Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Saul: Hey, wel­come to San Francisco.

Anderson: Thanks. It’s nice to be here. It was quite an ordeal, but tomor­row I’m going to be talk­ing to Andrew Keen.

Saul: Yes. So, tell me about Andrew Keen.

Anderson: Well, he calls him­self the Antichrist of Silicon Valley.” 

Saul: That is a fan­tas­tic nick­name. Alright, tell me more.

Anderson: So, his back­ground is he’s a media thinker but he’s also a media crit­ic, and he’s com­ing out with a book called Digital Vertigo, which is sort of a cri­tique of social net­work­ing and its effects on our lives. He also wrote a book called The Cult of the Amateur. So he’s def­i­nite­ly going to tell us, I think, a lot about some of what we lose when we gain all of this inter­con­nec­tion.

Saul: Yeah, I’m real­ly excit­ed to hear what he has to say. I know when we were first look­ing at try­ing to find peo­ple to talk to, one of the big things we want­ed was a sort of tech­no­crat­ic apos­tate.

Anderson: Yes. Well said.

Saul: It’s one of those sacred cows. But what is The Conversation if not assas­si­nat­ing sacred cows, mak­ing deli­cious deli­cious sacred ham­burg­ers?

Anderson: And if this project fails for us, then we’ll just open a restau­rant.

Saul: Food truck.

Anderson: Yeah, food truck.


Andrew Keen: We’ve got two para­dox­i­cal trends hap­pen­ing at the same time. The first is what I call in my book the cult of the social,” the idea that on the net­work, every­thing has to be social and that the more you reveal about your­self the bet­ter off you are. So if your friends could know what your musi­cal taste is, where you live, what you’re wear­ing, what you’re think­ing, that’s a good thing, this cult of shar­ing. So that’s one thing that’s going on. And the oth­er thing is an increas­ing­ly rad­i­cal­ized indi­vid­u­al­ism of con­tem­po­rary, par­tic­u­lar­ly dig­i­tal, life. And these things seem to sort of coex­ist, which is para­dox­i­cal and it’s some­thing that I try to make sense of in my book.

Anderson: So when you talk about the rad­i­cal­ized indi­vid­ual, can you give me some exam­ples of that? What does that mean?

Keen: Well, online what it means is that we (peo­ple who live online) flip from com­mu­ni­ty to com­mu­ni­ty, we per­son­al­ize every­thing on the Internet. So what we see, what we hear, what we think, is our ver­sion of real­i­ty. It becomes a vast echo cham­ber. And the real­i­ty is we seem to be actu­al­ly less and less attached, asso­ci­at­ed, con­nect­ed, with our phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

It’s not just ide­o­log­i­cal or cul­tur­al or soci­o­log­i­cal, it’s also eco­nom­ic. And I think this is real­ly impor­tant that the econ­o­my is dra­mat­i­cal­ly chang­ing. The 20th cen­tu­ry indus­tri­al econ­o­my was built around large orga­ni­za­tions, firms. The major­i­ty of peo­ple worked for those orga­ni­za­tions or firms. Many of them would spend thir­ty or forty years work­ing for the same orga­ni­za­tion, with­in the same hier­ar­chy. In our post-industrial econ­o­my, we’re increas­ing­ly free agents. Which means that, in eco­nom­ic terms, we’re more and more indi­vid­u­al­ized brands. So there are sound eco­nom­ic rea­sons for our increas­ing iso­la­tion, atom­iza­tion, and lone­li­ness.

Anderson: Well, it seems like there’s an inter­est­ing par­al­lel here, because we have an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that reduces peo­ple to indi­vid­u­als. Is this sort of the social exten­sion of that?

Keen: Well, it’s how the post-industrial free mar­ket works. We’re all, espe­cial­ly in our econ­o­my where there are very light labor laws, any­one can be laid off, we’re less and less reliant on orga­ni­za­tions and firms, and more and more depen­dent on build­ing our own brands. That’s why plat­forms like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, in my analy­sis, aren’t pure­ly plat­forms for nar­cis­sism (although there is an ele­ment of that), but they also become log­i­cal eco­nom­ic plat­forms in this increas­ing­ly indi­vid­u­al­ized knowl­edge econ­o­my.

Anderson: What does that mean, a log­i­cal plat­form for that?

Keen: Well, what it means for exam­ple is that we are con­tin­u­al­ly sell­ing our­selves, our ser­vices, our brands. And per­son­al net­works become the most valu­able thing of all. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn has just writ­ten a best-selling book called The Start-Up Of You which sug­gests that every­one is essen­tial­ly a start­up, and the best way to build val­ue in that start­up is to invent and rein­vent your­self and build these strong net­works. We are all essen­tial­ly 21st cen­tu­ry firms, with the same chal­lenges of sur­vival, of com­pe­ti­tion, of invent­ing and rein­vent­ing our­selves, and peo­ple like Reid Hoffman and per­haps Arianna Huffington are very good exam­ples of these kinds of brands that’ve suc­ceed­ed. So we’re liv­ing in a world of increas­ing­ly rad­i­cal­ized mobil­i­ty, of indi­vid­u­al­ism, of the frag­men­ta­tion of com­mu­ni­ty. And only the strongest sur­vive. It’s a very Darwinian world.

