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

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

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by Andrew Keen

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"Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I'm grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution." —Larry Downes, author of The Killer App


In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen&


"Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I'm grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution." —Larry Downes, author of The Killer App


In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen presents today’s social media revolution as the most wrenching cultural transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Fusing a fast-paced historical narrative with front-line stories from today’s online networking revolution and critiques of "social" companies like Groupon, Zynga and LinkedIn, Keen argues that the social media transformation is weakening, disorienting and dividing us rather than establishing the dawn of a new egalitarian and communal age. The tragic paradox of life in the social media age, Keen says, is the incompatibility between our internet longings for community and friendship and our equally powerful desire for online individual freedom. By exposing the shallow core of social networks, Andrew Keen shows us that  the more electronically connected we become, the lonelier and less powerful we seem to be.



Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” in mind, self-appointed “tech Anti-Christ” Keen (The Cult of the Amateur) presents his deepest Orwellian pessimism of a socially-mediated future and laments an increasing lack of privacy as Facebook, Twitter, and a dizzying array of wannabes come to dominate our interconnected world. Unfortunately, his obsession with privacy and authority blinds him to real problems of media illiteracy or a dearth of truly public space. A public figure with more than 11,000 Twitter followers, Keen also seems to miss the point that one can opt out of social media entirely, while his alarmist stance willfully ignores their potential benefits. His inherently conservative, fearful position is constructed upon a foundation of fallacies, strawman arguments, and a woefully inadequate understanding of basic sociology. He also tends to pass off assumptions as fact and make claims to universality that are questionable at best. Even Keen’s appeals to some static ideal of “personhood” and “human-ness” that is being erased betray an ignorance of modern psychology or neuroscience. This is not to say that social media is without problems or above criticism, but those leveled here make it difficult to see the book as more than paranoid technophobia. Agent: Stephen Hanselman, Level Five Media (May)
Library Journal
Internet entrepreneur Keen (The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today's User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values) is known for voicing his concerns about how the Internet has a negative impact on contemporary culture. Similar to titles such as Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, his latest looks at how, since industrialization, society's feelings about community, transparency, privacy, and the right to be "let alone" have changed. While the vision of an open, global community where we never have to be lonely sounds attractive on the surface, Keen strongly advocates for thinking carefully about what we're sharing, whom we're sharing with, who's profiting from it, and what they're doing with that information. The book provides a thoughtful warning about the potential moral and ethical consequences of oversharing. VERDICT There may be a few too many twists and turns for the average reader; Keen calls on quite a bit of philosophy and sociology to make his points. Those invested in the ongoing social media debate or concerned about the future of privacy will appreciate his thoughts best. [See Prepub Alert, 12/12/11.]—Rachel Hoover, Western Springs Lib., IL
Kirkus Reviews
An Internet entrepreneur and critic rails against the inexorable growth of social media. Keen (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007) claims that the onslaught of social media and the willingness of users to share every detail of their lives online signify that "we are forgetting who we really are." The author takes on serious issues like privacy concerns and how online communities create real-world isolation, and he offers thoughtful analysis of what a shared online experience could mean for the future. But despite his passion, the author never creates a satisfying argument and struggles to establish connections between past events and the online realm today. For example, he unconvincingly tags the "narcissistic generation" of 1960s "bohemians" as the forerunners of the "free-floating, fragmented butterflies of today's age of Foursquare, SocialEyes and Plancast." Keen's tendency to ping from subject to subject--e.g., from the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 to Vermeer's 17th-century painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter to Orwell's 1984--confuses considerably more than it elucidates. Lacking historical analogies for other points, the author falls back on excessively provocative statements, often without any evidence to back them up--a social reading app, for example, would herald "the end of solitary thought." Adding to the jumble is Keen's heavy-handed insistence on drawing parallels between our online lives and the plot of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Vertigo--he even devotes nearly an entire chapter to the movie's plot--possibly in an attempt to justify his book's title. Occasionally insightful but tiresome and scattershot.
From the Publisher

