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Digital Vertigo

Are Facebook and Twitter really forms of "an absurd global prison where we are all forced to live in public?” Author and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen is afraid that the answer is yes.

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But while Keen is right to lambast these digital evangelists promising a new Renaissance (and he does so with verve), it is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest that a new Dark Ages could be imminent. The book suffers from the same failing as many books on the Internet: a selective use of studies and anecdotal evidence to bolster its arguments. For example, Keen cites a 2007 Brigham Young University social-media study that found that the heaviest networkers “feel less socially involved with the community around them.” But there are plenty of other academic studies that show the exact opposite – that, in fact, social-media users have richer social lives.

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Or Keen cites a study that showed that in 2010, among teenagers, use of e-mail was down by 59 percent. According to the author, that meant teenagers were prepared to sacrifice the one-to-one privacy of email in favor of the “public social-messaging platforms like Twitter and Facebook.” He doesn’t mention, however, that both Twitter and Facebook allow private messaging between users and that is how teenagers often use them.

“Might Mark Zuckerberg’s five-year plans to transform the Internet into a brightly lit dorm room incarcerate us all in an absurd global prison where we are all forced to live in public?” Keen asks. Ultimately “Digital Vertigo” doesn’t really answer that question, and the author relies far too much on historical analogies to paint a picture of an online dystopia – the shattered dreams of the California Gold Rush; Britain’s Crystal Palace, a marvel of the 19th-century technological revolution, burnt down as the promises of the industrial age descended into totalitarianism and war. Through these parallels, the reader is constantly aware that we are all on the verge of toddling off, smart-phones in hand, into the abyss, but we never hear exactly how we’re going to get there or how we can stop it. Lessons from history only go so far.

The issues that really matter – and will help shape our online and offline futures – such as “Do Not Track” or “right to be forgotten” legislation, or the complex debates surrounding engineering and governance of the Internet, are only barely touched on. Privacy in the Twitter age is a controversial issue, raising numerous social, ethical, and technological questions, and here, despite Keen’s polemical and engaging writing, it is given short shrift.

It is good that among the cheerleaders and apparatchiks of Silicon Valley there are skeptics like Keen who are prepared to swim against the tide. Critiques from inside an empire always carry more weight. But ultimately Keen squanders that insider status and just ends up sounding like a grumpy old man telling the pesky kids of Silicon Valley to get their damn Internets off his lawn.

Luke Allnut, a freelance journalist living in Prague, writes frequently about technology. 

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