LSE Media Group event - Andrew Keen: Digital Vertigo
**Listen to the podcast**
Like a former smoker who now looks disapprovingly on anyone who lights up, Andrew Keen has moved from being an internet acolyte to casting a gimlet eye on the prevailing cheerleading for leading our lives in public via social media.
To quote Joni Mitchell, he’s looked at life from both sides now, first as the founder of the mid-90s first generation start-up Audiocafe.com, and more recently as an author and commentator on the interplay between technology, culture and society.
In a thought-provoking discussion organized by the LSE Media Group Keen, in conversation with writer and consultant on media and innovation Nico Macdonald, expanded on some of the ideas in his most recent book, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us (although a critique of the online world, it is clearly a creature of it—the publishers, Constable, have put the title all in lower case).
Keen’s first book, The Cult of The Amateur, was, he said, “against the anonymity of Web 2.0.” Now in the new book, he’s moved on to arguing “the absence of anonymity is worse than anonymity.”
Keen’s central argument is that social media, which allegedly promotes connectivity and engagement, in fact encourages atomization, rabid individualism and the break-up of communities.
Moreover, he feels the traditional concept of privacy is becoming an outmoded concept, backing up this assertion with chilling quotes from leading investors in such companies.
One such investor (not named, but think someone like PayPal’s Peter Thiel) declared “privacy is for older people,” while Facebook backer Sean Parker said “privacy is outmoded, like gaslight.” One can only hope these venture capitalists have allowed their financial interests to cloud their judgment.
The hero of the book, said Keen, is John Stuart Mill, counterpointing Mill’s belief that human beings are more than an aggregation of appetites (or, as we now call them, “Likes”) with Jeremy Bentham’s inclination to reduce people to the sum of their data. However, while celebrating Mill’s commitment to collectivism, Keen noted that as we become more and more collective, socially if not economically, it’s increasingly difficult to find private space.
Other points raised were the likelihood of introverts getting overlooked in the extrovert culture of “sharing” and the roots of the Web in an unlikely alliance between the U.S. military (which developed the technology) and the 60s counter-culture (which pioneered social networks in early non-commercial online communities like The Well.)
When asked during a lively Q&A about the role of social media in progressive movements, Keen observed that social media did have a large role to play, but that such social media-led movements—whether anti-government protests in Russia and Egypt or Occupy—failed to move on from instigating change to becoming coherent political movements and tended to remain aggregations of individuals.
The title arises from Keen’s use of Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo as a metaphor for our falling in love with chimeras, confusing illusory appearances especially designed to appeal to us with real people (anyone who has not already seen the movie would have been well-advised to cover their ears during the talk.)
It says something about how the power and penetration of the internet economy has grown in just a couple of decades that Keen has been labelled a controversialist merely for suggesting that sharing details of our lives with a faceless online massive may be less about public good than private enrichment. However, we fear he may be fighting a losing battle. Even as he was urging greater engagement with the real, as opposed to virtual, world, many in the audience were busy tweeting away.