Saturday, 23 June 2012

Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.
Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]

No comments:

Post a Comment