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August 18, 2008

Opening Keynote Presentation: Lee Siegel

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The programmers decided to wrap up day one with a bang. Author and critic Lee Siegel will present on the fascinating topic of his latest book, a critique of current Web culture called “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob”. I’m intrigued…

Kevin Ryan says he first saw Lee’s book when Lee was on the Daily Show. He says that there are a lot of synergies between the way Lee’s story evolved and the experience of many Internet users. Kevin says that he hears a lot about the Internet bringing communities together, but he disagrees. What is coming together is interests. Real communities aren’t present online.

He shows us a cartoon:

Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fudgewad

He asks Lee if it’s possible that search is reducing all knowledge to information and information to superficial scraps of data. He wants to know if we’re headed in a destructive direction.

Lee says he’ll be delivering his harsh critique of the Internet to this crowd and asks that we be hear him out. Heh. Kevin Ryan reads off a disclaimer that Lee Siegel’s opinions do not reflect the opinions of SES.

Lee says that he’s been working in the media for a long time but when things started moving on the Internet, he started getting really crazy comments calling him all sorts of rude names that I probably shouldn’t repeat. When one really bad comment was made, he went to his editors who told him that this was the world that they were now living in.

Lee created an online identity to reply to the people who left rude comments and make fun of them back. He ended up getting suspended after he was found out and says the rest is history.

Kevin asks where Lee sees us going as people are being encouraged to not thinking of the consequences of their actions and say mean things anonymously.

Lee says that the problem is that under the guise of throwing open the doors to everyone, people are being invited to write, not being paid for it, and defeating the purpose of writing as a profession. He says that we’re all in the information business, which is great. But there’s a difference between that and the effect that the Internet has on society. He thinks there will be a backlash eventually.

There is such a cult of information that the meaning has been lost. You’re plugged into so many outlets that everything gets blurred together. This will have an effect on attention span and patience.

Kevin asks what are we going to do with this generation of socially isolated individuals who can’t talk to another. Lee, in turn, asks what the value of the electronic messages that are going out really mean. One of the main points of culture is that you learn to be alone by yourself. He says that he picked up a challenging book but found himself fidgety and unable to just be with himself so he reached for his computer to feel connected again.

So what are some of the positive aspects? Lee says that people are being allowed into the culture. People can make their way in. The blogosphere is good because local blogs can really address and defend against some injustices. Of course there are new bullies forming on the Internet, but it’s a beautiful thing to see the old hierarchies threatened.

Kevin asks the audience if people have shorter memories online. A bunch of people clap. But then again, someone points out that once it’s there it’s there. The best you can hope for is burying it. Kevin asks Lee how long he thinks the digital mob will last.

Lee says that the cycle of being built up and knocked down is part of our bulimic culture. He thinks that if you’re getting a negative reputation online, you don’t really need to worry about it because then you get the sympathy factor.

Kevin asks if that means you should just let it run its course. If you let yourself become the giant, then be ready for the fall. Lee says that’s inevitable that Google will eventually be seen as the enemy. He thinks that people will start making money in the backlash against Google and developing alternatives.

Is caveman language (no capitalization, punctuation, more and more abbrviations) really damaging culture? Lee says yes, and it’s an aspect that doesn’t get much attention. Language hasn’t been reduced to grunts, but to what will satisfy our instant desires. The Internet is really about instant gratification. We’re also losing our ability to read people.

Is there a possibility that we as a society or that we in the search industry are too close to it to see?
He says that the Internet is a very powerful force. It’s almost impossible to resist. It’s becoming part of us. It’s such a seamless way of being – click and get what you want. The bad thing is that we’re not being prepared for the real world as it is.

If we were to re-launch the Internet today, would it be better to have our identities associated with us?
Lee says that would be great because anonymity is only important in extreme situations. Allowing people to detach themselves from their words is weakening the bonds of society. You couldn’t expect to be unaccountable for your words in the real world. How did it come about that you can bully other people without standing behind your own words? It’s a high school mentality and it won’t last much longer.

Is there rehabilitation for the problem?
Lee says that in Korea they have boot camp for Internet addiction because they’ve found it to be a serious problem. He says that some drugs can be used for good. There’s nothing wrong with unwinding, relaxing. It’s a problem when you’re out there wreaking havoc.

What about the value of distilling information into bite-sized pieces as a conduit to spark interest in other things?
He says he totally disagrees. He thinks that concentration should be cultivated. Concentration is behind every great feat of history.

Isn’t this like any kind of source of power, like nuclear energy? There are good aspects and bad aspects and you have to take the good with the bad?
The book was written out of exasperation of the fact that no one’s talking about the bad. Things can change, we want them changed, there’s no reason to just submit to the bad. He says he’s very suspicious of the wisdom of crowds. When we start losing the reflection of our own individuality in the world around us, we’re going to lose touch with our difference with other people.

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One response to “Opening Keynote Presentation: Lee Siegel”

  1. Kim Krause Berg writes:

    So sorry I missed this! I agree with many of the points and observations Lee makes. I,too, have been endlessly curious and fascinated about what we’re creating with the Internet. Not convinced it’s good or positive. More like handing kids a key to a sports car and watching what they do in it.



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