An impassioned roar against online excess

Times Staff Writer

For those of us on the Internet bandwagon, there's such a constant, loopy din -- so much back-patting and self-congratulation, so many rosy forecasts, that even if there were dissenting voices, you wouldn't hear them.

But in his new polemic against the Internet, "Against the Machine," Lee Siegel is yelling extra loud. And when it comes to criticism, Siegel is no lightweight. He's critiqued art, literature, film and television, including for this newspaper, with his own brand of pugnacious tenderness. So what happens when a guy who's made a living X-raying concrete culture tries to see into the digital stuff?

Regretfully, nothing you haven't heard before. In his new book, Siegel has a habit of emphasizing the Web's lowlights and using them to repeat tiresome and obsolete critical tropes -- YouTube as repository for funny animal movies and angsty confessions, Wikipedia as morass of slander and inaccuracy, and the blogosphere as echo chamber for blowhards and amateurs.

Siegel doesn't mention that blogs are giving newspapers a run for their money in terms of relevance, speed and readership (or that for years newspapers have had popular blogs of their own). Or that YouTube now has 70 million videos from 20 countries, and that even if only a small fraction of them are culturally significant (and who said they had to be?) -- that's thousands of short films, animations, documentaries and political statements that simply never existed before. Same for Wikipedia and its 7 million articles -- matter of preference, maybe, but to this writer, instant access to a sea of potentially useful information is worth the price of a few inaccuracies and sloppy sentences.

The Internet is an age-defining technology, like stone, iron or the printing press. No major advance is a panacea -- a technology's implications always swirl together in a cyclone of yin and yang. Imagine if we unearthed a tablet from an Iron Age priest titled "Against the Metal"? Would that man be seen as a visionary?

The digital culture is disconnecting us as much as it's connecting us, Siegel says, and human relations are suffering. How, exactly? We invited him to discuss this and other assertions via a cross-country video chat, him in New York, me in downtown L.A.

The book's title is "Against the Machine." Am I right to say that in your view, the Internet has been, on the whole, a negative development for human civilization?

Well, I think it's a marvel of convenience. There are a lot of positive aspects of the Web. There are marvelous websites from just about every human field of endeavor -- midwifery, archery, idealist philosophy, classical music . . . but as often in human affairs, the negative aspects drive out the positive ones -- the bad drives out the good. And my book is about those bad aspects, which are louder, more aggressive, more virulent than the good things.

How is the Internet harming the culture?

It's turning popular culture into popularity culture. It's no longer "I love that thing he does," but rather "Look at all those page views!" It's emphasizing the pursuit of the trivial -- the buzzy, or as the Internet cognoscenti like to say, the "viral." It's teaching people to commodify their inner lives. You go onto a blog and it's all in the first person. Everyone's performing their candor on their blogs and on YouTube.

There's another development too: People are turning their leisure time into work. One of the Internet's favorite concepts is the "prosumer," meaning that old-fashioned consumers are now able to produce their own entertainment, their own news. Nobody's passively enjoying anything anymore; everyone's aggressively participating in what they used to passively enjoy, whether it's high art, popular art or the news.

So everything's turned into a transaction. It's nice to have spaces in your life where you can passively surrender yourself to an experience. We need that. But if everyone's online producing . . . nobody has time to reflect on who they are and where they are in the world, much less time to reflect. . . . We're so distracted by information that we don't know what's going on.

You say that the Internet is not as revolutionary as the printing press, largely because the printing press created new information, where the Internet just recycles information. Can that be true?

I think very little -- if any -- original reporting takes place on the Internet. It's all streaming news from other sources. Ironically, most of the independent websites get their news off the mainstream media, which they're always railing against. Or their adversarial riffs are based on what they read in the mainstream media. . . .

In the book I talk about how you can have a lot of information about something without understanding it. The average German knew what was going on in the '30s with the concentration camps -- the war against Jews -- but because the information hadn't been [converted] into knowledge, which shows the relationships between things and has an ethical ballast to it, no one did anything about it.

You're not impressed with the Internet's ability to activate the democracy or get people engaged politically. Isn't it early to be saying that? It's only recently that a majority of Americans have broadband access.

I hope that the Internet does become a positive development in political life. As I see it now, it just isolates everybody. If you were a tyrant and you wanted to divide and conquer, you couldn't come up with a better medium than the Internet. Everybody's sitting alone behind their screens. They might be involved in a heated political discussion, very heatedly, and 10 seconds later they're on EBay. . . .

I know I sound very dark. I listen to myself and I sound like one of these gloomy guys. But I want things to be more playful, more genuine, more real. And I think the Internet could help us do that. But it's been taken over by the stodgiest, most reactionary, bottom-line-obsessed forces in the culture. That's what makes me angry.


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