A pernicious cult

By Jeremy Wilson on July 10th, 2012

Fresh from taking a hatchet to the prophets of web 2.0 in his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, Silicon Valley’s resident party-pooper Andrew Keen has returned to pour scorn on the apostles of social technology with his new title, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.

This critique of the piety ascribed to social media offers an insider’s perspective on the people peddling social as an elixir from which will spring new egalitarian and communal ways of living. Keen’s riposte to the techno-utopians manifests as a whirlwind historical tour of utilitarianism, privacy and individual liberty – an excursion that underscores his thesis that the social media groupies are falling in love with an illusion, which, like the blonde heiress in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is too good to be true.

The book begins and ends with a rather prolonged moment of enlightenment that supposedly befell Keen on encountering the preserved corpse of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which can be found on display at University College London. Bentham called this permanent necro-display an Auto-Icon: a man who is his own image.

A proto-fame whore, Bentham is a lesson in the loneliness and isolation we bring upon ourselves when creating unreal and disembodied online personas that are uber-connected, yet which ultimately leave us isolated. Keen accuses social media of making us “schizophrenic – simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous.” It is from the folly of believing that a social representation of ourselves is desirable that Keen seeks to deliver us.

One of Bentham’s passions was his conceptual design for a prison he called the Panopticon, a circular structure of prison pods with an “inspection house” at its core from which all the inmates could be continuously observed. The “inspection house” becomes a trope in Digital Vertigo, analogous to the edifice that the architects of Web 3.0 are trying to build.

Keen’s derision of the modern digital inspection house builders is gilded by contempt for their idealism. Zuckerberg’s plan to rewire the world is portrayed as the vision of a man with no sense of social obligation or reciprocity; the mission of a socially dysfunctional programmer to package us into cells, “all alone together”.

Keen is at his best when pricking the foibles of those who have taken it upon themselves to map our future. His imagining of Zuckerberg’s struggles to quantify a Rembrandt cautions against the wisdom of living in an online world created by someone who thinks we only have one identity, in a way that can’t be matched by the familiar agitation over the death of privacy.

However, as with any analysis of Zuckerberg, et. al., it is difficult to take their philosophical fantasies too seriously, as money clearly is the driving force behind their products. It is in examining the cheerleaders, the Jeff Jarvises, and unearthing the roots and precursors to their ideology, that Digital Vertigo excels.

Keen tells these tales of failed visions to unite mankind throughout the book and identifies a common thread of failure: models that try to fuse individualism with communitarianism are doomed to be pulled apart by the complexities of the humanity that they suppress.

For those who have endured the “groupthink” of flatulence from the kumbaya club of Jeff Jarvis-Umair Haque school of blind social worship, the deftness with which Keen dices and sautés their naivete is a pleasure.

If anything lets the book down, it is Keen’s tendency to strain at metaphors and occasionally allow his own narrative to get bogged down with citations of other journalists and academics. There is after all, only so much Zadie Smith, Adam Curtis and Karl Marx one can be reasonably expected to stomach in one sitting.

In spite of occasionally over-ambitious analogies, Digital Vertigo is a welcome volume in a sphere desperately lacking in polemic. At a time when we may be tempted to dismiss the proponents of the new social world as delusional utopians, it convinces us that while they may be fanciful, their idealisms are a real threat to individual liberty.