Stop the world -- he wants to log off

In "Against the Machine," swaggeringly abrasive cultural critic Lee Siegel pays a visit to Starbucks. He finds himself surrounded by Internet zombies, laptop-addicted creatures who have so lost their capacity for human interaction "that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness." How long until they wake up and smell the coffee?

Siegel's trip illustrates several things, not least that Starbucks is today's most hackneyed reportorial setting. His outing captures a vision of connectivity that is the opposite of what it appears to be. For him the semblance of a shared Starbucks experience masks endemic computer-generated isolation, a condition that has prompted psychic and ethical breakdowns that go beyond the collapse of community.

Though Siegel is hardly the first observer to deem this a sinister side of Internet culture, he turns out to be an impressively tough, cogent and furious one. His diatribe would bring to mind the haranguing of Pauline Kael, even if Siegel, who does not treat his own reputation lightly, were not trumpeting the phrase "Pauline Kael of the Internet" himself.

In any case, Siegel has done something in which Kael once specialized: nailing an inchoate malaise that we experience but cannot easily explain. He asks why we are living so gullibly through what would have been the plot of a science-fiction movie 15 years ago. Why does the freedom promised by the Internet feel so constricting? Why do its forms of democracy have their totalitarian side? What happens to popular culture when its sole emphasis is on popularity? Siegel links these questions to a fundamental assumption about the Internet, one that has been posited by other analysts: that it is a liberating entity, one that generates opportunities for creativity.

He insists that most of those opportunities boil down to business matters, and that "the Internet's vision of 'consumers' as 'producers' has turned inner life into an advanced type of commodity." Siegel provides example after example of how surreptitiously this process of co-option works. He shows how the fan of a television show can be led to a Web site where the show can be approached in a supposedly interactive fashion. " 'Which character are you most like?' " he asks, citing a question posed about "Grey's Anatomy." And parenthetically: "(You'll also have to read an ad for a vaccine against genital warts.)"

The price of such diversions is, in Siegel's appraisal, devastating. It turns our passive, private, spontaneous appreciation of popular culture into something active, public and market-driven. It leads us to confuse self-expression (which is all about us) with art (which "speaks to us even though it doesn't know we're there"). It has created what Siegel calls the first true mass culture, though he cites critics who in 1957 worried about how culture could be degraded by the masses. Culture for the masses, he says, was a worry of the past. Culture by the masses is what is being born in the present and will shape the future.

Peppering his argument with potshots at writers who view any of these developments enthusiastically, Siegel both defines and decries an array of current misconceptions. We are being persuaded that information and knowledge are interchangeable, he claims, when they are not; we would have citizen heart surgeons if information were all that mattered.

And mainstream news outlets, which Siegel is otherwise delighted to assail (his love-hate relationship with The New York Times is particularly intense), suddenly look worthwhile by virtue of their real, earned authority. Better the old press than the new tyranny of bloggers. Their self-interest, he says, makes them more mainstream than any standard news source could possibly be.

The vindictiveness and disproportionate influence of the blogosphere is a sore subject. Who is it that "rewrote history, made anonymous accusations, hired and elevated hacks and phonies, ruined reputations at will, and airbrushed suddenly unwanted associates out of documents and photographs"? Siegel's immediate answer is Stalin. But he alleges that the power players of the blogosphere have appropriated similar powers.

Siegel himself became a great big blog-attack casualty when, in what he wishfully calls "my rollicking misadventure in the online world," he was caught pseudonymously praising himself on the Web site of The New Republic, where he had been a particularly savage and reckless blogger. One of the improbable virtues of "Against the Machine" is that it presents a sane, fair and illuminating incarnation of its often hotheaded author.

Siegel he isn't shy, so the reader learns more about him than the reader might want to know. His example of how the Web finds the banal in the formerly forbidden? His example of an eBay experience? Sit with him and shop for a watch, or graze at "I take a sip of coffee and consider," he writes. "Various options are before me."

At such moments, "Against the Machine" is close to revisiting that lazy, figurative Starbucks. Far more often it brings dead-on accuracy to depicting the insinuating ways in which the Internet can blow your mind. And it announces exactly what's wrong with this picture.