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Book Review: Digital Vertigo 65

benrothke writes "In Digital Vertigo: How Todays 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." Read below for the rest of Ben's review.
Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us
author Andrew Keen
pages 256
publisher St. Martin's Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 0312624980
summary 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 1984. The book has scores of references to George Orwell, Big Brother, 1984 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 1984, 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, gotcha 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 guru Marcus 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 their fame 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 lets 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 is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Book Review: Digital Vertigo

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  • Ha (Score:3, Funny)

    by hackula ( 2596247 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @05:01PM (#40363623)
    It's always nice to get a good laugh at a Luddite now and then.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 18, 2012 @05:02PM (#40363635)

    Or maybe Web 3.11 for Workgroups.

  • And he gives it an 8 out of 10?!?!

    • by Jeng ( 926980 )

      And he gives it an 8 out of 10?!?!

      Isn't that the standard /. book review score?

      • It always amuses me that people don't want to give-out "1" on their reviews, but gladly throw-out tons of 10s. The scores are hyperinflated as a result.

        I hand out tons of 1's. I figure if the author or movie director wasted my finite time, then they don't deserve any better, and it sounds like this book deserved a "1". I give "6" for stuff I enjoyed but will never read or watch again, and "7" for things I plan to review a second time. I never go higher than that unless it's something I truly love. I ga

        • by epine ( 68316 )

          Ironically, Keen never mentions the fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984.

          With irony like that, who needs literature?

          I figure if the author or movie director wasted my finite time ...

          Pardon us all for existing. Standing in line at the grocery store, do you pull out a Glock? There's a wonderful filter on crap called time: never attend a movie on the opening weekend. Try it sometime, you might like it, plus you never know how your life might change sounding less like an apologist for

        • heck, if the ratings board can haggle over what is pg-13 and above...can we expect a standard rating scale for slashdot book reviews?
    • That's the Slashdot tradition!

    • by 0racle ( 667029 )
      Maybe it was a well written piece of crap.
    • 8 for effort.
    • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @06:02PM (#40364223)

      If you want to get everyone to gleefully participate in a pervasive surveillence state would the best approach be:

      A) Spawn something in a big brother agency with a 3 letter acronym, maybe called Total Information Awareness, that is creepy, makes everyone afraid, and once they are afraid they stop saying the things you want to eavesdrop on

      B) A social network or a search portal created by a bunch of 20 somethings in a dorm room that seems kind of a cool, is maybe even useful, goes viral, and gets everyone on the planet to willingly graph out all the people they know and disclose all their interests on a day to day basis, bascially creating an intelligence bonanza

      If you opt for B, you just tap all the Internet traffic so you can listen to all of Facebook and Google's traffic, you get a pervasive surveillence state, the 20 somethings who created it for you don't even need to help, no one freaks or even cares, you get a lot better information than if you try to pry it out of people old school and no one notices they've become hamsters in a plastic cage.

      • by Burz ( 138833 ) on Tuesday June 19, 2012 @12:40AM (#40366591) Homepage Journal

        I agree with your analysis more than I agree with the reviewer. I don't think anyone is saying that Facebook is a totalitarian state; just that it's an enabler for one or at least helps set the stage.

        Beyond that, I disagree with the notion that Orwell's '1984' defines what a totalitarian state is like. His examples seem to be taken to an extreme degree, and that's not how I imagine the totalitarian-minded prefer to operate. Instead, it is the public and/or institutional acceptance of the invasive techniques, not the constant and pervasive exploitation thereof, that define the totalitarian... um, not state but establishment.

        I also disliked the reviewer's overall tone and writing style... Maybe it's intended to imitate the style of 'newspeak', but in any case I found it rather robotic and obtuse. His point about experian is a rather poor one: If you have been following the development of online marketing practices, you know that the aggregators can correct for most of the lies and omissions on the part of the user. Having even a halfway robust Facebook "social life" will result in many small communiques that betray your real birthday and probably even your age without anyone even mentioning a number. The experian way of 'knowing' is brittle and limited to commercial activities, while an entity like Facebook traffics in interpersonal expressions. IMHO, that part of Keen's thesis that I know from this article still stands.

        • >>>His point about experian is a rather poor one: Actually, it might be understated. Experian alone obtains more data on a daily basis than existed in the world 35 years ago. They know nearly everything about you in extreme detail. The more I know about Experian, the creepier I feel.
    • proof that modpoints aren't for repressing arguments you don't agree with, i suppose.

  • Non-fiction.
    Written by the self-proclaimed "Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley".
    Focusing on "Web 3.0".

    Why would I care what the anti-christ of Silicon Valley has to say about Web 3.0?

    At what point is parody indistinguishable from self-aggrandizement?

  • Web 6.0 (Score:5, Funny)

    by Digital Mage ( 124845 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @05:23PM (#40363833)

    Would someone tell me how this happened? We were the fucking vanguard of the internet. The Web 2.0 was the technology to own. Then the other guy came out with a Web 3.0. Were we scared? Hell, no. Because we hit back with a little thing called Web 4.0. That's Web 3.0 + 1. But you know what happened next? Shut up, I'm telling you what happened—the bastards went to Web 5.0. Now we're standing around with our cocks in our hands, selling Web 4.0. Suddenly we're the chumps. Well, fuck it. We're going to Web 6.0!

  • by hackula ( 2596247 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @05:24PM (#40363839)
    Good call pointing out Experian. FB has loads of info, don't get me wrong, but I tend to agree that there are plenty of other big players that go under the radar. Personally, I would be much more nervous about my bank, search engine provider, health provider, or phone company. I guess if you are a complete moron and regularly post dick-pics on you FB feed or rant about offensive politics, then FB might have something on you. As for me, FB knows my age, gender, around 500 people I have met in the past 6 years (forgot who most of them are by now), where I work, and that I have a dog. I could care less. A targeted ad here and there that I ignore anyway is really not a big deal to me. None of those facts seem particularly violating considering my bank knows every single purchase I have made in years, my phone company could listen in on a call at any moment or read any text, my doctor has a record of every anomaly on my nut sack, and Google knows every single nasty search term I have ever typed into a search bar.
  • The Panopticon was a failure, and Keen sees the same for Web 3.0.

    Yeah, but wait for the soon-to-follow Web for Workgroups 3.11...

    Or, better, Web NT...


  • "Bentham felt the Panopticon could make humanity more virtuous, more hard-working and happier"

    Where in the world did this guy get THAT idea from Bentham's works? The Panopticon was an invention for prisons and used today in that capacity. Almost all prisons and jails have been modeled off of it.

    Hard working? Happier? I don't think so. Try subordinate and loss of all humanity.
  • 1) the review may well be longer than the book. In the future, might I recommend not arguing with the author in your review? You alternate between that and lavishing praise --both are annoying in their own way.

    2) Andrew Keen [] is no bioethicist [] or anything like that so why should we care? His claim to fame seems to be a failed startup, which is hardly unique.

  • From TFS "Keen has a misinterpretation of Big Brother and 1984."
  • Does that mean that I can sell all my Web 2.0 stuff now and upgrade?
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