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Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Keen's 2007 bestseller that's since been translated into 15 different languages, begins with Keen's epiphany at O'Reilly's FOO Camp, in 2004, while listening to a bunch of wealthy Silicon Valley types talk incessantly and religiously about "democratization." Media, entertainment, business, government—nearly everything, went the rallying cry, would be "democratized" by what O'Reilly had famously christened Web 2.0.
"The more that was said that weekend, the less I wanted to express myself," Keen writes in the book's introduction. "As the din of narcissism swelled, I became increasingly silent. And thus began my rebellion against Silicon Valley." (O'Reilly declined comment when contacted for this story.)
Current targets of Keen's scorn and ridicule run the gamut from Sean Parker and his lavish wedding ceremony in Big Sur ("I'm interested in this idea of Silicon Valley trying to engineer serendipity") to Google Glass, which Keen sees as the beginning of an inevitable migration of personal computing off of our desktops and out of our pockets and onto—and eventually into—our bodies.
Sitting near the television at Keen's house is a DVD, rented from the video store down the street, of Minority Report. Steven Spielberg's 2002 film foresaw graphical user interfaces, gesture-based navigation and ultra-thin transparent screens, technological advances now part of modern life. But one prediction in the film eerily rings far truer than the others: when Tom Cruise walks through the city, retinal scans pick up his individual information, and targeted advertising suddenly appears, keyed to his personal data.
This seemed intrusive and insidious just 11 years ago. In Keen's view, it's something in which we now willingly participate. Except it's not called a retinal scan—it's called a "status update."
"We go on the internet and we use these services, and we're not willing to pay for them. We use Google and Facebook without really understanding that their business model is acquiring our data so that they can sell more and more advertising," says Keen. "If you're not paying for your content, check your pockets, because you're being taken advantage of."
Keen's sentiment echoes that of his friend Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains), who argues that Facebook and its ilk represents a form of "digital sharecropping."
"One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few," wrote Carr all the way back in 2006. "It's a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy, because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money."
Keen concurs. "We're all back in the antebellum South here in terms of working in the fields, guaranteeing massive profit for a small group of people who are laughing all the way to the bank."
What is the cultural mechanism that brought us to this place of full disclosures, and what pan-global personality tick is it exploiting?
"We're all desperate to express ourselves. We all think we have something interesting to say about ourselves, so we feel we have almost a moral or aesthetic obligation to go on Facebook and tell the world what we're having for breakfast, what we're wearing or, all too often, what we're not wearing," says Keen.
"I don't think we can blame the social networks; we have to blame ourselves," adds Keen. "We've fallen in love with ourselves, we think that our narrative is interesting, and actually, it's incredibly boring to everyone except ourselves and the advertisers who are profiting from us," he continues.