Andrew Keen took on the unruly Internet with his provocative 2007 book, "Cult of Amateur -- How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture." He advanced a thesis that mainstream media, copyrights, and the public trust are being compromised by the profusion of content on blogs, YouTube, and other venues. He described the situation as "ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule."
In his new book, "Digital Vertigo," Keen takes on Facebook and the social Web. He argues that the profusion of sharing online is "killing our species," dividing, diminishing, and disorienting humanity. He maintains that a kind of "digital narcissism," or exhibitionism, is becoming a salient feature of our culture, and that Facebook is "stealing the innocence of our inner lives."
Sharing, or over-sharing, individual data, according to Keen, will lead to a generation of individuals without "mystery," living more isolated lives and lining the pockets of the social network companies that turn their data into profit.
In the video interview above, Keen and I debate his notion that the social web is leading civilization off a cliff and "stealing the innocence of our inner lives."
Here are a few highlights from the interview.
Keen says that the human species is stepping into new territory. "We have never lived in at time when we could tell the world everything about ourselves," he told me.
Indeed, social-networking tools make it more frictionless to share, and a herd mentality can more easily spread, but not everyone on Facebook feels compelled to reveal their inner selves or bend to the will of digital avatars.
Keen offers our mutual friend, technology blogger extraordinaire Robert Scoble, as an example of an exhibitionist, a prodigious online sharer with 1,615,257 in his Google+ circles, 321,000 Facebook subscribers and more than 262,000 Twitter followers and nearly 59,000 tweets. In reality, Scoble is more of an extroverted pioneer exploring different facets of Web and related technologies, using himself as a guinea pig. And, he doesn't mind the attention. The analog world, like the digital world, is populated by those who love to be on stage and share themselves, and those who prefer to just watch the show.
In reference to the Jimmy Stewart character in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and the title of his book, Keen said, "We are living in film noir. We are the fall guy. We are the Jimmy Stewart in the 21st century movie, and people are really disturbed by that."
In other words, everyone contributing data to a social graph, putting their inner selves on exhibition and giving up what's left of their privacy, is falling victim to schemes of the social networks. We learn that nothing is really for "free," and social networks like Facebook are "opportunistic," not evil.
Keen suggested some practical solutions for fixing his "killing our species" view of social networks. People need to practice more self-censorship and make their own decisions about how they user social media services, he said. In addition, government regulation, such as Do Not Track technology, and more focus on innovation and technology, can help move forward the agenda of protecting privacy.
Keen advised that the new world needs to replicate more of the old world.
"As we live more and more on Internet, as it become the platform for 21st century life, it needs to replicate the world we are used to, it needs to conform to what we want," which for Keen is not keeping persistent track of his digital life.
"If we can teach the Internet how to forget, then even I will become a fan, even I will go back on Facebook. That's a promise, Mark Zuckerberg," Keen said.
Despite some over-reaching, "Digital Vertigo" brings a fresh, intelligent, and rigorous historical perspective to the debate about our digital future. We should be wary of how social networks and intelligent devices are invading our lives, as Keen says. And, it's not often that a readable book examining the nature of the social web can weave Jeremy Bentham, Franz Kafka, Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jack Kerouac, George Orwell, Hitchcock, Sherry Turkle, Reid Hoffman, Biz Stone, and Zuckerberg into a narrative. In an alternate universe they would all friend each other on Facebook.
In the meantime, Facebook continues its colonization of the planet and is considering how to bring tens of millions of children 13 and under into the social network.