Silicon Valley isn't completely without its critics, but to the outsider's eye, it seems to be a fairly insular environment with its own rules and codes of conduct. Increasingly, however, Silicon Valley makes products which are pivotal to many of our lives, and the characters — the investors and the CEOs — determine how our online lives are managed, stored, and even displayed.
Enter Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur and host of an interview show, Keen On, for TechCrunch, and as of today, the author of a new book, Digital Vertigo. Keen is something of a shit-stirrer, and where he took aim at the “amateur hour” of bloggers, MySpace and YouTube in his last work, he's got his sights set on social networking and the move toward transparency in this one.
Digital Vertigo is especially critical of the "one identity" crew headed up by Mark Zuckerberg, who famously declared that having more than one identity signals a “lack of integrity.” Sharing, Keen argues, “has become the new Silicon Valley religion,” and the book emerges as a sociological, contextual look at the history of thought, the public discourse about privacy and sharing, and the controls which have swung the pendulum of public vs. private back and forth since the late 18th century when the “public sphere” can properly be said to have become self-aware (Keen, 17). His main concern in Digital Vertigo is the move toward performative, hyper-transparent sharing in a world where the data which is shared is not in our control. Sharing, Keen argues, “is a trap,” and “Zuckerberg and the other Silicon Valley social media moguls and evangelists are today’s utilitarian social reformers” (Keen, 60). I talked with Andrew via email about some of the topics in the book as well as some broader contextual issues facing our new, social, transparent society.
"Narcissism isn’t new, but the web is both the cause and the consequence of our contemporary love affair with our own opinions."
Your book goes into a lot of historical precedents for the decay of privacy which you document; but you point out that this time is different, in that people are willingly (or unknowingly) giving up their data. Why do you think that is?
Andrew Keen: There are two reasons for this historically unprecedented willingness to give up our personal data. One is cultural, the other economic. The first is the increasingly narcissistic nature of digital culture, with its cult of the self and its celebration of the online personal confessional. Narcissism isn’t new, but the web is both the cause and the consequence of our contemporary love affair with our own opinions. The second is the shift from an industrial to a digital knowledge economy in which we are all becoming free agents needing to build our brands via social media.
It seems like people have been worried about privacy — according to your book — in earnest, at least since the Victorian times. That makes it easy to sort of counter your story with the charge that you're just being an alarmist. But then again, there has never been such a willing stripping of privacy and mining of data, there's no denying that. Are we just repeating ourselves? Is something new happening?
You can only learn from the past if you understand it. One of my goals in Digital Vertigo is to remind my reader that, in some ways, we’ve been here before, in the early industrial age, when individual liberty was similarly jeopardized. That’s why I refer often in Digital Vertigo to John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, which was a defense of individual freedom in an age of collectivism and groupthink. Unfortunately, we are living in a similar time now – with our contemporary cult of the social and the orthodoxy of online sharing. It’s not an identical situation, of course. But good history is as much about difference as similarity.
The charge, of course, that social media critics are simply Luddites in newer clothing is nothing new, and could (will?) likely be the first reaction from some in this case. Keen can be grouped in with thinkers like Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Nicholas Carr here, but the Luddite label for this group doesn’t work for at least two reasons. First, a lot of their charges can’t easily be disputed. Turkle’s book, Alone Together, backs up the assertion that our obsession with and addiction to technology causes us to be less connected — not more — to one another, with a lot of actual data. And certainly, a lot of recent publications have begun to ponder the same questions in earnest. Second, Turkle, Carr, Lanier, and Keen himself aren’t anti-technology: they’re insiders who work in the technology industry. Jaron Lanier is credited with being one of the pioneers of virtual reality, Sherry Turkle is a Professor Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT who has been publishing on technology since the mid-1980s, and Nicholas Carr’s work on the effects of technology on business and thought is widely respected. It’s good company to keep, and not so easy to simply write off as mere anti-tech ranters. This sort of broad black and white, "you’re with us or against us" perspective which operates within the media and filters out into the populace, Keen essentially argues, has resulted in a public which freely gives its data up and expects nothing in return beyond a "free" place to upload photos and share with friends.
Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us
May 22, 2012
St. Martin's Press, 256 pages
"Too many technology journalists in Silicon Valley remain entrepreneurial groupies who treat multi-billionaires like Zuckerberg and Jobs like rock stars."
You've spent a lot of time covering Silicon Valley. It seems to me there is a serious lack of self-critique and self-reflection going on there, in the VC community, in companies like Facebook, and the in media who cover them. Do you agree? Do you see any rays of light?
I’m not sure. Some of the smartest and most driven people in the world – from Reid Hoffman to Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey – are in Silicon Valley. But rather than poets or philosophers, these people are entrepreneurs focused on the accumulation of capital. Rather than "self-critique" or "self-reflection", however, their business is business.
Your point does have some truth when it comes to the media and to many pundits out here. Too many technology journalists in Silicon Valley remain entrepreneurial groupies who treat multi-billionaires like Zuckerberg and Jobs like rock stars. But even this might be changing. Nick Bilton at The New York Times, for example, who is also writing a book about Twitter, is certainly no patsy for entrepreneurs or VCs. And gadflies like Vivek Wadhya are doing an excellent job revealing the institutional biases here against women and minorities.
