Don't Read Andrew Keen's Book – You'll Harm His Identity

from the or-'zuck-it-up'-if-you-prefer dept

To promote his new pop-Luddite book Digital Vertigo—named, I assume, for the slight feeling of dizziness that signals the onset of old age—Andrew Keen has written an opinion column for CNN about the disastrous consequences of social media for the human condition. Having spent a day to process his words, I’m left with one inescapable conclusion: Keen needs to take a broader view of history. I call this “inescapable” because it holds true whether or not you agree with him. If you reject his premise that them kids aint right, then you probably think he needs to look at all the many technological and societal revolutions throughout the millennia and the shortsighted people who have railed against them, only to be proven wrong. But what if you agree with that premise, and like Keen, you fear that Facebook will “Zuck up” the species, or at least take it sweetly in the hayloft then sell the videos to Zynga?

Then I think you would still have to conclude that he lacks perspective, because he simply doesn’t go far enough. His main concern, which he backs up with the quacking noises words of Techdirt’s good friend Sherry Turkle, is that social media is causing people to build their identities based on what people think of them rather than magically conjuring up an identity from within—and that this is a tragedy for humanity:

But this shift to a Facebook world of incessant “friending,” Professor Turkle correctly warns us, is a “seductive fantasy” which is weakening us both as individuals and as a society. The problem, she explains, is that a “capacity for solitude is what nurtures great relationships.” But in today’s always-on social media world, our solitude has been replaced by incessant online updates, which both weaken our sense of self and our ability to create genuine friendships.

What it means, of course, is that we are creating a world in which our sense of identity, of who we actually are, is defined by what others think of us. Social media’s ubiquity means that we are losing that most precious of human things — our sense of self . Our devices are always on; our “Timeline” (Facebook’s product which greedily attempts to capture our entire life narrative) is there for everyone to see; we are living in public on a radically transparent global network that, by 2020, will be fed by 50 billion intelligent devices carried by the majority of people on the planet.

This is disappointingly short-sighted. How could Keen reach this conclusion without noticing that the telephone also created more intercommunication and immediacy within communities, and thus should be rejected as well? Or that earlier still, international postage did us a great disservice by inundating our identities with annoying perspectives from around the world? If I am to follow someone backwards into this brave old world of isolation, I want a true leader who knows how to go big or go home (and “home” should be like, a cave, or something). In fact, I can’t think of a single instant in the history of human civilization where members of a community have not largely defined their identity and value based on the standards and demands of that community. I’m beginning to suspect that farming may be to blame—or maybe cave painting? Frankly I’m not sure why we spend so much time coming up with words to express our thoughts and get feedback from others, violating the sanctity of our identities by tempering them with a variety of viewpoints, when all we really need are hunting commands. So why isn’t Keen championing that cause?

Or maybe it’s not history Keen is lacking—maybe it’s philosophy. After all, there’s a simple solution to his problem: solipsism. Wasn’t it Descartes’ first principle that the self is the only thing one can be sure exists? And someone who hates progress so much should never need more than one principle. If we just accept that nobody else is real, then it won’t bother us when they tweet photos of their breakfast anymore. Ah, but I guess then we wouldn’t get the other benefits Keen mentions:

But remember, the less we publicly announce about ourselves, the more mysterious and thus the more interesting our private selves become.

Wait, now I’m confused. I thought the whole idea was to be less narcissistic, and not base our identities on the opinions of others. That sure sounds like a high-school-level attempt to cultivate a public identity to me, but since I’ve now decided that neither Keen nor anyone reading this actually exists, I’ll let it pass and focus on building my self-esteem by beating myself at Words With Friends, which is way more fun when you renounce your friends. Still, I expect more from figments of my imagination, and I hope Keen will realize that he’s only scratched the surface of the vile threat to our humanity that “community” represents.

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Comments on “Don't Read Andrew Keen's Book – You'll Harm His Identity”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

A lesson only the recording industry can give. A lesson in why not to pirate.

First, they put him in a large theater and hold open his eyes With some metal gadget. A doctor will come by and put drops in is eyes to keep them from drying out.

He will watch, for hundreds and hundreds of hours, those anti-piracy videos you see before your movies; He will also get a lesson in a new type of math, the type the recording industry uses that makes 2+2= whatever the hell they want.

They then will bring the subject to a stadium where they will present former pirate as successfully cured and all the world will rejoice.

They will call this lesson, A clockwork pirate

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Just think of the poor bison who had the IP on their images stolen by those awful pirate cave painters.

Worse still, researchers have discovered certain similar shapes like spirals and triangles that appear in multiple cave paintings, often at sites a great distance from each other. They theorize that this may have been part of the earliest, most basic emergence of a written language – all based on flagrant copying!

