Big Data, Influencers, Privacy and Other Digital Termites

next10, Day2, 12.05.2010
Image by NEXT Berlin

Andrew Keen remains the most constant and prolific critic of digital media advances and their impact on society. His books Digital Vertigo and Cult of the Amateur have made him a bit of a pariah in some circles, and an intellectual hero in others.

He was the ideal choice to close xPotomac on February 25, as the conference discussed future technologies. This podcast offers a sneak preview, which is also transcribed below… We got into all sorts of fun things, including big data, influencers, privacy and other digital termites.

GL: Well, we’re really excited to have you here in D.C. and I can’t wait to see you. First of all, for people that don’t know you, why don’t you quickly explain your background to them and what you did with Digital Vertigo.

AK: So I’m a writer, I’m a broadcaster, entrepreneur, accountant of a company, Audio Café, I have a weekly show on TechCrunch, columns for other people including CNN, written two books Quasi Amateur, which was critical of web 2.0 and the democratization of the Internet. I just came out with a new book this year Digital Vertigo, which is critical of technology’s obsession with transparency and openness.

Some people see me as a technology reactionary. I’m not really. I’m as wired as anyone.

But, I am more skeptical of some of the social and cultural consequences and see the way in which the web continues to disintermediate both the experts and the creative class: the writers, musicians, filmmakers. I don’t think generally it’s benefitted creative people. It’s been great for entrepreneurs, great for programmers, technologists, investors and VCs, but not so great for the creative industry.

GL: In your mind, how does big data fit into that picture and what are the challenges that we’re facing with it?

AK: Well, big data is the current buzzword when it comes to describing the world we’re living in. I fear this: On the web we’ve all essentially become data. There’s an excellent writer, he wrote a cook called The Information, James Gleick, and he writes we’ve become data, we’ve become data in the Digital Age.

I think he’s right. We are distributing ourselves on the network, and I’m fearful of the impact it has both on our privacy, in terms of our identity and of our relationship with each other. I fear that the more we reveal about ourselves, the lonelier we become, the more we actually destroy the social.

In my book, my view is that the web has become another version of German Botnet, architecture images. We’re always on. We’re always being watched. And, I argue that the darkness, the solitude, is essential for us both in terms of maintaining who we are as a species and individuals, but also in terms of our innovation and creativity. I think one of the great illusions in Silicon Valley is that collaboration benefits innovation. I don’t think that’s generally true. I did a TEDx in Brussels earlier this month.

GL: TEDx is tough, man. I just did one myself.

AK: This TEDx was actually the biggest one. I think there were 2, 2500 in the audience. They weren’t there to listen to me. They were there to listen to Steve Wozniak. Steve was kind of impressed by this I think. He said he was really moved by my speech.

And I made the point taken by Susan Cain’s new book Quiet that it’s introverts who separate themselves from the crowds who are the most innovative. Susan’s book actually dedicated a whole chapter to Wozniak.

So I think as we begin to live more and more online, as the Internet becomes the platform for 21st century life, we’ve got to figure out dark spaces, we’ve got to figure out places that individuals can actually escape rather than be continually observed, continually be obliged to be on Yammer or Facebook or other networks.

I’m not arguing against technology, I’m arguing against the way in which technology has become an instrument, almost a weapon of the people who are so committed for one reason or another, often ideological but often purely for money, financial reasons for this idea of transparency.

Obviously, someone like Zuckerberg benefits financially every time anyone updates their status on his network. But there are also people like Clay Shirky, who I respect both personally and intellectually who seem to think that this visibility is a good thing for society. I’m not so sure.

Andrew Keen: The Great Digital Seduction
Image by New Media Days

GL: Isn’t that an ideal though? When we get into it, we often find that there are many great complications and consequences.

AK: Yeah, and often those consequences are unintended. Often this technology is being created for the best of reasons.. But it’s also been used to peddle stereotypes about people, racism, hatred against different religious groups.

GL: Very interesting. Now, a lot of people talk about the consequences that affect the individual. Are there consequences that are affecting businesses?

AK: Absolutely, I think the businesses are kind of like the kid in the candy store when they can have the opportunity to eat and gorge themselves. But we know that the kid in the candy store who over eats turns out to lose their teeth or become obese, or die of a heart attack.

Businesses have to be careful on lots of levels. Firstly, as I said, I think they need to be very careful about encouraging or forcing their employees to reveal too much about themselves. I think it’s very dangerous. I think it undermines innovation and creativity. I think the smartest people are the people who are able to escape from public opinion or escape from the crowd or the group.

So, I would discourage businesses from certainly forcing and even encouraging their employees to be on these networks and to introduce networks like yammer to the workplace where after a while, everyone’s on it, and of course it’s always the noisiest ones who are often the least creative, the least productive. They spend their whole time blowing smoke, which doesn’t benefit anyone. I think businesses also need to be careful about acquiring the data of their customers. I think there is currently a backlash, but that backlash will grow more and more against government or healthcare providers or media groups. As individuals understand that they’re being tracked by businesses. In this age of radical transparency, businesses themselves should be radically transparent.

GL: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, correct?

AK: Exactly, and we’re already seeing that in this hyper-democracy where data travels so fast, in a trending culture where in the space of a few seconds, a company can literally be destroyed, sometimes by lies, by false tweets or false posts. Every company’s vulnerable to that. They need to have protection. If they have terms of service which are unclear, long, legalistic, then they’re much more vulnerable. And, of course, they’re particularly more vulnerable if they lie.

