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  • Someone is always watching
    Nicolas Nova (2009) ©

Privacy and panopticons: a conversation with Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen bemoans the end of privacy over a pint at the Jeremy Bentham. Where else?

Location Global

Andrew Keen is an outspoken critic of the internet. His first book, The cult of the amateur, lamented the demise of the expert. His forthcoming book, Digital Vertigo, bemoans the end of privacy as a consequence of the social web – an idea he sets out in a recent article for Wired UK. “Human happiness is really about being left alone,” he argues. I ask him to elaborate on these ideas in an interview. He suggests we meet at the Jeremy Bentham pub. Where else?


How does Digital Vertigo address the issue of privacy?
Privacy is a perennial issue; I'm certainly not the first person to write about it and I won't be the last. I've tried to deal with it in the context of the emergence of the social web as a major new development in the internet, which has gone from a data-driven web to one driven by people. Particularly exemplified by Facebook replacing Google in the dominant internet ecosystem. I approach the issue of privacy in the context of the inevitability of the social web, and the amount of money time and attention going into it, the fact that we have this ubiquitous post-pc network. Mobile, television, cars – everything is being swept into it. And what this will mean in the short to medium term for privacy is that all of these networks are public. Every generation says privacy is in danger but I think it's particularly relevant for this one.

Are people not quite happy to participate in these systems?
That's my point. My book actually begins 50 yards from where we're sitting, by Bentham's Auto-icon – the place he actually left his body for the world to see. So I go from that – what I call the 'culture of great exposition' in an industrial society – to this culture of mass exhibitionism. There are two or three possible explanations for it. The first is that we've all become incredibly narcissistic, using these platforms to show off. But there's also a more interesting dimension which is that the post-industrial world is increasingly individualised and these platforms become essential if we are to distribute our brand. So there are more fundamental socio-cultural and economic forces in play, which mean we don't really have a choice but to be on Twitter. It's not a choice, it's not something that we can debate, because if we're not on it we don't exist. And because we change jobs so much and we change careers we need to be more and more innovative.

So you don't think it's possible to maintain a clear division between work and life identity online?
The internet is part of the shift in the fundamental nature of work, where the division between public and private life are blurring. The shift is to a more creative nation where we work for ourselves – we might work for large firms, but as consultants, and we dip in and out of those firms. If you're lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a traditional industrial job, you're a worker in a large factory or have a job on the shopfloor, then you can. But if you work in the knowledge economy where your office is your local Starbucks and you find yourself more at airports and meeting different people in different countries, then it's very difficult. Everyone blames devices like the Blackberry or the iPhone for this blurring of divisions, but it's more complicated than that. The nature of our jobs and our lives mean we're always working, and we need these devices; we can't blame the technology, we need to look for more structural causes.

What does a future without privacy look like?

The dystopian future was one that was laid out Gary Schteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story,  and he imagines a world in about 20 years where everyone knows everything about everyone through their devices, everyone carries around an 'apparati' [complex mobile phone] and is highly transparent. I walk around, bump into you, and know everything about what you think of me. We become, essentially, data.

I'm not sure if that will happen in the short term. Realistically what's going to happen is that we will figure out ways to hide behind these new transparencies and invent and reinvent ourselves. But at the same time it's incredibly hard in this world of Twitter and iPhones to be let alone.

There's a man called Jeff Jarvis who is writing a book very different to mine, who argues that transparency is good as it forces us to disclose things. I don't agree with that, I like being closed and it's very hard to maintain in this culture. It's only the very rich or the very poor who can afford it.

The problem with the internet is that it doesn't know how to forget; the mystery of the human condition is being eroded. Perhaps we need to teach it how to forget and then it will become more human.

You liken the internet to a Panopticon. What is sinister about Bentham's idea is the central observer, or invisible big brother figure. But this role doesn't exist online, does it?
Actually, in Bentham's Panopticon, the shadowy figure is a trick. He never really believed there could be someone, it was just making people believe there was. So it's based on a fiction, which makes it quite interesting. Conceivably, back then, it could be real: prisoners were central places where you had real people looking, but Bentham was intrigued by the idea of not having anyone there, the artificial algorithm. There's no reason computers couldn't watch people.

But there are companies at the centre of this thing – Google and Facebook – amassing huge power. They're in the business of knowing us intimately and the value we have to them in terms of selling us to their advertisers. Yet on the other hand it's true that this is a world in which everyone is looking at everyone else. It's not a one to many, it's a many to many, which makes it much harder. We all have the potential to spy on everyone else.

But you could argue that this is making people more aware of their own value and  empowering them to do something about it – services like i-allow cut out the middle man and allow people to sell their own data.
I'm not sure I like that, though. If you sell yourself and your data, what rights do you have? I'd prefer to have these settings on Facebook where you can choose your privacy, and make yourself public if you want. But if the default was privacy it would be a lot more helpful.

Is it possible to create an 'authentic' or 'true' sense of self in the digital age?
Well I think the digital self is by definition ironic and subversive. It's a different kind of complex self to the self of the industrial age. I think you have to be more devious and more creative, so you have much more control over what people know about you. And people will learn that, they will learn to build digital characters that don't really reflect who they are, that protect their privacy, protect their core. Because otherwise what are they? Just transparent individuals. They might as well throw in their lot.

You can reach Andrew on Twitter @ajkeen. His forthcoming book, Digital Vertigo, will be published by St Martin's in Spring 2012.

Related on Canvas8
Debbi Evans, 'Keeping it Reel: personal branding, identity play and surveillance', 7 March  2011. Available here
Jenny Winfield, 'Moderating Brand Me: how Facebook fails us', 20 September 2010. Available here
Emilie Koefoed, 'Public by default', 8 February 2010. Available here