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vertigo, what vertigo? Oh that one!
on 27 June 2012
I only half liked this book, I really did. His last book, The Cult of the Amateur, was a great big rummaging individualistic versus collectives philosophy rant, and, I must admit, Andrew Keen was right! Rather than being the Socratic coffee party imagined by the old generation of cyberspace utopians, today's internet is indeed an amateur cult (at the bottom and that is; Digital Vertigo concentrates on the monopoly at the top) and the phenomenon of trolls and mobs jumping on any opinion that doesn't suit their particular opinion is the name of the game.
Keen was also right in arguing that the internet does switch off the individualist tap and the future, according the Andrew Keen and his ilk, is a good old fashioned sci fi nightmare were the directing brains of the future internet will be working to keep those inside, you and I, in a perpetual childhood.
If you don't take offence at the somewhat snobbish manner of the messenger, then this is all true. The Internet isn't how they say it is and if you can't see this today, then you will see it sometime next decade. So instead of the new egalitarian garden of delights, how about the old fashioned old-boys caste system? Who do you think is building the social spaces that you and I will inhabit? It certainly isn't you and me! Its a new aristocracy that looks like you and me but owns our data and is making bags of money from tagging our personalities. This digital-aristocratic elite isn't some luddite rant hatched by Andrew Keen in his bedroom. Digital Vertigo is dense with quotes and references from many many books and articles written by other very smart thinkers, and so, if anything, this book is an excellent reference manual for researches because it really digs deep into what is hatching out of Silicon Valley.
Now then, this Lords of the clouds business; Keen and many others argue that they will preserve our happiness as a feudal Lord preserves his kittens and as they will be the sole agent and the only arbiter of the realities that they build for the kittens inside (you and me), they will be as Lords to we (digital) serfs! Humanity will develop into a kind of timeless servitude with little chance of escape. Imagine watching the X Factor for ever and ever! Well this is the script and its a good one.
This script begs the question however, do the lords of technology really have these omnipotent powers? Will the devices coming in a few years time really be as smart as all that? I certainly hope not but Keen and the other futurists think they will be.
Keen's premise is predicated on this version of reality then, and so if you don't believe in Keen wasted his life away planting wet kisses on the buttocks of billionaires, then you may not agree with his Digital Vertigo paradigm. Then again, he is definitely on to something, even if he is fond of continually name dropping. (He once had lunch with Reid Hoffman, you know, he mentions this about three or four times in the book. I stopped counting after four).
However, what really got under my skin about Digital Vertigo isn't the dystopian vision, which I enjoyed, but the incessant name dropping and lack of research in the first chapter (the other chapters are perfect). So in the first chapter, Andrew Keen talks about viewing the stuffed corpse of the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, and staring into Bentham's eyes. However, Keen doesn't seem to know that the original head of the stuffed corpse of Jeremy Bentham went bad and shrivelled to the size of an apple (this is how corpses behave, I think) and today, poor Jeremy Bentham's real head is kept inside a box between his legs and what Keen was looking at is a wax head. So the metaphor completely collapsed. This is just a slight flaw though in the system.
Another impressive thing is the research gone into writing this book. Andrew Keen supplies many quotes from the big entrepreneurs of silicon valley, who are all saying the same thing, about all of us getting more connected and observing one another (but not themselves) and we can read the thoughts of one another and soon we'll have a party in a collectivist gas, were we will all dance forever in the hallways of silicon Nirvana (well something like that). It would be a weird world if such a technology existed, unfortunately, all these people we see on Ted Talk live in similar reality tunnels and they have something to sell us and so they would say that, wouldn't they? Though Keen is arguing that all this is to come, and if you think about the speeding up of technology, then these are interesting times.
So this is all fine by the way, but I can't help feeling that people like Andrew Keen, Sean Parker, Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg, and the rest, are confused as to where consciousness rests and the ideas these people are peddling are sort of hype and we are all swallowing the hype; Keen included. For example, there are some truisms in here that only someone from Silicon Valley can think up. For example, how can the individual who used to be made up of atoms (that is so yesterday!) be replaced by the individual made of digital bytes, when we are still made up of fleshy human bodies, made of atoms, molecules and genes (unless Reid Hoffman knows something we don't)? Or how can Google monitor 'me' when my mind is safely lodged inside my skull and my avatar is the thing that is online? Or how can the planet be in the twilight of the industrial age when China is building a dozen coal plants every week? Or did the internet really bring heavy industry to an end in the developed nations, or was it the Raganites who, in the 1980's, smashed American industry so the profits could be moved to the third world? Or are Keen and his pals living in a bubble?
Apart from my little moaning, this is a must read for all independent thinkers!