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October 1, 2012

[sogeti] Andrew Keen on Vertigo and Big Data

Andrew Keen is speaking. (I liveblogged him this spring when he talked at a Sogeti conference.) His talk’s title: “How today’s online social revolution is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us.” [Note: Posted without rereading because I’m about to talk. I may go back and do some cleanup.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Andrew opens with an anecdote. He grew up as a Jew in Britain. His siblings were split between becoming lawyers or doctors. But his mother asked him if he’d like to be the anti-Christ. So, now he’s grown up to become the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley.

“I’m not usually into intimacy,” but look at each other. How much do we know about each other? Not much. One of the great joys is getting to know one another. By 2017 there will 15x more data flowing over the network. Billions of intelligent devices. “The world we are going into is one in which 2o-25 years…you strangers will show up in a big city in London and you’ll know everything about each other.” You’ll know one another’s histories, interests…

“My argument is that we’re all stuck in Digital Vertigo. We’re all participants in a digital noir.” He shows a clip from Vertigo. “In the future these kinds of scenes won’t be possible. There won’t be private detectives…So this movie about the unfolding of understanding between strangers won’t happen.” What happens to policing. “Will we be guilty if we don’t carry our devices.” [SPOILERS] The blonde in this movie doesn’t exist. She’s a brunette shopgirl from Kansas. “The movie is about a deception…A classic Hitchcock narrative of falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. A good Catholic narrative…It’s a warning about falling in love with something that is too good to be true.” That’s what we’re doing with social media nd big data. We’re told big data brings us together. They tell us the Net gives us the opportunity for human beings to come together, to realize themselves as social beings. Big data allows us to become human.

This is about more than the Net. The revolution that Carlotta is talking about is one in which the Net becomes central in the way we live our lives. Fifteen years ago, Doc Searls, David W., and I would be marginal computer nerds, and now our books can be found in any book store. [Doc is in the audience also.]

He shows a clip from The Social Network: “We lived on farms. Now we’re going to live on the Internet.” It’s the platform of 21st century life. This is not a marginal or media issue. It is about the future of society. Many people this network will solve the core problems of life. We now have an ecosystem of apps in the business of eliminating loneliness. E.g., Highlight, “the darling of the recent SxSW show.” They say it’s “a fun way to learn more about people nearby.” Then he shows a clip from The Truman Show. His point: We’re all in our own Truman Shows. The destruction of privacy. No difference between public and private. We’re being authentic. We’re knowingly involving ourselves in this.

A quote: “Vertigo is the ultimate critics’ film because it is a dreamlike film about people who are not sure who they but who are busy econstructing themselves and each other to a f=kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul mate.” Substitute social media for film. We’re losing what it means to be using. We’re destroying the complexity of our inner lives. We’re only able to live externally. [This is what happens when your conceptual two poles are public and private. It changes when we introduce the term “social.”]

Narcissism isn’t new. Digital narcissism has reached a climax. As we’re given personal broadcasting platforms, we’re increasingly deluded into thinking we’re interesting and important. Mostly it reveals our banality, our superficiality. [This is what you get when your conceptual poles are taken from broadcast media.]

It’s not just digital narcissism. “Visibility is a trap,” said Foucault. Hypervisibility is a hypertrap. Our data is central to Facebook and others becoming viable businesses. The issue is the business model. Data is oil, and it’s owned by the rich. Zuckerberg, Reed Hoffman, et al., are data barons. Read Susan Cain’s “Quiet”: introverts drive innovation. E.g., Steve Wozniak. Sharing is not good for innovation. Discourage your employees from talking with one another all the time. It makes them less thoughtful. It creates groupthink. If you want them to think for themselves, “take away their devices and put them in dark rooms.”

It’s also a trap when it comes to govt. Many govts are using the new tech to spy on their citizens. Cf. Bentham’s panopticon, which was corrupted into 1984 and industrial totalitarianism. We need to go back to the Industrial Age and JS Mill — Mill’s On Liberty is the best antidote to Bentham’s utilitarianism. [? I see more continuity than antidote.]

