Last night, May 24th, I was one of 20 lucky participants at a discussion organised by The Kernel Magazine at London’s Adam Street Private Members Club. The event was invitation-only and limited to subscribers of the Nutshell, The Kernel’s weekly newsletter. A friendly bunch of Venture Capitalists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, journalists, a social worker and a sociologist gathered around the table waiting for Andrew Keen, the self-styled “Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley” who had just published his latest book “Digital Vertigo”. Andrew (@ajkeen) of course is the author of “The Cult of the Amateur”, a book published in 2007 that puts a lid on the overexcitement for peer production, user-generated content and the associated Web2.0 hype.
While waiting for Andrew’s arrival it transpired that with Damian Thompson, the Editor of Telegraph Blogs, another author was amongst us who had just published his new book “The Fix: How Addiction is Invading our Lives and Taking Over Your World.” In the book Damian argues that currently more and more products are created and marketed that have seductive, even addictive, qualities; like the alcoholic reaching for the needle, people taking painkillers and munching cupcakes, we increasingly feel compelled to look at our smart phone or play video-games.
In the discussion of his book Damian illustrated his arguments by referring to his interviews with drug addicts, video gamers and psychologists. These examples provided a good starting-point for Andrew Keen who in the meantime had arrived, not in a ball of fire but with a friendly smile to discuss his “Digital Vertigo”. As it turns out some of the arguments Andrew makes in his book are closely related to the case Damian makes in his book, as Andrew writes in a review published in The Kernel Magazine yesterday: “whatever it means to be human means not be addicted to foreign substances, devices or networks” (A. Keen 2012).
In the course of the dissemination of social technologies people give up their privacy and post their ongoing engagements on Facebook, Twitter and other networks. Thereby, maybe without their knowledge, they render formerly private activities like watching television or reading, public. They not only post messages of their activities but the technology itself makes visible what they are doing and people seem to enjoy exhibiting their (private) activities; social television and social reading are just some of the most recent trends in the exhibition of private activities.
Andrew in reference to Damian Thompson’s “The Fix” pointed out how these social technologies bear characteristics that make an engagement with them “addictive”. People are lured into social networking sites with the promise of connecting with others, and once they have arrived there find it hard to disconnect and to not check their Facebook sites and Twitter feeds. In my view this constant checking of our displays cannot be explained by an “addiction” alone but is due also to the fact that we become accountable when we fail to respond to a status update or tweet directed at us. We may receive an email, a text message or even a telephone call to remind us on our obligation to attend to our “friends” actions. Ignoring an update is not an option. What Thompson describes as “addiction” at least bears an additional quality that is that by signing up to a social network we acknowledge a tacit agreement of being constantly available to attend to our “friends’” and “followers’” actions.
With this point Andrew links to recent movements that have emerged on the web, such as #technologyshabbat on Twitter and theundolist.com. These Twitter and web-campaigns call on people to unplug at least once a week and make time to connect with friends and family without the constant interruption by the glance to the phone.
The discussion on the evening however went beyond arguments about addiction and the internet as a technology that may disturb social relationships and moved to political questions like the role of the state as legislator, the need for more suitable “education” and debates about the need for privacy to secure space and time for human existence. I may overstate the level of debate here, we did have a glass of wine as well, but Andrew’s book starts with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham who up to the present day is displayed for public inspection in a glass-case at University College London.
Bentham is relevant to the debate about the impact of social technology for various reasons, including his invention of the panopticon that nowadays is often cited as the intellectual base for the emerging surveillance society or “transparency society” (David Brin). As people spend increasing time online and use social technologies to share their experiences with others, companies gather data about online activities because in the ‘Like-economy’ these activities are a commodity. In effect, the argument goes, Facebook and cognate companies exploit people’s narcissism by encouraging them to exhibit themselves, their whereabouts and ongoing activities.
Andrew called for legislation and regulation that protects people’s privacy, that enables people to conduct activities privately and determine what data they reveal of themselves and what companies can do with personal data. Some of the particip
ants in the discussion, maybe not surprisingly considering their background, countered Andrew’s argument and pointed to technologies that provide new opportunities for people to connect with each other and information without revealing data about themselves; examples for these developments are private search engines or browsers that hide people’s identities.
This point led to another strand of debate concerned with the Filter Bubble effect and opportunities for serendipity. Again, some of the participants in the discussion suggested that search engines, tracking technologies and recommender systems have become better at creating interesting results for their users. Yet, there was agreement in the room that clearer information needs to be provided about ways in which technologies extracts information from people’s private and public activities, on- and offline, to turn it into data and utility for companies. Whilst the term “education” came up, it seemed to be too vague to suffice to address the lack in skill and competence in using smart and social technologies.
Unfortunately, the evening then had to end despite us all getting increasingly excited about the event itself. Milo promised that The Kernel Magazine is planning to make these debates a regular, hopefully twice monthly event. We are all looking forward to them!