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

Henry Farrell disentangles his Hitchcock from his super-nodes to reveal a pessimistic world view

July 26, 2012

This is less a book than an exercise in branding. It is apparently written to increase the public visibility of the author, who is scrambling on the middle slopes of technology punditry and, it seems, would dearly love to reach the heights.

Those lucky few who scale the peaks command tens of thousands of dollars in lecture fees. The rest are left to make do as best they can with the leftovers. A book that provokes debate can help a pundit to climb higher, even if no one actually reads it (after all, few players in the world of technology admit to having time to read anything longer than business memos).

Digital Vertigo responds to these incentives in unfortunate ways. I have no doubt that Andrew Keen is an intelligent human being, but his book is lazy and intellectually incoherent.

First, it is badly written. Like Thomas Friedman, Keen has an unfortunate habit of fixating on a couple of metaphors and working them to death. Poor Jeremy Bentham's corpse staggers through the earlier parts of the book like an incompetently reanimated zombie, required by its master to carry out a variety of narrative tasks according to no very obvious plan.

In the latter parts of the book, zombie Bentham is joined by Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, which is repeatedly invoked to tell us (I think) that nothing is as it seems. The film's title seems better fitted to describing the sensation induced by the book in its reader. The nauseating whirl of name-dropping, ludicrous claims (for example, that the advent of social bookmarks means the "end of the world" and inevitable death of solitary thought), imaginary one-sided dialogues and half-digested arguments left me feeling mildly seasick.

This malady is made worse by Keen's penchant for skipping from author to author to provide a patina of intellectual authority for his claims. On one page, selected at random, Digital Vertigo jumps from Richard Sennett to Paul Goodman to Herbert Marcuse to Vertigo's shipping magnate Gavin Elster, to Theodore Roszak to Don Tapscott to Jeff Jarvis to Walter Benjamin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and finally to Jean-Marie Goulemot. The result is as incoherent as one might imagine - less a book-length argument than what one might read over the shoulder of a bored undergraduate studying technology and culture, as he wandered from one Wikipedia entry to another.

Second, there is a more fundamental contradiction between the book's argument and its aims. Digital Vertigo argues that social media are trapping us in a kind of generalised panopticon, where the "very personality of contemporary man" is under threat. Social networks - in which the vast majority are snooped upon, while a few privileged "super-nodes" get the lion's share of public attention - are enveloping human experience and sucking it dry.

Keen claims that his book is intended as a defence of the mystery and secrecy of human experience. Yet the book's apparent aim is not to undermine the emerging networked aristocracy so much as to allow Keen to join its ranks. Keen boasts about his Twitter followers and, rather disarmingly, repeatedly tells the reader he aspires to super-nodedom himself. If hypervisibility is a trap, Keen would very much like to get caught. This emphatically undermines Digital Vertigo's critique of the power politics and debilitating moral consequences of social networks. It also perhaps explains why the book relentlessly drops the names of well-known technology figures with whom Keen has had breakfast, or debated, or interviewed for his online television show, even while it fulminates against their ideas. I suspect that Keen aspires to enfant not-too-terrible status - just annoying enough that the right people will pay attention to him, but not so much that they'll be genuinely upset.

As a contribution to intellectual debate, Digital Vertigo isn't even slightly engaging. Its argument is vague, its editing shoddy, its prose execrable. As an example of adaptation to a given environment, however, it is somewhat more interesting. The book shows strong evidence of selective pressures, as well as more than a little evolutionary drift. A chitinous carapace of superficial erudition protects an interior with little meat, less nervous system and no brain worth speaking of. I suspect that it isn't quite well adapted enough for Keen to scuttle backwards into the lobster pot of internet fame as he would obviously like to, but I could very possibly be wrong.

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

By Andrew Keen

Constable, 256pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781780338408

Published 24 May 2012

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