Also, now that I think about it, the Proto-Indo-European Language is the grandest orphan work of all time – and we’re all dirty pirates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hmm, because I take interest online with friends and other activities such as reading TechDirt and adding comments, I’m a threat to the human condition and not original.

Somehow I can’t see that. I see an opposite causality in terms that when I am with people in person I spend better “quality” time with them anymore. It is a simple thing, I know which items “not” to discuss if I don’t want an argument and which items we can all get involved with. Of course discussing prior arguments from online happens but usually because the online portion posted stats, links and facts back and forth, even in person everyone is more friendly because there is less initial emotional involvement and more factual discussion.

Somehow, I just don’t see the fact that social gatherings usually go more smoothly suggests the conclusions made.

el don says:

andrew keen

oh, it’s HIM.
the first time i saw him talk on TED, i was nauseated.
then, interviewed on the daily show. hah.
the guy just sounds like a pumped up charlatan to me.
or, if you prefer ‘a pompous blowhard’.
enough said, sorry my comments cannot be more considered and logical – i agree with some of what he says, but i do not agree with his general schtick. most off-putting: colours everything he argues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Solitude, or just hypocrisy?

I just finished reading Keen’s article, and here’s what struck me the most. His argument is founded, fundamentally, on the assumption that our public identities somehow need to be different from our private identities.

I think most people would agree that if you’re open and expressive about what you’re passionate about, you’ll do better in your relationships with other people who share the same values. If you’re a sports fan, you can go to games with other sports fans and have a great time. If you’re passionate about art, you can make art and go to gallery openings and hang out with artists. This common thread runs through everything from reading groups to civil war reenactors to fantasy cons; if you’re open and engaged with the things that matter to you, you can build strong relationships with other people.

Where the whole expressiveness thing starts to break down is when you start trying to compartmentalize your life; in other words, when you start having major portions of your life that you don’t talk about with other major portions of your life. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing — there are plenty of good reasons why people could want multiple, separate online identities. But most of those reasons are rooted in prejudice, oppression, or coercion. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Keen is talking about when he talks about Facebook “weakening our sense of self and our ability to create relationships”.

As far as I can tell, Keen really believes that you can only have a strong “sense of self” or a “real relationship” if you keep major portions of yourself private. Does he really believe that people can only maintain strong relationships if they keep major parts of themselves secret, or only share those parts with a few people? To me, this seems both absurd and sad. Personally, I’m pretty sure that the happiest people are the ones who are open, honest, and comfortable with themselves. It’s sharing who you are, not hiding yourself away, that builds strong and lasting relationships with other people.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Solitude, or just hypocrisy?


Another failure in this line of thinking:
Many shallow relationships somehow devalue your meaningful relationships.

They see these tweets, facebook comments, and other quick connections, and make a hilarious leap of logic that that’s as far as it goes. Apparently, they’ve never heard of different levels of relationships. It really is possible to have a great number of relationships. They’ll have different depths (acquaintance, colleague, friend, etc.), but they are all valid, no matter how shallow.

Bruce Partington says:

Re: Solitude, or just hypocrisy?

“His argument is founded, fundamentally, on the assumption that our public identities somehow need to be different from our private identities.”

By Mr Beadon/Carab’s logic, your posting this as Anonymous fundamentally contradicts your questioning of that assumption. Unless Anonymous is the name on your ID…

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I’m guessing this is all so he feels better about making his private self more interesting so his self love is more exciting. o_O

Maybe some “experts” need to examine the internet on the social level. We all interact with lots of people in the day, they represent from strangers to besties. Just because this has shifted to a digital format doesn’t make it wrong, anymore that it says we should never speak to a stranger in meatspace because that might make us less mysterious and we become nothing.

Meh what could I know, I’m a constructed online persona. One of several, sharing or not sharing different details with differing peer groups on different topics. Maybe that is what makes me more mysterious… or maybe his premise is flawed and he hates FB because not even his mom would freind him 😀

Brian says:

my favorite assumption....

Of most anti-social network writers, is the illusion of privacy. As recently as the 1700’s living in the same village our entire lives, there was no privacy. Wasn’t the scarlet letter about a woman who was branded because she did something obscene, and wasn’t able to keep her mistake private??

It is just our villages have grown in size.

alternatives() says:

So FaceBook causes teenager-ism?

social media is causing people to build their identities based on what people think of them rather than magically conjuring up an identity from within

Such was the way of High School. Is the “threat” here of some global Peter Pan never grow up RL world based on a digital application of social norms?

Anonymous Coward says:

We don’t build our identities in private, identity isn’t an internal construct. It’s developed through the eyes of our community.

A baby doesn’t have an identity, it’s given one by the family who surrounds it, as it grows into a child, he or she further develops that identity through their perception of what others think them.

