Andrew Keen's Digital Vertigo is a follow-on to his earlier The Cult of the Amateur. Where his first work took on Wikipedia as the scourge of knowledge, the current work aims its sights at Facebook and LinkedIn, and is reflectively critical of the online social networks that Keen sees as more harmful than useful.
With a lead-in like this, you might expect that this is one of those books that fits in a long history of media criticism – from Marshall McLuhan to Umberto Eco to Michel Foucault, you'll find a series of quips and quotes from dozens of thinkers littering the pages of Digital Vertigo. With a hefty 40 plus pages of end notes and indexing, there was hardly a page of the work that didn't echo someone else's thoughts.
With everything so carefully indexed and footnoted, I thought I'd skip to the chase and see if the earliest arguments against technology in thought and human relations were also there. In The Phaedrus, Plato relates argument the argument of Socrates that writing is a technology which leads to a diminishing of intelligence and of understanding:
Soc. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves. (Plato, The Phaedrus)
Keen doesn't quote from Plato, but he does credit himself a "celebrated public speaker". It's important that someone have a reasonable criticism of today's social networks, just so we can understand them better when they inevitably change or fail. This particular text probably reads better as an ebook, with all of its carefully collected citations linked; it might, like the example of Phaedrus, be even better in person delivered by the speaker who can vary his answer to incorporate the changes of the day and defend his thoughts.
A good book for an airplane ride, or a good ebook for a contrarian romp through modern social networks hype or to congratulate yourself for missing the Facebook IPO.
Disclaimer: This review is based on reading a review copy, which was provided gratis.