [Barack] Obama: he goes to a fundraising event, invites a citizen journalist and she catches him out [with his comment about "working-class people"]. Suddenly there's a firestorm about him. The Huffington Post played it up for the sake of hits and now Obama is even more careful of what he says.

The same goes for journalists; will it make them more truthful or ever more cautious of reporting the truth? You have to be careful not to enrage people in general, and be careful about your sources and who you talk to. The New York Times has been criticised by the blogosphere for using anonymous sources. Where would American journalism be without Deep Throat?

Many major news sites have 'most emailed' and 'most read' lists, but these are not always the most meaningful stories. A lot of community radio stations' mandate is to report on unpopular stories. Whatever happened to the virtue of being unpopular? Everything is about success and winning. When you have editors who always wanted their stories to be popular but are now turning their full attention to that, you are not going to have the [smaller stories].

But surely that is an area where the web excels. A lot of people go to niche or subject-specific sites rather than the kind of mainstream sites where stories about Britney Spears will overshadow others.
In my book, I talk about how wonderful blogs are on every aspect of human life. Many blogs are public-service revelations and delights, but what my book takes up are these broader trends. The web can take pathologies in society and hasten them. You have these users who are more polite and can share their interests but, behind that, I want to talk about the principle of interactivity — the illusion that people can be as much producers as users. Are they producers? Are their voices as heard as those of the people who own the means of production on that site? Is this whole 'prosumerist' idea just a way of bringing in consumers under the guise of being producers?

I want to understand the principle of interactivity. In general, what does it mean for society? What does it mean that we're no longer passive consumers of entertainment? The answer I come up with is it brings all of cultural activity into the realm of the marketplace. If you're making a transaction, you're aggressive and participatory. If you're reading a book, you are not part of the marketplace energy.

What about people's tendency to develop an immunity to, say, pop-up ads?
Pop-ups are only the most obvious incursion of commerce into the web. What about Google's page rank? I'd love to see the cultural hegemony of the Google ethos overturned. Everything's being filtered and organised and put on the marketplace. It's great for business, but not always. We have to think about whether it's great for human relations.

A musician might find the internet a good way to bypass the old recording-label system. What would your solution be for the web's problems, without throwing the baby out with the bath water?
I don't agree with all the hand-wringing over the fate of the big recording labels. I don't care about them; they are horribly corrupt and crushing, and the same goes for...

...any giant corporations in the culture business. But, as an independent musician doing your own thing, can you get the audience to pay to hear you without this admittedly corrupt apparatus?

Commerce is great — without commerce you wouldn't have culture — but it belongs in its own realm. I don't want to see the entire culture entrepreneurialised. Business is now unquestioned in America. The 1950s was a golden age in American music; in Greenwich Village anyone could do anything. You could create abstract expressionism and cool jazz and these people were not plugged into the system. But, because they were not on this militantly egalitarian medium, they weren't forced to get down and grovel in the trough with everyone else. If you invite everyone to the table, it is hard for a sensitive voice to get heard.

Someone is always going to be the gatekeeper. There is always a hierarchy. The web is parcelled up between great giants, like Google and News Corp. Even on blogs, you have the alpha voices who have to be acknowledged by the smaller, better voices. I think that, going back to my perhaps pathetic ideal of post-war culture in the 1950s, the reason it worked there is you had this whole system of critics and clubs talking about music — social groups that radiated outwards. On the web you lose the social glue.

What people don't realise is that character is as much a part of it as talent. And part of character is knowing how to move through the world among other people. You can only do that with other people; it is very hard to do it in the abstract. With billions of voices, there is no real way of judging them.

Do you not think that the internet is simply in its early stages and the way things are now is just a phase?
It will definitely change; it's in the infant phase of its development. The sheer restlessness of society will change it. The economic downturn will make people less tolerant of frivolity and other people's narcissism, and want reality. But no change will happen while people who [promote this change] are called 'douchebags' and 'fucktards'. The discourse has to become more sophisticated. There has to be a real dialogue and there have to be critics of this thing. Ideally they should appear on the web itself. I think that will happen and I think there will be a market for it.

Have you considered setting up such a forum online?
I'd love to, if I could attract people who could support that kind of venture. Speaking as a former blogger, it can just devour your time and your life. It would be nice to have some kind of web magazine that posed these questions to the web, but also in a satirical way at times.

The future of the web lies on the web. The best aspects of the web and print culture will fuse and create something. You already see it, often sponsored by big, established media institutions, but smaller organisations will arise that do the same thing, that have all the length and reflectiveness of the traditional print medium. People won't be so quick to link to other things and truncate their thoughts. There's so much opinion-mongering on the web.

So much comes down to 'I agree' or 'I don't agree'; it's the way you argue that matters. I'd like to see style become more of a presence on the web.