Andrew Keen: "The Cult of the Social"

After his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, was published in 2007, Andrew Keen established himself as one of Silicon Valley's most outspoken critics, the contrarian in their midst. With his second book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, Keen takes on social media, warning us that we may lose what makes us human when we post status updates on Facebook.

Andrew and I are friends who, more often than not, agree to disagree. That's what we did in the conversation below about his book. –Anne Trubek

The Barnes & Noble Review: Let's begin with the cover of your book. The title appears as a hashtag (#digitalvertigo) and your name as your Twitter handle (@ajkeen). In this way, the book reminds me a bit of Plato's Phaedrus, in which he writes down Socrates' arguments against writing. Are you being hypocritical by advertising your book against social media by using the language of social media?

Andrew Keen: You shouldn't judge a cover by its book. As you say, Plato wrote down Socrates' arguments against writing. But rather than a tweet or a Facebook update, my book is a 60,000-word nonfiction narrative that can't be read in fifteen seconds from a smartphone while you are sitting at a stoplight.

The issue of hypocrisy irritates me. All too often, the first question anyone asks me is: "You tweet or blog and yet you've written a book against tweeting and blogging." BORING. I'll leave the business of being virtuous to the blogosphere. That said (and I really feel dirty claiming the moral high ground), but I'm actually surprisingly consistent. I'm not on Facebook or foursquare or Google + or almost any of the other social networks. I am on Twitter; this self-evident paradox is part of my narrative.

I hope Digital Vertigo is more than just a book which is simply against social media. Yes, I'm critical of Facebook and what I call Silicon Valley's "cult of the social," but this is a book in support of individual liberty in a digital age which will be lived on the network.

BNR: You employ a vast range of references in Digital Vertigo, from the greats of Western political philosophy -- Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill -- to the movers and shakers of today's Web, such as Reid Hoffman and Biz Stone. But women appear infrequently -- Sherry Turkle is the only thinker cited. However, at the end of the book you wax rhapsodic about a fictional woman, Vermeer's Woman in Blue, who represents the private individual, alone in her room, reading a letter. It's funny: I identify with that woman. I sometimes feel, when I am alone in my study, staring at my computer reading tweets, that sort of absorption in the social (via Twitter) and the glory of privacy (I'm alone in my study). What are the gender valences of social media, if any?

AK: I think you are wrong to say that women aren't prominent. Along with Vermeer's Woman in Blue, the two central characters in the narrative are Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The book begins with a haunting tweet from Alexia Tsotsis and, as you say, I am very reliant on the invaluable research of the MIT professor Sherry Turkle.

Since finishing Digital Vertigo, I've read two excellent books by women which I wish I could have included in my argument. The first is Quiet, by Susan Cain, which brilliantly explodes the myth of the social value. The second is I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, by the thriller writer and law professor Lori Andrews, which is an erudite exposé of how social media is destroying privacy.


Yes, I'm reliant on John Stuart Mill – but remember that Mill wrote in his Autobiography that most of his moral and intellectual development was realized through his wife, Harriet Taylor. So even the gendered origins of old J. S. Mill's ideas are more complicated that they first appear.

I'm avoiding your question, of course. Is there a gender bias in social media -- do men and women use it differently? I've no idea. I'm not well informed about the "valence" of either gender, so I will leave it to those, perhaps like yourself, who know more than me about this subject.

BNR: These days I notice I'm more solitary but feel less lonely, because I can interact on social media. Why am I wrong when I think of myself as having gained more privacy with the onset of social media?

AK: I decided to write Digital Vertigo because I saw two profoundly contradictory forces coexisting in the world. The first is the increasingly individualization, solitariness, and isolation of our lives, a phenomenon researched by prominent sociologists like Sherry Turkle, Dalton Conley, and Eric Klinenberg. The second is our increasingly obsession with all things social online -- from Facebook to foursquare to Twitter and Google +.

Causality is, of course, complex, and I don't argue that social media is the root cause of loneliness. Instead, I see it, in many ways, as a casualty of what the novelist Walter Kirn calls the "fragmentarian" nature of life in the early twenty-first century. And I'm convinced that the lonelier and more radically individualized we become, the more we fetishize the idea of the social on the Internet.

The problem with the Internet, however, is that it isn't social. It's an aggregation of increasingly atomized individuals who dip in and out of communities, networks, and friendships at the click of a mouse. The Internet is what Eli Pariser calls a "Filter Bubble." It's a gigantic mirror which reflects our desires, our interests, our biases.

