Andrew Keen. The writer and broadcaster who managed to irritate a large group of people on the Web with his last book, “The Cult of the Amateur”, was in London to talk about his latest work.
Keen is often drawn out by the media as a counterpoint to tech utopians, someone to pooh-pooh the optimism of the Web. Indeed, his Twitter bio dubs him “The Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley”.
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It’s simple to cast a devil in opposition to current theories but this is not always helpful when it comes to discussing the realities of human activity on the Internet.
Keen’s latest book, “Digital Vertigo”, proves that he is a more subtle and thoughtful writer and shows off more of his skill as a historical author looking at our technological progress. It’s probably not going to be a text that people look to for a dose of ire.
We meet at a hotel in London and the author is chipper after a trip to the gym and keen to get into his schedule of interviews with media outlets. Not at all the grumpy luddite that he is often mistakenly cast as.
TNW: So what is this new book about?
It’s a book that tries to describe and expose the truth about our infatuation with social networking with websites like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
It’s not a positive review of those services but it’s not an entirely negative one either. It suggests that we’ve fallen in love with social networking, but that love affair may end badly.
TNW: That’s a bit of a stark warning, but it would be reactionary to cancel accounts and leave social media en masse. What are the reasons for falling out with these platforms?
I gave up Facebook and it cheered me up enormously. More and more people say to me that they don’t like Facebook and they wish they weren’t on it, so there’s no reason why you can’t give it up.
I’m not a Luddite though, I’m not suggesting we should give up all these networks, I’m suggesting though that we need to use them a little more carefully because at the moment, many of us are doing it in such a way as to reveal everything about ourselves, to turn ourselves inside out and lose something about what it is that makes us human.
TNW: Should we be looking to the past in order to create a better future online?
The book suggests that history is repeating itself. At the beginning of the industrial revolution we had a similar infatuation with the social, with radical visibility, with transparency and one of the men who articulated this love of transparency was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who invented the Panopticon. This building where we could be watched all the time.
Bentham argued that it would make us more virtuous, more hard-working and essentially happier. Bentham’s philosophy, utilitarianism, is also one of maximising our happiness. I remind the reader that this happened in the industrial revolution, did not have a happy ending and what we’re going through now, with this idea that we should always be visible, always online, watched and watching everyone else is leading us in a similarly dark direction.
I have three fears, about being watched. The first is of course government, the old 1984 argument and governments both in the democratic West and in totalitarian or authoritarian cultures like Iran or China, are using the social web to spy on their own citizens.
I’m also concerned that commercial companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are aggregating our personal data and one way or another passing that on to advertisers, because it maximises their value. It’s not because they’re evil, but because they’re commercial companies that want to maximise their revenue.
The third group that concerns me is all of us. To paraphrase Walter Kirn, the American novelist, ‘we’ve all become little brothers, spying on ourselves’. So in many ways in the twenty-first century I’m less worried about Orwell’s big brother, and more concerned with all of us, watching each other; a culture of ‘little brothers’.
TNW: How does Jeremy Bentham translate into today’s social media landscape?
The contemporary Jeremy Benthams are American social and media theorists like Jeff Jarvis and David Weinberger. Weinberger is a very decent man, but he believes that transparency will make us more generous. Jarvis thinks that transparency will break down taboos like social unacceptance of homosexuality.
I don’t think that this transparency does make us more generous, it doesn’t break down taboos.
In our culture which tends to be not very generous and tends to be very snarky and often worse than snarky, social media, this perpetual personal broadcast platform is actually in many respects bringing out the worst in all of us.
When you go on Twitter you see lots of examples of homophobia, racism or hatred against a political group or cultural group. I’m not saying that technology makes us bad. Technology is a mirror, but in today’s world the social web is a mirror of who we are as a species and when we stare at it, we’re not looking at something that is generally is very generous, forgiving or attractive.
TNW: Do we not have the personal choice not only to leave social media platforms but also to monitor or adapt the things we do and say there?
I’m not arguing that this is Orwellian, I’m not suggesting that we are literally forced to be on these networks and to give away all of our most intimate details. The truth is that sociologists and cultural anthropologists are finding that people are revealing more and more about themselves and that privacy is increasingly being jeopardised, if not dying.
People say you don’t have to be on these networks if you don’t want to. In some ways that’s right, but in another way these social networks are becoming the de facto platforms, the front doors of the Internet – and everyone needs to be on the Internet.
So Facebook’s attempt, the reason why it’s become a hundred-billion dollar company, the reason why it’s so valued and critical is that we have the shift from what people call the economy of links (which was a Google-centric Internet) to an economy of ‘likes’ (which is a Facebook-centric Internet).
So, not being on Facebook is a kind of sacrifice. I’m not on it and it’s easy for me to not be on it because I’m making a statement. But for most people it is a sacrifice.
I would argue that there are very few people who can afford not to be on Facebook, either the extremely rich or the extremely poor, but for most of us, Facebook is becoming an essential platform to build our brands, to build our identities and to network; both professionally and personally.
TNW: What are the connections between the discussion you set out in the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo?
The book works off the central metaphor in Hitchcock’s movie, Vertigo, which is a warning about falling in love with the beautiful blonde who doesn’t really exist. It works off the metaphors of falling in love with a corpse and indeed making love to a corpse, which is what Vertigo is about.
The reason I make Vertigo so central in the book is firstly because it’s set in the Bay Area and it provided me with a series of narrative opportunities to integrate the movie with real life. It allowed me to describe how the Bay Area and Silicon Valley has changed so dramatically in the last 50 years.