“Unlike most commentators, Andrew Keen observes the internet as if from a distance. Digital Vertigo may be one of the few books on the subject that, twenty years from now, will be seen to have got it right. Neither blinkered advocate nor hardened cynic, he identifies the good and the bad with a rare human and historical perspective. ” —Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP

“Andrew Keen has found the off switch for Silicon Valley's reality distortion field. With a cold eye and a cutting wit, he reveals the grandiose claims of our new digital plutocrats to be little more than self-serving cant. Digital Vertigo provides a timely and welcome reminder that having substance is more important than being transparent.” —Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

“Andrew Keen is that rarest of authors: one has taken the time to understand the benefits of technological innovation before warning us of its risks. In Digital Vertigo Keen finds himself in a dizzying world where it is not just possible to share every detail of our professional and private lives, but actually expected. While a growing number of his friends -- including those in the upper echelons of Silicon Valley society -- preach the gospel of total transparency and cyber-oversharing, he refuses to blindly click the "accept" button. Instead he takes us on a guided tour of the history of privacy, solitude and the technology of socialization -- before encouraging us to take a long, hard look at our lives before we blindly allow others to do the same. A vital and timely book that's terrifying, fascinating, persuasive and reassuring all at the same time. And one that will make even the biggest Facebook-o-phile or Linked-in-a-holic think twice before adding another contact to their network.” —Paul Carr, author of Bringing Nothing to the Party and The Upgrade

“A bracing read. From Hitchcock to Mark Zuckerberg and the politics of privacy, a savvy observer of contemporary digital culture reframes current debates in a way that clarifies and enlightens.” —Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together

“Web 3.0 has catapulted society to new technological heights, yet afflicted us individually with a profound sense of vertigo as we stand naked for all to see. It is almost too late to ask whether we would live our digital lives differently if we had known that privacy would become the scarcest commodity on the Internet. But in this timely and important book, Andrew Keen once again thinks one step ahead of social media pioneers, posing questions they will need to answer or risk facing a digital uprising. Equal parts philosophical and informative, Digital Vertigo brings us back to 19th century debates that have an eerie relevance to today's technological dilemmas, while also laying out the latest corporate strategies being deployed to decipher and commercialize your most intimate thoughts. Better than any other multi-media expert, Keen challenges the false promise of the virtue of sharing.” —Parag Khanna, Director, Hybrid Reality Institute, and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance

“Despite the unfortunate lesson throughout the 20th Century of the dangerous allure of utopian thinking, the Digital Age has inspired a whole new generation of fabulously successful entrepreneurs who preach the revolutionary future of Web 2.0, Web 3.0, . . . That's why Andrew Keen's work is so important. He's a voice of informed caution, a Silicon Valley insider warning against false prophets and a future that may destroy as much as it creates. In Digital Vertigo, he examines the fantastical claims for and astounding growth of social media, countering the vision of excited gurus with sober, reality-based queries and judgments. The book is a tonic for individuals who are tired of the hype and coercion and display of online contact.” —Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation

Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I'm grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution.” —Larry Downes, author of the e-commerce bestseller Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance

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St. Martin's Press
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Digital Vertigo

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

By Andrew Keen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Andrew Keen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4096-2



"Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated instruction diffused — public burdens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture."


The Inspection-House

If this was a picture, you'd have seen it before. History, you see, is repeating itself. With our new digital century comes a familiar problem from the industrial age. A social tyranny is once again encroaching upon individual liberty. Today, in the early twenty-first century, just as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this social threat comes from a simple idea in architecture.

In 1787, at the dawn of the mass industrial age, Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a "simple idea in architecture" to improve the management of prisons, hospitals, schools and factories. Bentham's idea was, as the architectural historian Robin Evans noted, a "vividly imaginative" synthesis of architectural form with social purpose. Bentham, who amassed great personal wealth as a result of his social vision, wanted to change the world through this new architecture.

