What’s the last book your threw across the room*?
This distinction must go to none other than @ajkeen’s #digitalverigo. Yes, that is a hashtag in the title and a twitter handle in the byline. Mr. Keen is just that clever.
#digitalverigo is intended as a counterweight to the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley and the twenty first century in general. Not a bad aim, actually. We could all do with stepping away from the reality distortion field long enough to realize that the tech giants are not our saviors. Cypherpunks, the book and the show, with Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum (Tor Project), Andy Müller-Maguhn (Chaos Computer Club), and Jeremie Zimmermann (2012 winner of EFF’s Pioneer Award for work against ACTA) had much the same message – warning readers and viewers of the panopticon nature of the internet.
But I didn’t throw Cypherpunks across the room.
In #digitalvertigo, Keen takes the panopticon metaphor to ridiculous lengths.
He begins the book staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, creator of the infamous prison design. He muses on the nature of the internet as a similarly lifeless display where people line up to show themselves off and for others to ogle at them. The internet is a “public exhibition of self love,” a narcissistic outlet where real connection and meaning goes to die. Throughout the book Keen comes back again and again and AGAIN to the metaphor of a corpse, and this is where the rage starts to boil up.
I am not a corpse.
The artists, activists, budding politicians, struggling young academics, fellow bloggers, and friends I follow are not corpses.
And self love? Narcissism? At this moment on Facebook, I am watching our Librarian-in-Chief at TUEBL talk about his upcoming Ted Talk as the youngest party leader in Canada, an activist friend brings on-the-ground news from Bradley Manning’s trial, and even my non-political friends are grieve in quiet shock over the Zimmerman verdict. On Twitter, the micro-blogophere chatters about Snowden’s asylum bids, the limits of a free press, and the dangers of trusting the cryptography provided by untrustworthy corporations.
Yeah, there are baby pics, pets, and dinner plates in there too.
And you know what? That’s GREAT. Because sometimes, after a day of fourth amendment violations, you need kitties.
When people talk about the shallow, narcissistic nature of the internet, I have to wonder what they’re doing here. If their social media experience is filled with shallow, narcissistic content, then why are they subscribed to shallow, narcissistic accounts and following shallow, narcissistic people? It’s like going into 4chan and complaining about all the smut. Or walking into a sports bar and complaining that there are too many jocks. Well, gee, if only you could have walked into the quiet cafe across the street or the independent bookstore on the next block or the art gallery or the foreign food festival or the secondhand clothing charity or the botanical gardens… The internet is interactive – it doesn’t work if you don’t interact, And we are as responsible for the content we experience as those who put it out there.
While it is essential for users to be aware of – and fight – the surveillance state and censorship regimes that infiltrate our digital homes, the fact is that the internet is not a prison. It’s a community, one that we walk in and out as our own whims and need dictate. When the powers that be overtly or surreptitiously seek to coerce or control or censor our community, we must stand up for it, and we must always be aware of the threats to a free online life. And when our community is threatened, the guilty party is the one doing the threatening, not the community itself. This is exactly the rage-inducing point that Keen fails to grasp. We shouldn’t blame the free internet for prison-like surveillance and censorship, we should blame the people doing the surveilling and the censoring.
Near the beginning of the book, Keen relates an experience with his tech invading his offline life that really hits on this lapse of understanding. He says:
“The RIM electronic device wasn’t called a smartphone for nothing. I had been wrong that nobody knew my location that afternoon. As I was about to send my tweet, an uninvited message from Tweetie popped up on the screen. It was a request to give out my Bloomsbury location, so that the app could broadcast where I was to my thousands of Twitter Followers.
TWEETIE WOULD LIKE TO USE YOUR CURRENT LOCATION –
DON’T ALLOW or OK
The BlackBerry device, I realized, wanted to betray me my broadcasting my location to the world.”
He’s angry that Blackberry asked to share his location with his friends.
And he said No.
Nobody betrayed him. He wasn’t being spied upon, at least not without his explicit consent.
That’s not to say that phones don’t have information on us that can be used against us without our consent. Of course they do! They’re tracking devices that make calls. That’s also not to say that we shouldn’t be extremely skeptical or that we shouldn’t hold accountable those companies who keep our information. We should. It is essential to maintaining a free internet instead of a digital panopticon. But there is a massive difference between a forced environment of surveillance and being asked the question:
DON’T ALLOW or OK
I wanted to read #digitalvertigo because I needed to articulate what exactly bothered me about the author’s viewpoint, and I particularly wanted to examine why this book bothered me so much more than something like Cypherpunks or the many other respectable panopticon analogies and warnings to netizens. And I get it now: The fight for a free internet does not need to reduce users to passive lifeless corpses locked up for the world to ogle at.
I’m not a fucking corpse.
My friends aren’t corpses.
People aren’t fucking corpses.
If that’s how AJ Keen sees the internet, I think he needs to get better friends. (Or, you know, learn how to use the internet…)
* Can be a figurative “throwing across the room”, as is the case with my copy of #digitalvertigo. As previously mentioned here, I squeeze in most of my reading around my work throughout the day… and most of my work takes place on the free McDonald’s wifi. They really don’t take kindly to books being thrown into people’s big macs. (That would squish out all the sauce, which is the best part.)