Reviewing Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen

March 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Andrew Keen is worried about the future of humanity, and social media’s to blame. I, too, occasionally like to blame social media for all of humanity’s ills, but then I also blame gaming culture, excessive media consumption, helicopter parenting, and too much sugar. In his latest book Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen takes a closer look at the biggest social upheaval since the industrial revolution and what it means for the future of human connections.

Inspired by “the most visible corpse of the nineteenth century – the body of the utilitarian philosopher, social reformer and prison architect Jeremy Bentham, a cadaver that has been living in public since his death in June 1832”, Keen argues that the online social revolution has put many of us on display as well. The uprising of social media platforms and the cultural changes they have brought about are thus not as innovative as Silicon Valley would have us think. After all, Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection-House, a concept he dreamt up in the 19th Century, was also built on the idea that complete transparency leads to a better connected society.

Tracing the progression of social media from anomaly to mainstream addiction, Keen questions “whether digital man [will] be more socially connected than his industrial ancestor.” Of course, he surmises, this depends on how one measures the value of a connection.

Keen makes plain from the outset that he is not necessarily in favour of social media (just check out Digital Vertigo’s secondary title). However, while I’m inclined to agree with many of Keen’s hesitations about social media and its effects on our connections with each other, I feel that he doesn’t necessarily present these as well as he could.

Hitchcock’s film Vertigo serves as the anchor to which Keen keeps returning, but the parallels he draws between the film and the social media revolution don’t quite stick. And that’s the problem with Digital Vertigo overall: it is so bogged down in facts, figures and wishy-washy connections that Keen’s underlying argument is diluted. When you spend most of the reading experience trying desperately to work out how you made the leap from Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller to the The Crystal Palace and Summer of Love then something’s not quite right.

Keen’s observations are the most interesting when they get philosophical, when he questions how putting ourselves on display in this fashion correlates with the human experience. What is happening online does not encapsulate the human experience as he sees it.

We are, I realised, becoming schizophrenic– simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous.

Despite the extensive research Keen has done, or perhaps because of it, Digital Vertigo suffers from a surplus of elements. There is too much going on, too many threads to weave together and not enough signposting of ideas. Consequently, Keen’s closing statement, though understandable in the context of his overarching argument, is quite shocking. It definitely left me a little muddled.

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