To build a civilized golden age: 1. There is a role for govt. The market needs regulation. 2. “I’m happy with the EU is working on this…and came out against FB facial recognition software. … We have a right to forget.” “It’s the most unhuman of things to remember everything.” “We shouldn’t idolize the never-forgetting nature of Big Data.” “To forget and forgive is the core essence of being human.” 3. We need better business models. We don’t want data to be the new oil. I want businesses that charge. “The free economy has been a catastrophe.”

He shows the end of The Truman Show. [SPOILER] As Truman enters reality, it’s a metaphor for our hope. We can only protect our humanness by retreating into dark, quiet places.

He finishes with a Vermeer that shows us a woman about which we know nothing. In our Age of Facebook, we need to build a world in which the woman in blue can read that letter, not reveal herself, not reveal her mystery…”

Q: You’re surprising optimistic today. In the movie Vertigo, there’s an inevitability. How about the inevitability of this social movement? Are you tilting at windmills.

Idealists tilt at windmills. People are coming to around to understanding that the world we’re collectively creating is not quite right. It’s making people uneasy. More and more books, articles, etc., that FB is deeply exploitative. We’re all like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. The majority of people in the world don’t want to give away their data. As more of the traditional world comes onto the Net, there will be more resistant to collapsing the private and the public. Our current path is not inevitable. Tech is religion. Tech is not autonomous, not a first mover. We created Big Data and need to reestablish our domination over it. I’m cautiously optimistic. But it could go wrong, especially in authoritarian regimes. In Silicon Valley people say privacy is dead, get over it. But privacy is essential. Once we live this public ideal, then who are we.

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June 19, 2012

[sogeti] Andrew Keen

I’m at an event put on by Sogeti, in Bussum, about 30 km outside of Amsterdam. Sogeti is a technology consulting company of about 20,000 people. Last night on the way to a dinner event, Michiel Boreel the CTO, explained that the company markets itself in part by holding events designed to provoke thought and controversy. At today’s event, they have a guy from IBM talking about Big Data, Andrew Keen, Luciano Floridi, me, and others. At tomorrow’s event, they are having a debate about whether Big Data is good or bad for you. (Disclosure: They’re paying me for speaking.)

Andrew Keen is giving the final speech of the morning. He’s going to talk about the themes of his book, Digital Vertigo, especially as they apply to Big Data.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

“Real time is yesterday’s news,” he says. We’re into Web 3.0, he says. What does that mean? Paraphrasing Robert Scoble: the bartender knows what you want before you order. “The future arrives before we know it.” (He refers to his recent op-ed at

He says he calls his book Digital Vertigo because the future is being scripted by Alfred Hitchcock. The premise is that Hitchcock’s Vertigo gives us a preview of what life is like in the age of Big Data. “It’s a movie about watching and being watched.” “Jimmy Stewart is us in the age of Big Data.” “Surveillance and voyeurism…a little preview from Hitchcock of the age of exhibitionism” In the Age of Big Data weve fallen in love with the idea that more we make public, the happier we will become.” People like, um, me (i.e., DW) and the Berkman Center are responsible for fooling us into thinking that the more together we are, the happier we are.

He plays a bit of The Social Network, when Sean Parker says, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet.” Up through Web 2.0 the distinction between the real and virtual was clear. Now some authors (James Gleick) say that we are made of data. Many companies are in the business of collecting our data and enabling us to distribute ourselves and to define ourselves as data. People (he cites Loic Le Meur) are recording everything about themsevlves — his weight, his exercise runs, etc. “All these apps are designed to record, callibrate, intepret ourselves.” The location apps could have been invented by Orwell. The app Highlight keeps tabs on where we are. It aggregates our data.

He plays a bit of The Truman Show. “We’re all starring in the age of big data as ourselves…There’s no difference between private and public life.” “We have the collapsing of the public and private.” “Privacy is being destroyed. Many people in Silicon Valley say this is a good thing.”

“What’s behind this? Part of it is what I would call Digital Narcissism.” Andrew went to the Parthenon and found that no one was looking at the ruins because they were too busy photographing each other. The Age of Big data is an ideal complement to the Age of Narcissism, just as Jimmy Stewart fell in love with a fake blonde. “All love stories end badly. I’m British, not American.”