Anderson: So what are we los­ing?

Keen: We’re los­ing the tra­di­tion­al notion of com­mu­ni­ty, com­mu­ni­ty which is phys­i­cal. The cer­tain­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly in America, that had main­tained 20th cen­tu­ry life. And I think it’s par­tic­u­lar­ly dra­mat­ic in America because it goes along with eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and even mil­i­tary decline. Everyone goes through this. Everyone is going through it, every cul­ture. But I think it’s par­tic­u­lar­ly con­fus­ing in America because it’s bound up also in this shift in the world from a world which revolved around American val­ues, American pow­er, mil­i­tary, American mon­ey, to a world which is much more multi-polar.

Anderson: Do you think that this moment in his­to­ry that we’re liv­ing in, is this a par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal moment?

Keen: Well, I think every­one always likes to think that they’re liv­ing in a crit­i­cal moment. It’s hard to imag­ine an inter­view where some­one like you would say, Are we liv­ing in a crit­i­cal moment?” and the per­son would say, No, we’re not.”

And I think the very nature of that ques­tion reflects our sense of his­to­ry and our own indi­vid­u­al­ized notion of his­to­ry, which means that we think we’re liv­ing in a par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant moment in his­to­ry because it’s us. We’re here. This is not a cul­ture which is very his­tor­i­cal. It’s very futur­is­tic, but even the future I think we think of in terms of our­selves, rather than in an abstract way. 

Having said all those things, I fall into the same trap, prob­a­bly. I do think we’re liv­ing in an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal peri­od in the sense that the old cer­tain­ties of the indus­tri­al age are being swept away and being replaced by some­thing else. Knowledge, dig­i­tal, flat, social, all these themes are dom­i­nant. So, for exam­ple, the way in which the media indus­try has been swept away by the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion is now being repeat­ed out­side media, in edu­ca­tion, in pol­i­tics, in ener­gy, in health­care. All these tra­di­tion­al, hier­ar­chi­cal indus­tries are ripe to be rein­vent­ed.

And it’s great if you’re a Reid Hoffman. It’s great if you’re a Mark Zuckerberg. It’s great if you’re skilled at rein­ven­tion like Arianna Huffington. It’s very hard for most oth­er peo­ple.

Anderson: In a world like this, where peo­ple have to be brands and where the indi­vid­ual is cru­cial, what hap­pens to the peo­ple who actu­al­ly can’t com­pete and can’t make it?

Keen: Well, that’s the all-important ques­tion that I’m always ask­ing peo­ple now. And in my book I com­pare what’s hap­pen­ing now to what’s hap­pened in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry, when there were peo­ple who couldn’t make it, either, in the Industrial Revolution. If you’re a Darwinian, if you’re a pure free mar­ket per­son, you’ll say, Well, they’ll just kind of go away.” If you’re a lib­er­tar­i­an, those peo­ple will starve, they’ll go to jail, they’ll live on the streets, they won’t repro­duce, and even­tu­al­ly they just…won’t exist.

But I think one needs to be both more sen­si­ble and more com­pas­sion­ate, and under­stand that these are peo­ple who may well need help. That there is a role for gov­ern­ment. There is a role for cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty. And there is role for indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty. It’s easy for a kind of new glob­al elite to say, Well, like Reid Hoffman in The Start-Up of You invent and rein­vent your­self, and we’re all star­tups.” But for most peo­ple, the idea of being a start­up is incred­i­bly for­eign and the kind of peo­ple who read his books are peo­ple who under­stand what’s going on any­way.

It’s also, I think, the key ques­tion in terms of mak­ing sense of what to do with our edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Because to be tooled… (To use that word. I don’t like it but it’s per­haps an impor­tant word.) To be tooled prop­er­ly in this econ­o­my, it’s not so much what you know, it’s not read­ing all these books, it’s who you know, and how you go about defin­ing and redefin­ing your skills. Everyone always says in America… You have these long con­ver­sa­tions about the prob­lem, and every­one always says at the end, Well, the prob­lem is real­ly edu­ca­tion.”