But the real truth is I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and whilst I’m a writer about technology, I find straight books about technology very dull. So I wanted to integrate Hitchcock’s Vertigo into my book to make it more interesting, to make it more compelling and to get people to think beyond websites. I think after a while those books get very dull.
TNW: Is there an association between vertigo as a phobia and how you perceive social media?
I’m less interested in the heights phobia of vertigo and more in its dizzying quality. The consequence of having vertigo is that you feel dizzy, the world revolves quicker and quicker around you.
When you’re on Twitter, particularly on real-time media, when you’re watching those millions of tweets flicker across your screen, it does give you a very dizzying sense of the nature of the world. I like the idea of social media making us dizzy.
Somehow separating us from the concrete, from what we traditionally called reality.
TNW: Can creativity survive in a digital social world?
Creativity is critical, not just from an artistic point of view. It’s the key thing in our society, it’s the thing that generates innovation.
The really creative people are the Steve Jobs’s, the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Larry Pages. So the real challenge in an enterprise sense is whether social media is going to trigger the kind of innovation in business that most people would like.
I don’t think that’s the case. I think that companies need to be very careful about how they leverage social media technologies within their enterprise. When employees are watched all the time and everyone’s continually discussing things, when you have endless real time, online meeting through networks like Yammer and Chatter, I think real creativity could be a casualty of all that.
TNW: Is history doomed to keep repeating itself? If this tech revolution echoes the industrial one before it, why can’t we do something to change and avoid past mistakes?
I think some cultures are more sympathetic than others to understanding that history repeats itself. I’m half-English, half-American so perhaps janus-faced in the sense that America is forward-looking and Britain tends to be more backward-looking. The book hopefully is janus-faced in the sense that it’s historical but also futuristic.
I think we need to learn from the past, but at the same time I would argue – and I don’t think that the book suggests that today’s challenges are the exact repetition of the industrial one. Big brother is different to little brothers. The industrial revolution is not identical to the digital revolution. The nation-state of the industrial world is being replaced by the global village of the digital world.
But it does help to understand what’s happened in the past. One of the things that concerns me is that there are some digital utopians who always say the same things. ‘This is the first time this has ever happened in history’, ‘We’re in uncharted territory’, ‘Now we can finally realise ourselves as human beings’…. And the point in my book is that this has been said before, it was said two hundred years ago and it ended in many ways, tragically. We need to learn from history and we need to understand that nothing is ever really new.
TNW: Who is the audience for this book and why are some of the people featured by their Twitter handle while others are not?
Hopefully that added to the entertainment in the narrative. One of the people who is represented by their Twitter symbol is Reid Hoffman who is one of the most powerful, articulate, successful and I think brilliant figures in Silicon Valley. On Twitter he’s @quixotic, so it’s hard to resist using that perhaps slightly ironic title.
The book is designed as a broad introduction to social media. It’s not really for Silicon Valley insiders. It’s written for an audience that enjoys cultural criticism, that wants to understand the Internet and social media in a broader social, cultural context. It’s written for people who like movies and most of all it’s written for people who like a good read. My focus was on writing a narrative that was entertaining and engaging.
TNW: How do you manage a critique of a system that you are part of yourself?
My first book was an attack on amateurism, that was defiantly amateurish. This book is a critique of connectivity, which is intricately connected.
My first book I wrote a book against blogs and my editor said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have a blog’. So I had a blog and of course it was rather silly because you really shouldn’t write a book against blogs and have a blog of your own. I never enjoyed blogging, I don’t like the idea of giving away my content for free.
This book is more complicated. The narrative is actually partly developed around my own ambivalence to Twitter. The first chapter in particular is about both the temptation to use Twitter, my need as a writer to use Twitter, but also the fact that I’m rather awkward and that it makes me very uncomfortable to be continually on Twitter.
I’m on Twitter but I’m not on Facebook and I made a conscious effort to become a Facebook resister partly because I think that’s consistent with the message in the book and I can avoid those kinds of questions in interviews but also because it just annoyed me.
This book isn’t simply an attack on social media. Though there is an element of that, I do argue that social media is caused by our narcissism and it’s ugly and inane and I’m in some ways as guilty of that as anyone. But it’s not simply that conservative critique.
It’s not just because we are narcissistic, it’s bound up with deeper structural shifts in the nature of our economy and society.
TNW: So what does all this mean for the future of social media?
I think we are going to hit a wall. The issue of how much social media can speed up, how much more data we can consume and reveal to the world is not infinite. We don’t work under Moore’s Law. Humans aren’t chips, our brains are not able to keep up with that kind of technological development.
I think the most interesting thing on the horizon is the increasing relevance of artificial intelligence. I think the next big thing will be thinking machines. Machines that are harder and harder to distinguish from human beings.
That’s the solution to Moore’s law not applying to the human brain. But from a human point of view I’m not convinced that that would be a good thing for human beings when we are dependent on robots to look after us. I’m not convinced that that’s a world I would want to live in.
Digital Vertigo is not like most technology books. The presentation of information follows Keen on a journey through his thoughts and research on the current state of social media in the light of historical events. The spinning narrative that also entwines the storyline of Hitchcock’s film can make the book a vertiginous read in itself.
One thing is for certain, this book is nothing like the fiery polemic that was the Cult of the Amateur, and so instead of annoying the hashtags off every Web-loving digital utopian, it should provide some room for thought and a deeper consideration of what we all think we’re doing here in this virtual place.