Bentham sketched out this vision of what Aldous Huxley described as a "plan for a totalitarian housing project" in a series of "open" letters written from the little Crimean town of Krichev, where he and his brother, Samuel, were instructing the regime of the enlightened Russian despot Catherine the Great about the building of efficient factories for its unruly population. In these public letters, Bentham imagined what he called this "Panopticon" or "Inspection-House" as a physical network, a circular building of small rooms, each transparent and fully connected, in which individuals could be watched over by an all-seeing inspector. This inspector is the utilitarian version of an omniscient god — always-on, all-knowing, with the serendipitous ability to look around corners and see through walls. As the French historian Michel Foucault observed, this Inspection House was "like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible."

The Panopticon's connective technology would bring us together by separating us, Bentham calculated. Transforming us into fully transparent exhibits would be good for both society and the individual, he adduced, because the more we imagined we were being watched, the more efficient and disciplined we would each become. Both the individual and the community would, therefore, benefit from this network of Auto-Icons. "Ideal perfection," the utilitarian figured, taking this supposedly social idea to its most chillingly anti-social conclusion, would require that everyone — from connected prisoners to connected workers to connected school children to connected citizens — could be inspected "every instant of time."

Rather than the abstract fantasy of an eccentric Englishman whose experience of life, you'll remember, was no more than that of a boy, Bentham's radically transparent Inspection-House had an enormous impact on new prison architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The original Oxford jail where I had breakfasted with Reid Hoffman, for example, had been built by the prolific prison architect William Blackburn, "the father of the radial plan for prisons," who built more than a dozen semicircular jails on Benthamite principles. In Oxford, Blackburn had replaced the medieval "gaol" in the city's castle with a building designed to supervise prisoners' every movement and control their time down to the very minute.

But Bentham's simple idea of architecture "reformed" more than just prisons. It represented an augury of an industrial society intricately connected by an all-too-concrete network of railroads and telegraph lines. The mechanical age of the stream train, the large-scale factory, the industrial city, the nation-state, the motion picture camera and the mass market newspaper did indeed create the physical architecture to transform us into efficient individual exhibits — always, in theory, observable by government, employers, media and public opinion. In the industrial era of mass connectivity, factories, schools, prisons and, most ominously, entire political systems were built upon this crystalline technology of collective surveillance. The last two hundred years have indeed been the age of the great exhibition.

Yet nobody in the industrial era, apart from the odd exhibitionist like Bentham himself, actually wanted to become individual pictures in this collective exhibition. Indeed, the struggle to be let alone is the story of industrial man. As Georg Simmel, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German sociologist and scholar of secrecy, recognized, "the deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life." Thus the great critics of mass society — John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth and George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Michel Foucault in the twentieth century — have all tried to shield individual liberty from the omniscient gaze of the Inspection-House.

"Visibility," Foucault warned, "is a trap." Thus, from J. S. Mill's solitary free thinker in On Liberty to Joseph K in The Castle and The Trial to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four, the hero of the mass industrial age for these critics is the individual who tries to protect his invisibility, who takes pleasure in his own opacity, who turns his back on the camera, who — in the timeless words of Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis — just wants to be let alone by the technologies of the mass industrial age.

Our Age of Great Exhibitionism

Yet now, at the dusk of the industrial and the dawn of the digital epoch, Bentham's simple idea of architecture has returned. But history never repeats itself, not identically, at least. Today, as the Web evolves from a platform for impersonal data into an Internet of people, Bentham's industrial Inspection-House has reappeared with a chilling digital twist. What we once saw as a prison is now considered as a playground; what was considered pain is today viewed as pleasure.

The analog age of the great exhibition is now being replaced by the digital age of great exhibitionism.

Today's simple architecture is the Internet — that ever-expanding network of networks combining the worldwide Web of personal computers, the wireless world of handheld networked devices like my BlackBerry Bold and other "smart" social products such as connected televisions, gaming consoles and the "connected car" — in which around a quarter of the globe's population have already taken up residency. In contrast with the original brick and mortar Inspection-House, this rapidly expanding global network, with its two billion digitally interconnected souls and its more than five billion connected devices, can house an infinite number of rooms. This is a global Auto-Icon that, more than two centuries after Jeremy Bentham sketched out his Inspection-House, is finally realizing his utilitarian dream of allowing us to be perpetually observed.