BNR: You do a great job arguing that the social media visionaries are the heirs of the failed communitarian movements of the 1960s, which stemmed from a Rousseauian romanticism, for which they are nostalgic. Which point in the past are you nostalgic for?

AK: In Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's film The Social Network, the fictional Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, famously says: "First we lived in villages, then we lived in cities and now we are going to live on the Internet."

I think the fictional Parker is correct. And as we increasingly live on the Internet and use social location services like foursquare, Highlight, Glancee, Sonar and Facebook, we are losing not only our privacy but also our anonymity. The world we are creating is like the pre-industrial village – only now it exists on a global scale. Everywhere we go online we are being watched and tracked – by advertisers, by the government, by each other. It is a world increasingly without surprise, without mystery, without privacy or solitude.

The real Sean Parker has a new start-up called Airtime which, he says, is intended to "eliminate loneliness." I'm nostalgic for a world in which billionaire entrepreneurs weren't in the business of eliminating loneliness.

BNR: You compare the ubiquity of our private lives on social media to Bentham's panopticon and draw upon Foucault's writings about the panopticon as well. But no one is making me live in a Facebook prison. Aren't you conflating voluntary publicity with forced incarceration?

AK: Bentham's panopticon wasn't just a prison – he meant it to be incorporated into the architecture of schools, hospitals, and even cities. And Foucault is less interested in formal prisons than in the prison-like architecture of industrial life.

Nobody is forcing anyone of us to sign up for Facebook, Highlight, or foursquare. But as the Google "link" Web 2.0 economy is replaced by the Facebook "like" Web 3.0 economy, it is increasingly hard to avoid participating in social media. Indeed, only the very rich and the very poor can afford to disconnect. For the rest of us, our reputations, our community, indeed even our very identities are locked into the increasingly ubiquitous global electronic network.

BNR: You say "social reading really does, in a sense, represent the end of the world. It means the end of the isolated reader, the end of solitary thought, the end of purely individual literary reflection, the end of those long afternoons spent entirely alone with just a book". Now, I argue that the notion of solitary reading is a pretty historically specific one: we needed artificial light (gas or electric), and, of course, print. For most of human history, people read communally (or even out loud, until the medieval era). And Dickens was more often than not read in a reading circle, with one person reading out loud from a book. So why didn't the world end then?

AK: You are welcome to go back to village and be collectively read to by the village elder in the candlelight of his hut (always a He, by the way). That's exactly the kind of communitarian pipe dream that I certainly don't want to resurrect in the well-lit twenty-first century. Yes, maybe there was a time when we didn't have the luxury of being able to read on our own. But there was also a time when we didn't have enough to eat, or the medicine to cure smallpox or the technology for heating homes. Does that justify a time when we were hungry, ill, and cold?

BNR: You see an Orwellian future in which we are all willingly giving the government information they can use against us. The social media visionaries, who are idealistic and talk about community and transparency, are the architects. Are the creators of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter also, then, the architects of a future totalitarianism?

AK: It's not really an Orwellian future: It's more surreal than that. More like Borges, perhaps, or Shteyngart. The creators of LinkedIn and Facebook are the inadvertent architects of this future. Sheryl Sandberg, for example, Mark Zuckerberg's right-hand woman, says that Facebook is finally enabling us to become "authentic." The truth, though, is that Facebook is enabling Sandberg and a handful of Silicon Valley programmers to become immensely rich. Yes, Facebook could, as Julian Assange noted, be a CIA plot which convinces all of us to broadcast our most intimate data to the world. The creepiest thing of all about Facebook, however, is that it isn't a CIA plot.

At the beginning of his classic critique of television culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that we got our dystopias the wrong way around. Rather than George Orwell's totalitarian 1984, Postman said, we are now living in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a place of collective cultural amnesia and narcissism. Postman was right. Only it's a democratized dystopia. We are the ones populating Facebook with our most personal data. We – rather than Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg – have to take responsibility for our creepily collective future.

BNR: I love Twitter. I feel I have an intellectual community for the first time in my life. I live in Cleveland (and therefore have fewer options for intellectual gatherings than you, living Northern California). I feel much more connected to like-minded people than ever before. I feel less lonely. If I never tell people on Twitter my geographic location or who I had sex with last night, what's the problem?

AK: I guess I'm okay with lonely women in Cleveland being on Twitter. But let's limit it to people in Ohio. =)

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