How the Web Turned You Into a Schmuck


By Lee Siegel
Spiegel & Grau, 182 pages, $22.95

To read the social critic Lee Siegel’s latest treatise on the deleterious effects of Internet culture is to find oneself exultantly blurting things like “Mmm-hmm!”, “That’s right!” and “Sing it!” Overhearing me ejaculate thusly, my friend Mike said he imagined a bunch of geeky white journalists sitting in a Baptist church, huzzahing a sermon whose highlights included, for example, the declaration that the Internet “has forced traditional news outlets to seek out more and more trivial news,” and that it has “engorged the ‘old’ media with streams of useless information.” Ain’t it the truth, brother!

“But I feel like I read posts about that stuff every day on Romenesko,” said skeptical Mike, referring to the oft-clicked “media news” Web site. (Mike is a sometimes television writer who doesn’t share Mr. Siegel’s tastes in that particular medium.)

I excitedly pounded my pew—O.K., the arm of the sofa. “But that’s exactly it! This isn’t a link on a Web site. It’s a book.” God bless it, a book!

Not to romanticize overmuch, but how strangely novel it seems to read an argument about the digital world sustained over almost 200 creamy paper pages, instead of in fits and starts on that cold, blue, migraine-inducing screen that now follows the affluent citizenry pretty much everywhere they go. It’s a good book, an exciting book, a necessary book (and a short one, appropriately enough for the many of us whose attention spans have been perhaps forever truncated by our ingrained daily routine of incessant pointing and clicking and hyperlinking).

Also, let’s be frank, kind of a nervy offering from a writer who only a little over a year ago was busted for posting vituperative self-aggrandizing e-mails under the nom de plume “sprezzatura” in response to online detractors of his work in The New Republic. Though surely those of us still learning to negotiate cyberspace like so many early astronauts bobbing around in Apollo capsules can conjure more sympathy than schadenfreude toward the hot flush that must’ve coursed over Mr. Siegel’s visage at the moment his ruse was discovered. We’re all so naked out there, misfiring e-mails and trying to erase embarrassing Google searches.

Who could blame the critic if he’d gone into hiding for a good long while after the sprezzatura incident, spun in the book as a “rollicking misadventure”? But “in true American fashion,” Mr. Siegel elected instead to capitalize on it. That is, intellectually capitalize.

He has evident scorn for those fellow public thinkers—“advance men for the Web” such as panel-hopping New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, catchphrase-coining New York Times columnist David Brooks, seminar-cruising consultant Douglas Rushkoff and so-called “techno-hustler” Steven Johnson—who have the audacity to profit from their theories by seeking and glorifying a mass audience; they might as well be Paris Hilton shilling a new handbag line.

Mr. Gladwell in particular is “obsessed with popularity,” his adversary all but hisses. “Back in high school, people like him were the reason you drank, brooded over Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and imagined which celebrated figures would speak at your (imminent) funeral.” Though Mr. Siegel is 50 years old (according to one of his many scourges, Wikipedia), fully domesticated in Brooklyn with a wife and son, he’s in many respects still that misfit in a black T-shirt scowling by the corner locker while everyone else is whooping it up at the basketball game. You almost feel like he doesn’t want Against the Machine to gain widespread acclaim, lest he be, heaven forfend, branded as a sellout.

And the Internet, Mr. Siegel is essentially arguing, makes sellouts of pretty much anyone who engages with it in any significant way. College students, formerly “the active arm of society’s conscience”—marching on picket lines, starting literary magazines or handcuffing themselves to administrators’ desks—now spend most of their waking hours baring their bodies and souls online in bottomless spirals of narcissism. (Or worse, they drop out of college altogether and make billions of dollars starting Web-based platforms for such narcissism.) Commentator-enthusiasts of the new online order blithely fling around buzzwords like “freedom … individualism … democracy … epidemic”—that last line of rhetoric particularly troubles Mr. Siegel, who notes that “the terrifying idiom of plague” has been converted by Mr. Gladwell into “the happy nomenclature of commercial triumph.” (Later, he remarks, discussing the “viral” efforts of American Idol contestants: “It depresses me to equate illness with success.”)

Network programmers solicit suburban audiences, themselves busily uploading their home movies to YouTube, to participate in creating their own entertainment: sort of the large-scale equivalent of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels, except now, as then, there’s nothing artistically adventurous about so doing.

The author is a big believer in art with a capital A, “a form of expression that mysteriously accommodates our experience without actually addressing our particular experience,” as distinct from the “self-expression” so ubiquitous nowadays, which he sneeringly compares to a 4-month-old pooping on someone’s lap. Get a grip, people—nothing on the Net could possibly be as mysteriously divine as Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, ya dig?

But it’s not just that most of what’s out there on the blue screen is junk, “time-wasting ephemera”—a statement with which one imagines most modern sentient beings would agree. (Who, after all, hasn’t felt faintly sick following an afternoon noodling on the computer while the real world ticks by?) No, Mr. Siegel is grimly prophesying big cataclysmic social events; the relentless intrusion of economics into leisure time; the end of privacy as we know it; even—dum-de-dum-dum—“democracy’s fatal turn.”

Does he have a prescription for getting matters back on the right course? Not really; in fact, with his concluding catalog of “eight open secrets” and “five open supersecrets” of the blogosphere, he veers ironically into the Gladwellian lingo of best-seller-dom. But you know, there could be worse fates.


Alexandra Jacobs is editor-at-large of The Observer. She can be reached at How the Web Turned You Into a Schmuck