Andrew Keen - Digital Vertigo
Image by SHAREconference

GL: What do you think of the current focus on influencers? Do you think it’s actually representative of customers? Do you think it will impact this big data future that we’re discussing?

AK: I don’t think it’s exaggerated. I’m critical of the culture. I just did an interview today for my show with Ray Kurzweil on TechCrunch TV. He talks about the way in which the Internet is democratizing culture, democratizing business. But, actually the reverse is true because what we’re seeing is the rise of new influencers.

In my book I write about Robert Scoble who epitomizes this new class of influencers. It’s a very sort of Darwinian world where has a tiny handful of people on Twitter and on Facebook and on Klout and all these other networks with huge amount of influence and then everybody else. So, we have a new kind of aristocracy in our reputation economy.

Now for businesses, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they need to get to those influencers. But, those influencers themselves are also vulnerable to the crowd because the crowd makes the influencers so it can destroy them. I mean, take someone like Tim Ferriss and the way in which he seems to be single-handedly reinventing or destroying or rebuilding the publishing industry.

GL: That’s true.

AK: He could’ve never done this without the web. Scoble is another example. These people are very, very real. Businesses have to understand that. I’m not saying it’s good. I’m saying that actually the truth about it to me is that it is less democratic.

Actually, we have tinier and tinier elites that Pareto’s laws – I write about this in my book – Pareto’s laws work much more perfectly, to use a pun, as we have no external influences on the market. It’s a very pure reputational economy and you have a tiny group of influencers, whether it’s the traditional media superstars, the Lady Gaga’s of the world, or these new media superstars the Scoble’s and Ferriss’s of the world.

Businesses need to understand this. They need to work with the influencers. They need to understand, for example, that The New York Times probably has less and less value. But, the more endowed Thomas Friedman has more and more value. In media, it’s not the brands anymore that have value, it’s the individuals. So, we have a new age of brands. And, as these brands begin to recognize their power, the entire media and business landscape changes.

GL: This is actually a good segue. I’d like to bring up The Cult of the Amateur little bit. Obviously I read the book. At first, I was horrified by the book because it described me to some extent, but as time has progressed, it’s become clear that we do have a big issue that has risen as a result of social media. And, that is the destruction of quality of information and the inability for people it seems to delineate fact from fiction and opinion. Can you describe where we are today with the quality of information and our society and it’s ability to understand information?

AK: Well, we have more and more data, big data, being thrown at us. As we’re talking, I’m getting all these beeps in the background from re-tweets of something I wrote on TechCrunch. But, I’m not going to have time to read all that. I’m not going to have time to read anything except stuff about myself. So, I’m not saying that this technology and media lends itself to our narcissism but it certainly fuels it in some way.

GL: Absolutely, I’m looking at mine too.

AK: Yeah, so what I was saying about Cult of the Amateur, which isn’t that outrageous. Contact information is better when it has mediators, editors and agents to improve the quality of work. It’s better to have filters, human filters.

And, as we had the appearance on web 2.0 of all these networks, user generated content who disintermediated traditional media whether it was Google gets rid of the librarian or YouTube gets rid of Hollywood or the blogosphere gets rid of newspapers, I said that was a bad thing because it leads to corruption, making it easier to print lies. I’m not saying that traditional media always printed the truth but it did do a better job, at least in the West.

Secondly, it lends itself to this kind of explosion of opinion with fewer and fewer facts, as we have the crisis of newspapers, as fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for stuff and then everyone has their own opinion on the world, everyone has less and less knowledge of the world. This is also bound up in broader cultural problems.

You know the American television news networks are a catastrophe. I loathe MSNBC equally as Fox because neither of them actually reports the news. But there’s less and less interest in reporting the news. CNN gets trashed for being boring, and, maybe it is, but at least it does a better job than either FOX or MSNBC.

So, as we have again this disintermediation, as content loses its value, as everyone idealizes the notion of free content or publically owned content, we have a crisis of the professional creative class from journalists to musicians, filmmakers to librarians and to writers. This means less and less real information, more and more data. We have the appearance of the filter bubble, the echo-chamber culture, which a lot of people have written about.

Overall, I think the internet is vibrant and energetic and engaging in some ways, and I use it as much as anyone, it hasn’t done a very good job enabling busy people to actually learn about the world in a reliable way. The New York Times still beats the Internet in the sense that you have a group of professional people who decide every morning what gets on the front of the paper – 4 or 5 important stories and that’s what gets read. I think that that is way more valuable in civic terms than Reddit.

GL: There you go. Well, this is a perfect answer. Do you have anything more to add to our D.C. friends here before we close up?

AK: I’m not going to give anything more. I don’t like giving my content away for free. If you want the real stuff, you’ve got to come in February. I’m looking forward to meeting you all in D.C., my least favorite city. But, in February, I guess it will be bearable because the weather won’t be bad.

GL: Well, it’s a 70-degrees today in December so I think we can discuss the climate change myth too when you here, as well.

AK: Where’s the event?

GL: It’s Feb. 25 and it’s going to be at the Source Theatre. Should be outstanding.

AK: Oh, lovely, well I’m really looking forward to it, and thank you for the interview and I hope everyone gets to read particularly Digital Vertigo before the event because they will understand where I’m coming from.

GL: Thank you.

This interview ran originally on the xPotomac site.