“Visibility is a trap,” said Foucault, says Andrew. “I’m not saying we should turn off all our devices, ” but visibility is a trap in three ways: 1. We, the innocent, are in fact the victim. The apps are collecting our data and selling it to advertisers, although they deny that. Eric Schmidt has said that he wants Google in 5 years to know what we want better than we do. 2. Even if we’re living in a post-1984 world, there still are governments whose eyes get big when they see they can know everything about us, telling us they’re fighting “absurd things such as terrorism.” Did social media bring down Mubarek? Yes, but there’s a darker side: 3. We’re watching ourselves. We’ve become little brothers.

History is repeating itself. He cites Bentham’s panopticon. Bentham thought if we all watched one another, it would aid progressive causes.

We need to do what Jimmy Stuart did: He sees the truth. We need to draw a line in the sand. “I’m not against some elements of the transparent network.” We’ve fallen in love with the idea that we become more human the more we distribute ourselves. “The problem with social media is that it’s not making us human. It’s doing away with the complexity of who we are.” Human essence is premised on secrecy, mystery. Individualism requires us to be alone. It does not require us to be in this perpetual social environment. Wozniak invented the personal computer by shutting himself in a room. If you want to bring the most out of your people, you need to put walls up in your office. You need to give people the space to develop their own ideas. You need to take them off the network.

We’ll finally be able to predict our own deaths. We need an alternative ending. We need to rethink the age of big data. We need government action. “I’m not a 20th century Stalinist. I’m not say the govt has to shut these companies down. But we need regulation.” We need apps that are premised on privacy and there are some. We need to rely on tech, e.g., some that’s being developed that allows data to degenerate. We need most of all to teach the Net how to forget. The Net is immature. It needs to learn how to forget. If data could fade away like writing, then the Net would be habitable. But now it is inhabitable. It is not a place fit for humans.

Andrew shows the end of the Truman Show where Truman realizes he’s on a TV set and he escapes. We need to discover that here’s a world beyond the network. Truman disappears into the darkness. That’s what we need to do in the age of big data. We need individually to discover that black space, where we can retire, where we can really work on ourselves as unique individuals. We’re born in that darkness and we die in it. The Net is a deception. We can civilize and humanize it. But we need collectively to work on it. [Collectively? Like on the Net?]


Q: Do we have a right to be forgotten? Is it a right?

A: Brandeis wrote we have this as a core right because privacy allows us to build our individuality. I’m not a legal scholar, so I don’t know.But I do think the govt can’t legislate it. We have to be careful that this doesn’t turn into censorship.

Q: What’s worse than no regulation is bad regulation.

A: Clearly someone from Silicon Valley. The Net should be legislated like any other medium. I’m ambivalent about enforcing the right to forget. I’ve failed many times, but the business of America is reinvention. With a medium that doesn’t forget, then you can’t reinvent himself. Even Mark Zuckerberg reinvented himself. Facebook’s Timeline writes a narrative of our lives. I wrote an aggressively negative article about this and got 20,000 FB Likes.

Q: Who in the room sees mainly the positive side of Big Data? The negative side? [Very few hands go up for either side.]

A: The purpose of my work is not to trash the Internet; it’s to have us think more carefully.

Q: What is the positive side of big data?

A: The positive is that it enables people who have mastered themselves to improve that mastery. If you use medical apps to chart your weight and fitness, these platforms to reinvent yourself as a brand , enable us if we’re mature and responsible to improve the quality of our lives. The problem is that most people aren’t using social media that way. The biggest problem with big data is that it turns us into ones and zeroes. Bentham thought we can quantify everything about ourselves. The real way to happiness is not through data. [True. The positive side: Bentham quantified as a way to equalize interests across classes.]


During the break, Andrew and I had a lively conversation. In brief, we agree that we don’t trust social networks like (and especially) Facebook to handle our data in ways that reflect our interests. And where we fundamentally disagree is in our assessment of how humans flourish. Andrew emphasizes the individual. I can only see individuals as social creatures. That of course over-simplifies the discussion and the idea, but, well, I’m over-simplifying.