This digital architecture — described by New York University social media scholar Clay Shirky as the "connective tissue of society" and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the new "nervous system of the planet" — has been designed to transform us into exhibitionists, forever on show in our networked crystal palaces. And, today, in an age of radically transparent online communities like Twitter and Facebook, the social has become, in Shirky's words, the "default" setting on the Internet, transforming digital technology from being a tool of second life into an increasingly central part of real life.

But this is a version of real life that could have been choreographed by Jeremy Bentham. As WikiLeaks founder and self-appointed transparency tsar Julian Assange said, today's Internet is "the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen," with Facebook, he added, being "the world's most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence."

But it's not just Facebook that is establishing this master database of the human race. As Clay Shirky notes, popular geo-location services such as foursquare, Facebook places, Google Latitude, Plancast and the Hotlist, which enable us to "effectively see through walls" and know the exact location of all our friends, are making society more "legible," thus allowing all of us to be read, in good Inspection-House fashion, "like a book." No wonder, then, that Katie Rolphe, a New York University colleague of Shirky, has observed that "Facebook is the novel we are all writing."

Social media is the confessional novel that we are not only all writing but also collectively publishing for everyone else to read. We are all becoming Wiki-leakers, less notorious but no less subversive versions of Julian Assange, of not only our own lives but other people's now. The old mass industrial celebrity culture has been so turned upside down by social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that celebrity has been democratized and we are reinventing ourselves as self-styled celebrities, even going as far as to deploy online services like YouCeleb that enable us to dress like twentieth-century mass media stars.

There has, consequently, been a massive increase in what Shirky calls "self-produced" legibility, thereby making society as easy to read as an open book. As a society, we are, to borrow some words from Jeremy Bentham, becoming our own collective image. This contemporary mania with our own self-expression is what two leading American psychologists, Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Keith Campbell, have described as "the narcissism epidemic" — a self-promotional madness driven, these two psychologists say, by our need to continually manufacture our own fame to the world. The Silicon Valley–based psychiatrist, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, whose 2011 book, Virtually You, charts the rise of what he calls "the self-absorbed online Narcissus," shares Twenge and Campbell's pessimism. The Internet, Dr. Aboujaoude notes, gives narcissists the opportunity to "fall in love with themselves all over again," thereby creating a online world of infinite "self-promotion" and "shallow web relationships."

Many other writers share Aboujaoude's concerns. The cultural historian Neal Gabler says that we have all become "information narcissists" utterly disinterested in anything "outside ourselves." Social network culture medicates our "need for self-esteem," adds best-selling author Neil Strauss, by "pandering to win followers." The acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen concurs, arguing that products like his and my BlackBerry Bold are "great allies and enablers of narcissism." These kind of gadgets, Franzen explains, have been designed to conform to our fantasy of wanting to be "liked" and to "reflect well on us." Their technology, therefore, is simply an "extension of our narcissistic selves. When we stare at screens in the Web 2.0 age, we are gazing at ourselves. It's all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us." Franzen says, "To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors."

We broadcast ourselves and therefore we are (not).

Twenge, Campbell, Aboujaoude, Strauss and Franzen are all correct about this endless loop of great exhibitionism — an attention economy that, not uncoincidentally, combines a libertarian insistence on unrestrained individual freedom with the cult of the social. It's a public exhibition of self-love displayed in an online looking glass that New Atlantis senior editor Christine Rosen identifies as the "new narcissism" and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls a "desperate adolescent narcissism." Everything — from communications, commerce and culture to gaming, government and gambling — is going social. As David Brooks, Douthat's colleague at The Times, adds, "achievement is redefined as the ability to attract attention." All we, as individuals, want to do on the network, it seems, is share our reputations, our travel itineraries, our war plans, our professional credentials, our illnesses, our confessions, photographs of our latest meal, our sexual habits of course, even our exact whereabouts with our thousands of online friends. Network society has become a transparent love-in, an orgy of oversharing, an endless digital Summer of Love.