The power is shifting too amongst authors. When I wrote Cult of the Amateur in 2007, all the most influential writers – from Chris Anderson to Larry Lessig, Clay Shirky, and Jeff Jarvis – were optimistic about the impact of technology. Today, however, the most interesting and best received voices are skeptical of this impact. Nick Carr, Eli Pariser, Jaron Lanier and Sherry Turkle have all recently written well-received books which, while not against technology, seriously question its impact on society.
"We all become Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow, curating our view of the world to our friends. "
In the introduction to The Cult of the Amateur, you write that "old media is facing extinction... but what will take its place?"
This seems to be even more true than in 2007 when your book was published. People often gleefully discuss the death knells of say, the New York Times. A debatable point, to be sure, as the "old media" we talk about hating so much and needing so little still furnishes us with a huge percentage of our actual information. So what will replace it? If they all fail, will the world go back to being huge and unknowable? Will something rise to take its place?
What's replacing old media is social media. But the problem with the "like" media economy of Facebook and Twitter is that it doesn't provide an economic model for journalists. So — as Eli Pariser notes in The Filter Bubble — social media turns into an echo chamber where the blind lead the blind and we all feel more and more virtuous and correct. It's like Fox or MSNBC run by amateurs. We all become Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow, curating our view of the world to our friends. But who is going to pay investigative journalists in this social media world?
One of the points you make which is the strongest is that nothing online is free — data or advertising is being sold against services like Twitter or Facebook. This seems like common sense to tech-savvy people, but a lot of regular people don't know that. Do you think that's why there is less sympathy when people accidentally give up their personal data — the idea that they should have known better?
Unfortunately, this isn’t "common sense" to tech-savvy people. Indeed, it’s these insiders who have most embraced the ideology of free. Too many bloggers and entrepreneurs seem to think that there’s some sort of nobility in free music, journalism or movies and that the old model of paying for content is somehow anachronistic or reactionary. But the problem is that "free" content can only be economically viable if it is supported by advertising revenue. And advertisers are drawn to social media because of its avalanche of personal data. Thus we – you, me, and everyone reading this – have become the products of companies like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As I tweeted last week in response to the idea of a "free" online Ivy League education.
"Nothing is ever really free."
Do you think there’s a correlation between people freely giving their data away and the degrading of our beliefs in things like IP rights and copyright? Is the value we place on ourselves and our ideas decaying?
Yes, there is a correlation. In Cult of the Amateur, I defended the right of the creative artist to sell their work online and I’m not sympathetic to the free culture mob who want to weaken and even get rid of IP rights and copyright. In Digital Vertigo, I argue that nothing is really free – especially "free" social services – and that consumers need to embrace paid products. Nothing is ever really free. That’s the connection between the two books and between the Web 2.0 "link" Google economy and the Web 3.0 "like" Facebook economy.
The recent introductions of things like Facebook's social graph and the seeming failure of things like The Washington Post’s Social Reader suggest that people are indeed wary of sharing, for instance, everything they read. I'm sure you'd take this as a positive sign, but do you think it's significant? Can it stop the wave?
Actually, Facebook’s social graph, as well as Facebook Timeline, are – in their ambition of owning the personal data of our life stories – chilling threats to privacy. So I hope they both fail.
"Even Scoble is getting tired of sharing."
You point out in the book that Robert Scoble is a completely "transparent" person, a total advocate of "over sharing," but when you visited him, his own neighbors didn’t know him, and he lives in a gated community. Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg has been a fairly private person despite his notoriety (see his recent wedding surprise). How do we gel that notion of everything being social with the fact that people — even the architects of total transparency — obviously DO want to be left alone in real life? What is it that you think is essentially different from sharing online and sharing in person?
Even Scoble is getting tired of sharing. I saw him in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, at The Next Web Conference, and he confessed that a degree of sympathy with my argument. He also expressed serious concern about the way in which we are becoming addicted to technology (Scoble and I will do a debate about privacy at Le Web conference in London next month).
Sharing online creates an ersatz intimacy that is easily shattered and requires very little risk. Sharing in person is a risky, emotional business. When you share in person, you have to look somebody in the eye; when you share online, you stare at the screen (which is like looking into the mirror).
Sharing should carry risk. To make the internet really replicate real life, we need to make it a riskier environment, like the city. Safe is bad; safe is the suburbs.
You cite several ways near the end of the book that we can begin to get a grip on this mass shift in privacy and data — political change, legislation, and education. The role of education has typically fallen to media in areas of business. How do you think that's going?
When people fall back on "education" as a solution to the crisis of privacy, they are, I fear, raising the white flag. I don’t think people can be taught to understand what it means to be human. You can’t be taught to recognize that the development of your unique personality requires secrecy and mystery – rather than broadcasting the most intimate details of your life to your network. No, the real solution can’t be taught.
Yes, legislation should play a role in protecting privacy. But so should technology and market. I’m encouraged the appearance of new, privacy-centric social media networks like Everyme. And I’d like to see the development of technologies which enable online data to decay. The biggest problem with the internet is that it hasn’t learned how to forget.
Forgetting is the most human of qualities. If the internet is to become the central platform for 21st century life, it needs to learn how to forget.