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You Are the Product

'Digital Vertigo' author Andrew Keen lambasts social media's narcissism and full-scale data mining

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Keen doesn't identify himself as entirely anti-Facebook. "When a grandmother uses it to connect to her grandchild or when we catch up with friends from school or college we haven't seen in years—those aren't bad things," says Keen, who, noting he owns an iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air, iMac and Canon 5DII, insists that he's not a Luddite, either.

But call him an elitist, as Stephen Colbert did on The Colbert Report in 2007, and Keen will wholeheartedly agree.

"I'm unashamedly elitist in the sense that I believe there's only a small group of people that are talented and hardworking enough to create great books, movies and songs, and the vast majority of us are much better off actually consuming that stuff, paying for it and enabling a viable cultural economy than wasting our time blogging or putting our worthless photos, songs or movies up," Keen says.

Since the majority of social networks originate in the United States, it's suggested there might be something endemic to the American psyche, some kind of hybrid of our can-do spirit and guarantee of free speech that causes us to believe that since we can share our amateur efforts, we should share our amateur efforts.

"We've fallen under this sort of uber-democratic illusion that everyone has something interesting to say," asserts Keen, "and they don't."


For many, Keen's acerbic manner and proclivity for blunt statements (e.g., "Most of the stuff on the internet is either biased or bad") might disqualify him as a spokesperson for the world of working media professionals. In reality, Keen is among a media professional's fiercest allies. In Cult of the Amateur, Keen essentially argues that people should leave media-making to the pros.

Of course, as a maker of content, online and off, Keen has a vested interest in professionals being compensated for their work. It's a difficult point to counter, especially when one considers that consumers seem happy to pay for everything in the world except online content. (Keen applauds institutions like The New Yorker and the New York Times, which have paywalls around their content, and asserts that more creators should do the same.)

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Why we should start paying for online content is best illustrated by paying attention to the ads in a browser's sidebar. You might have noticed that after a Google search for a specific item, advertisements for the item seem to follow you around the internet for days afterward. This is an example of how your ostensibly private online behavior is being used to both market you and market to you. This, asserts Keen, is part of the price of free content.

For those with paranoid dispositions, privacy is merely the gate fee. What other personal costs might be levied? Consider the fact that college admissions offices routinely review the social media accounts of new applicants to gauge their suitability for campus life. Then, of course, there are the recent revelations of the NSA's social snooping, courtesy of Edward Snowden, which link companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to the agency's PRISM program.

"It did in some ways predict this giant panopticon where everything we do on the internet is being watched," says Keen of Cult of the Amateur. "I didn't predict it was the NSA, but the relationship between the NSA and some of these tech companies is very dodgy, too, and very troubling."

Dodgy as it may be, we're caught in a bit of cultural shift, one in which Keen's suggested remedy for our privacy concerns—simply paying for content—isn't necessarily the fix. The fact is, Facebook and Google don't want you to pay for content, at least not with real dollars. A fair amount of social engineering has transpired in the past decade to bring "radical transparency" into the personal sphere. And that is vastly more valuable to data-driven entities than your 99 cent download.

What Americans should really stop doing, says Keen, is giving away their data in a misguided effort toward posterity.

"What we need to teach the internet is how to forget. At the moment, the internet is lacking a human quality—all it knows is how to remember. Forgetting is much more human than remembering."

And for Keen, he'll know humanity has triumphed and reclaimed its privacy when someday we ask, "Remember when the internet was free?"

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Andrew Keen appears with over 70 media and tech professionals speaking at C2SV, a three-day conference of tech and music running Sept. 26–29 in San Jose. Along with tech discussions and presentations, more than 60 bands perform in a lineup headlined by Iggy and the Stooges. For details, see www.c2sv.com.

Andrew Keen is at ajkeen.com and tweets as @ajkeen.

Daedalus Howell is at dhowell.com and tweets as @daedalushowell.

Bohemian editor Gabe Meline (@gmeline) contributed reporting to this piece.

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