Wire alarm

Lee Siegel takes on Web culture.

REVENGE OF THE HERDS Siegel examines thuggish behavior on the Internet.

REVENGE OF THE HERDS Siegel examines thuggish behavior on the Internet. Photograph: Jill Krementz

In 2006, Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide after befriending and then being taunted by a teenage boy on MySpace. The boy, it turns out, didn’t exist—he was allegedly created by the mother of one of Meier’s friends. This case came to light last November, after Lee Siegel had already finished his latest book. But it’s hard to imagine a more extreme manifestation of the social alienation he condemns in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

Siegel, winner of the 2002 National Magazine Award for criticism, is the kind of writer who can bring Wittgenstein into an argument about American Idol without his erudition seeming forced. With precision and pointed rage, the author argues that unexamined dependence on the Web is commodifying and degrading nearly every aspect of human experience, glorifying page views over creativity and click-throughs over serious inquiry. Not only that: He contends that it is destroying our social fabric. “It empowers solitude,” Siegel says. “It makes it easier to be alone.” He writes that “the laptopization of the coffeehouse…has dispelled…the concrete, undeniable, immutable fact of our being in the world.”

Siegel, who lives in Brooklyn, is talking about all this over a very real sandwich in a very real restaurant in Park Slope. He points out that if he were to crudely insult me across the table, I would probably be outraged enough to end the interview. Walking away from an onscreen insult is much harder: Instead of provoking anger, it tends to set off an endless litany of insecurities. “In the privacy of your own home, using your imagination the way you do, your own past becomes an accomplice to the incident,” Siegel says.

No Luddite, Siegel has written for the Web for years and, like any author, checks his Amazon rankings. He acknowledges that the ugly intentions that motivated Meier’s tormentors are nothing new. But he argues that the means available to deliver them made a crucial difference: “Technology enabled that malevolence, maybe even made it possible,” he says. “If you’re going to do it by writing letters, in the course of doing that—addressing the envelopes, taking them to the mailbox—you might realize what you’re doing is terribly wrong.” In front of a screen, it’s all a matter of a few private clicks.

Hence the proliferation of hate speech, casual libel and general vitriol in the online universe. Siegel has been on the receiving end of that nastiness: In 2006, anonymous readers attacked the author for a New Republic blog post he wrote criticizing Jon Stewart. He has also been tripped up by his own rather benign Internet deception. Siegel created a pseudonymous identity to defend himself in the blog’s comments section. (When his ploy was unveiled, he was temporarily suspended from the magazine.) Defending his actions, he writes: “I decided that…I might as well…give thuggish anonymity a taste of thuggish anonymity.”

He compares the cult of the Web to the cult of the automobile in the early 1960s, when 50,000 Americans were dying on the roads every year because of the lack of safety features on cars. “As with the car,” the author writes, “a rhetoric of freedom, democracy, choice and access has covered up the greed and blind self-interest that lie behind much of what the Internet has developed into today.”

Siegel points out that when Ralph Nader exposed the manufacturers’ disregard for consumers in Unsafe at Any Speed, the public began to demand change—and got it. Siegel won’t call himself the Nader of the Web. But as Nader took on the giants of Detroit, Siegel rails against Internet darlings such as Wikipedia (“articles that lurch from one prejudice to another, from one incoherence to another”), eBay (“an absolute, totalizing experience that fills your mind and appropriates your will”) and YouTube (“the effect of such chaos and randomness is to induce a general insecurity, and to make conformity the only standard for success”).

He looks to other journalists and writers, especially at powerful organizations like The New York Times, to examine our growing reliance on the Web. The rest, he says, is up to individuals. “Each of us needs to be aware of superficiality and herd thinking,” he says. “It’s like any addiction—it’s responding to the dark needs within ourselves. It’s impossible to measure the effect technology has on consciousness.”

Against the Machine (Spiegel & Grau, $22.95) is out now. Siegel reads Wed 23.