Like the network itself, our mass public confessional is global. People from all around the world are revealing their most private thoughts on a transparent network that anyone and everyone can access. In May 2011, when one of China's richest men, a billionaire investor called Wang Gongquan, left his wife for his mistress, he wrote on the Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weiba, a service that has 140 million users: "I am giving up everything and eloping with Wang Qin. I feel ashamed and so am leaving without saying good-bye. I kneel down and beg forgiveness!" Gongquan's confession exploded virally. Within twenty-four hours, his post was republished 60,000 times with some of the billionaire's closest and most powerful friends publicly pleading with him to go back to his wife.

This love-in — what the author Steven Johnson, an oversharing advocate who, as @stevenberlinjohnson, has 1.5 million Twitter followers of his own, praised as "a networked version of The Truman Show, where we are all playing Truman," is quite a public spectacle. Rather than The Truman Show, however, this epidemic of oversharing, in its preoccupation with immortality, could be subtitled The Living and the Dead.

What If There Are No Secrets?

More and more of us are indeed playing Truman in a networked version of our own intimately personalized show. "What if there are no secrets?" imagined Jeff Jarvis in July 2010. A transparency evangelist at the City University of New York, Jarvis popularized the neologism "publicness" in a speech that same year entitled "Privacy, Publicness & Penises." By very publicly announcing his own prostate cancer in April 2009 and turning his life into "an open blog," Jarvis — the author of the 2011 transparency manifesto Public Parts, written in "homage" to shockjock Howard Stern's Private Parts biography — certainly promoted his own Benthamite thesis that "publicness grants immortality." Another apostle of publicness, the veteran social theorist Howard Rheingold, who, back in 1993 as a member of the pioneering Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (the WELL), fathered the term "virtual community," revealed his own struggle with colon cancer online in early 2010. A third advocate of openness, the British technology writer Guy Kewney, who was afflicted with colorectal cancer, even used social media to chronicle his own impending death in April 2010.

While social media, for all its superhuman ability to see through walls, might not quite guarantee immortality, its impact is certainly of immense historical significance, what Jeff Jarvis describes as an "emblem of epochal change — as profound a technological development, in its own way, as anything invented in the last fifty years. You'll remember that Reid Hoffman defined this explosion of personal data as "Web 3.0." But John Doerr, the wealthiest venture capitalist in the world whom Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once described as "the center of gravity on the Internet," goes even further than @quixotic in his historical analysis.

Doerr argues that "social" represents "the great third wave" of technological innovation, following directly in the wake of the invention of the personal computer and the Internet. The advent of social, local, and mobile technology now heralds what Doerr calls a "perfect storm" to disrupt traditional businesses. Such, indeed, is Doerr and his venture capitalist firm of Kleiner Perkin's confidence in this social revolution that, in October 2010, in partnership with Facebook and Mark Pincus's Zynga, Kleiner launched a quarter-billion-dollar sFund dedicated to exclusively putting money into social businesses. While on Valentine's Day 2011, the firm made what the Wall Street Journal described as a "small" $38 million investment in Facebook, buying the Silicon Valley venture capitalists no more than an affectionately symbolic 0.073% stake in the social media company. "We're making a blue ocean bet that social is just beginning," Bing Gordon, another Kleiner partner thus explains the firm's thinking behind its sFund. "Usage habits will change dramatically over the next 4–5 years."


Excerpted from Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen. Copyright © 2012 Andrew Keen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ANDREW KEEN, author of The Cult of the Amateur, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose writings on culture, media, and technology have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Fast Company, The San Francisco Chronicle, Listener, and Jazziz. He lives in Santa Rosa, California.

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Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting topic, written by a gentleman who knows quite a bit about it, so this book had lots of potential. Instead I found it hard to get through. Keen comes off as a snarky insider, dropping names and pedantically belaboring his anecdotes. He refers to his BlackBerry Bold by name dozens and dozens of times. If this were a cocktail party, Keen would be the boor you're trying to avoid by waving to a friend elsewhere in the room. The point is a good one, and he makes it in the title. The rest of the book is anecdote after anecdote, while Keen fails to both make his point and (worse) make any sort of recommendation. I much preferred Jared Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, which is also pedantic, but much more learned.