The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Digital Vertigo’ by Andrew Keen and ‘The Blind Giant’ by Nick Harkaway, July 2012
Two digital-themed non-fiction books rolled into one review, for The Weekend Australian. The full review follows.
As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.
In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.
The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.
A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.
Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.
The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.
What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.
At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.
Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.
Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.
Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”
His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.
Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.
It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.
Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us
By Andrew Keen
St Martin’s Press, 246pp, $32.95
The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World
By Nick Harkaway
John Murray, 288pp, $21.99
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.