Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us

Posted on by Ben Rothke

In Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, author Andrew Keen, who describes himself as the Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley (whatever that means), raises numerous profound questions about social media and its implications on society. 

In the new world of social media and Web 3.0, which is claiming to revolutionize communication and interactions, Keen writes that history is repeating itself and points to the beginning of the industrial revolution as an example. He writes of Jeremy Bentham who invented the Panopticon; a structure where the inhabitants were watched at all times.

Bentham felt the Panopticon could make humanity more virtuous, more hard-working and happier; similar to the promise of Web 3.0.  The Panopticon was a failure, and Keen sees the same for Web 3.0. 

The book is a critique of Web 3.0.  While definitions of Web 3.0 vary greatly; Keen focuses on the personalization aspect. His view is that the current Internet culture and the wave of Web 3.0 social software is debasing society. 

In this well-researched book, Keen presents two theses: that Web 3.0 is turning into an Orwellian infrastructure and that the hype of the Web 3.0 prognosticators is all hype.   For the first point, it is a false premise, while the later has significant merit. 

Keen has a misinterpretation of Big Brother and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The book has scores of references to George Orwell, Big Brother, Nineteen Eighty-Four and related themes.  Orwell describes Big Brother as the dictator of a totalitarian state, where the ruling party wields total power over the inhabitants. 

In the society that Orwell describes, everyone is under complete surveillance by the authorities. Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the term has been synonymous for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance. 

It is hard, if not impossible to see how Facebook and other social media services, which are voluntary and operate on an opt-in model, are anything close to totalitarianism and forced surveillance.  The notion that Facebook is absolutism flies in the face of its tens of thousands of groups and topics, often in conflict with each other.  Ironically, Keen never mentions the fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984. 

One of the inherent problems with Facebook is that even if a person likes something, it is unclear if they bought the item, truly like it, or simply liked it to enter a raffle or help a friend. That is one of the reasons why General Motors Co. recently announced plans to stop advertising with Facebook.  They found that that paid Facebook ads have little impact on consumers' car purchases. 

And therein is the rub; while all of that information is somewhat nebulous within the databases of Facebook, there is another organization, where substantial amounts of a person’s most personal data is stored.  That is an organization Keen seems oblivious to.  That company is Experian, the largest of the big 3 credit firms.  

While someone may like the New York Times on Facebook, Experian knows if the person has a subscription to the Times, what type of subscription they purchased, how long they have been a subscriber and how they paid for it.  That is but one small example of the myriad data Experian has.  Experian is not a social media company, they are not part of the Web 3.0 social revolution, yet they are significantly more dangerous than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn combined; a fact the book never discusses. 

While Keen is critical of the social media wonks that the future will be social, he assumes that their prognostications of a social future are completely accurate. But as Facebook’s growth has slowed and the fruits of its IPO stalled, there are many people who are simply tiring of social media.  

In the introduction, Keen astutely quotes British philosopher John Stuart Mill that privacy is not only essential to life and liberty it’s essential to the pursuit of happiness, in the broader and deepest sense.  Keen sees social media in direct contradiction to that notion of privacy.  

He closes the chapter with the observation estimating that in 2020; about 50 billion intelligent networked devices such as his BlackBerry Bold will be in use, many of which will be gathering personal data.  Note though that at the recent 14th Annual AT&T Cyber Security Conference, one of the speakers put that number closer to 500 billion. 

In chapter 1, Keen quotes Julian Assange that Facebook is that world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, names, address, locations, and more.  Keen accepts that observation as gospel, uses it as an underpinning in the book, oblivious to Experian, which is interminably more comprehensive and authoritative than Facebook will ever be.  

Case in point, many people put their birthday on Facebook as January 1, as it is a required field.  While that Facebook data is utter rubbish, Experian has the person’s true DOB. 

Chapter 1 closes with numerous social media services being termed Orwellian services.  It is hard to understand how an opt-in system is Orwellian.  The chapter then closes with the histrionic question of “has Nineteen Eighty-Four finally arrived on all of our screens”. 

The histrionics continue with Orwell and its derivatives being used nearly 10 times on the first page of chapter 2.  With that, Keen does note the importance of privacy and how it is being significantly eroded in social media.  He quotes social media research scientist Dr. Julie Albright that privacy is taking a back seat to the notion that our every thought, act or desire should be publicized. 

There are interesting insights in chapter 2 where he writes that social media has enabled new kinds of collective stupidity, and that it makes it hard for people to think for themselves; rather they simply cite what has already been cited.

He also notes that social media makes it effortless to destroy a life of integrity and a person’s reputation. He notes that in our hypervisible age, all it takes is a camcorder and a Skype account to destroy someone’s life; using the Dharun Ravi case as an example.  

A point Keen perceptively makes is that there is little evidence that with all the sharing in social media, that it actually makes people more forgiving or tolerant.  Rather it fuels a mob culture of intolerance, Schadenfreude and revengefulness.  He writes that the tolerance that Jeff Jarvis thought Web 3.0 would bring, are in fact fueling the corrosive belligerence that has infected much of the snarky, gotacha public discourse in contemporary society.

Keen writes in depth about Mark Zuckerberg's notion of frictionless sharing and is concerned about its privacy consequences.  Yet Zuckerberg's grand plan will only work if everyone opts in, which is still quite speculative.  

In chapter 8, much of Keen’s fears are allayed when he writes that the truth is that most of us don’t want to share everything we read, watch and listen to online.  In June 2012, noted security guruMarcus Ranum announced that he was deleting his Facebook account due to the inanity of the posts and invitations. 

Keen himself said that he stopped using Facebook as he was embarrassed by some of the things people put up so he decided to close his account; calling it one of the best things he’d ever done online.  With that, frictionless sharing goes nowhere. 

Chapter 5 - The Cult of the Social, presents some of the most perceptive thoughts in the book. Keen quotes historian John Tresch that today’s social media systems encourages people to manage theirfame machine, with the goal to build followers and establish their own cloud of glory; but gaining nothing in the long-term. 

The book closes with John Stuart Mill’s notion that remaining human requires us to sometimes disconnect from society, to remain private, autonomous and secret.  The alternate Mill recognized was the tyranny of the majority and the death of individual liberty; which Keen notes is not an unrealistic fear. 

Another observation of Mill’s that our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.  For the proponents of Web 3.0, they see our uniqueness as a species as being social; for Keen, it is the antithesis. 

In the book, Keen advocates that we need to ensure the balance between our public and private lives and is rightfully scared of those that say we are heading into a world that will no longer have privacy.  Mills notion of the fundamentals of privacy mean that if we abandon it, we lose some of our essence as human beings. 

Keen takes paint to let the reader know that he is not a Luddite and doesn’t advocate completely abandoning social media.  As a Twitter devotee, he has found the time to write over 10,000 tweets and amass nearly 20,000 followers. 

Overall, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us is a book well worth reading.  Keen raises countless fundamental questions of the underlying hazards of Web 3.0.  He writes of our often blind infatuation with this new thing called Web 3.0 in which people are reveling far too much of their inner self, just for the use of a free service.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Blogs posted to the website are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the blog author individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of RSA Conference™, or any other co-sponsors. RSA Conference does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this blog.

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