As Thandie Newton said in her excellent ted talk. “If we’re all living in ourselves and mistaking it for life, then we’re devaluing and desensitizing life.? (Thandie Newton)

TasMot (profile) says:

Let's go even further back in history

One of the things I find curious about discussions of social networks that is obviously missing (to me at least) is the very short history that is considered. Looking far enough back (before vast civilizations were possible – for example to native americans) and we will see that small communities were the norm. Where everybody knew everybody else, quite literally. Privacy was achieved by going out into the woods or field alone (or with the person you wanted to be alone with). With that as a basis and considering that in some cases people don’t even know all other residents of the same building (let’s face it, some large city apartment buildings could have hundreds of people living in it) any method of trying to connect with other human beings is a good thing. We are not really a society unless we connect with others and can learn from them.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

While I don’t completely disagree with some of what Keen says and some of the possible consequences I have to say I’m not all that concerned about it.

We do grow up with our identity being a mixed construct of private and public portions which are inevitably shaped by others beginning with our parents. Some of this is that “horrible” thing, it seems, the process of socialization. With some luck, as we grow we are less shaped by the thoughts and opinions of others than we are by the talents, interests and passions we develop as we grow into adulthood. We can, and. most of us do, socialize with others who share those talents, interests and passions. It doesn’t take Facebook to figure that out.

We’ve had data relentlessly collected on us since the appearance of loyalty cards such as Air Miles and others which record our every purchase, when and where we make them and how often. Facebook is just a larger, if less accurate dataset. The vastness of the Facebook dataset is valuable to marketers in that it may create less errors and make some things more predictable of us as Facebook users just as the Air Miles dataset may make us more predictable as consumers. As groups, I hasten to add, not as individuals.

We have the “luxury” of picking and choosing what we’ll share on Facebook in our privacy settings all the while having some of that negated by the tracking cookies ads place in our browsers.

Still, I come back to one of the most important things I was taught and pass on in the granddaddy of 12 step that “you’re only as sick as your secrets” which, as it turns out, was very true. Later on came “live your life like an open book” which is also true. It makes things so much simpler! Even on Facebook or other social networks.

Nor do I, necessarily, agree that video games and porn are going to make boys less sensitive or less of a catch as partners. Even first person shooters are, at their core, puzzles to be solved and you can leave as much blood and gore around as you want and still not beat the game. As for porn, I’d hope that at some point in a guy’s life the light comes on that says “sex is a VERY boring spectator sport” and much, much better when it’s part of a loving and caring partnership.

Perhaps what worried Keen is that the rules for boundaries have changed and that while he’s not happy about that and doesn’t really understand that he misses the point that today’s teenagers largely know nothing else and like most of their ilk ( 😉 ) will make terrible mistakes there. They’ll also survive. I did despite everything I could do to ensure I wouldn’t.

Life, personality and identity are made to be lived and not hidden from ourselves or the world. Real or virtual. They’re also made to be celebrated. They’re also malleable to such a degree that parts of them can and do change daily. The day we lock ourselves in is the day we begin to rapidly die even if we’re still breathing in and out as we do it.

They’re also meant to be shared otherwise identity and personality become utterly meaningless.

Anonymous Coward says:


There’s a difference between older and younger people and their facebook friends. Older people are generally looking to reconnect/connect to people they ALREADY KNOW. This is something that has not been possible in the past. 20 years ago when you lost touch with someone – that was it. Now you can “find” them and friend them again. Catch up and rekindle some old, long lost friendships.

Younger people tend to accumulate friends indiscriminately. (NOTE: I said tend to, it’s not a 100% rule). They might even BEGIN a friendship on facebook that is later taken to the “real world” – or not.

The point is that you can’t just put everyone in a single bad box.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: nothing like agism...

who, me?

I only mock Keen for his age because he’s written a whole book about “the kids these days and them darn newfangled facebooks”. If he wasn’t acting like such an out-of-touch old man, I wouldn’t have anything to say about his age – I’d probably respect it.

The internet and technology are not a young man’s game by any means – but they are an open-minded man’s game. It’s a shame that Keen has made such an effort to broadcast the message “I’m obsolete and stuck in my ways, don’t bother listening to me anymore”

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No, my argument is that if you’re going to claim that a new communication technology that both broadens and abstracts our communities and the interactions therein is somehow harmful to our humanity, then you have to reject all significant communication advances.

That is, unless you believe that it just so happens that all the tech that was or became standard when you were young is perfectly human and normal, but all the tech invented after that point goes too far and his bad and inhuman. That you’re the lucky person who was born at the exact right time in technological history.

But if you take that last view, what’s more likely – that you’re right, or that you’re just having trouble accepting something you’re not used to?

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