And when peo­ple say that, what they’re real­ly say­ing is that they don’t know the answer. They’re hold­ing their hands up and say­ing, well let’s just leave it to the teach­ers. And of course the teach­ers are the least suit­ed, at least in this tra­di­tion­al econ­o­my. They’re the old indus­tri­al teach­ing class, is poor­ly paid, and and tend to attract (for the most part) not very tal­ent­ed peo­ple, not very moti­vat­ed peo­ple. So they’re the peo­ple least suit­ed, not only to pass­ing on rel­e­vant, use­ful, help­ful val­ues to kids, but also sur­viv­ing them­selves in this econ­o­my. So it’s very com­pli­cat­ed.

Anderson: Something I’d like to get to, beneath all of this, is the ques­tion of val­ues that you just brought up. Why embrace Darwinian val­ues, why embrace oth­er val­ues? I start­ed this project with two con­ver­sa­tions. One with a futur­ist, and anoth­er with a rev­erend who has been real­ly active in bring­ing peo­ple across the US bor­der because he believes in sort of a glob­al sense that you just have to help peo­ple.

Keen: Yeah.

Anderson: So it’s like, on one hand an extreme lib­er­tar­i­an view­point in which he would like peo­ple to genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy them­selves into what­ev­er they want in this sort of Nietzschean self-fulfillment dream, and anoth­er one who’s sort of a moral objec­tivist, in a way. Where do you stand on ques­tions like that, and where do we get the val­ues that help us sort of solve these prob­lems?

Keen: You know, I’m a lit­tle uncom­fort­able with the term val­ues,” I have to say. I don’t real­ly know what that means.

Anderson: How about the good?” How do we decide on the good?

Keen: You decide on that tra­di­tion­al­ly through pol­i­tics, but that’s one of the casu­al­ties of what’s hap­pen­ing.

Anderson: But is there a moral sense beneath all that?

Keen: Well, there can be. And prob­a­bly should be. Again, I think when you talk about val­ues, that’s sort of a white flag. It’s sort of an NPR state­ment or the state­ment of a bleeding-heart lib­er­al. I don’t know what the solu­tion is. I sus­pect the solu­tion will be much blood­i­er and more com­plex. It’s not as if every­one has to wake up one day and say, Oh, actu­al­ly we real­ize we haven’t had val­ues and now we’re gonna have val­ues,” because that’s not the way the world works. And many of the peo­ple who believe in the free mar­ket any­way believe they have val­ues, that it’s the essence of this coun­try.

So it’s not as if they don’t have val­ues, it’s just they have dif­fer­ent val­ues. And then one can talk about this abstract­ly in a glob­al sense, but in America it’s also bound up with decline and the mythol­o­gy of American supe­ri­or­i­ty and a pop­u­la­tion that’s force-fed for the most part, both from Left and Right, lies. So most peo­ple don’t actu­al­ly under­stand the world they’re liv­ing in.

I mean, I’m amazed when I go to my health club. There are two big screens, so I have to stare at them as I’m exer­cis­ing, and one of the sta­tions is always on MSNBC and oth­er one is on Fox. And after a while, when you look at Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, after a while they’re iden­ti­cal. They have the same facial man­ner­isms, the same hec­tor­ing style. They’re both preach­ers, and they’re both preach­ing a bun­dle of lies which don’t reflect the nature of the world. But the prob­lem is that no one’s watch­ing CNN, which is some­where in between, which at least might be rather dull but attempts to give peo­ple facts rather than telling them what those facts mean.

And what mys­ti­fies me, and this may sound very kind of elit­ist and all the rest of it, is that who watch­es this stuff? Who, after a while, wouldn’t real­ize that they’re being tricked when you watch a sta­tion and after a while you agree with every­thing the peo­ple are say­ing? What’s the point of watch­ing it? Might as well just talk to your­self. So I think one of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems is that no one’s real­ly think­ing for them­selves. And then we can say, Oh, the problem’s edu­ca­tion,” but then that’s again a white flag. I don’t know how we deal with a lot of these issues. They’re so deeply root­ed. They’re so bound up with struc­tur­al issues that are very hard to solve, that I don’t quite know how they get resolved, if indeed they ever get resolved.

One of my intel­lec­tu­al heroes is Neil Postman, who wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he said at the begin­ning we made a mis­take. We wor­ried most of all about Orwell; actu­al­ly we should’ve been wor­ry­ing about Huxley. And I think that what Postman observed is even more the case on the Internet in terms of the prob­lems with the Internet. So the Internet itself, it’s not to blame. I think it’s wrong to think of tech­nol­o­gy as the thing that caus­es these prob­lems. It does in some ways cause them, but it’s also a con­se­quence. It’s no acci­dent that we’ve pro­duced a media that reflects our own zeit­geist, our own way of think­ing.

Anderson: So you feel that we could use tech­nol­o­gy for more con­struc­tive or bet­ter ends if we… Or is it a pris­on­er of the cul­ture it’s in?

Keen: Yeah, tech­nol­o­gy reflects who we are. I’ve become…I don’t want to say I’m nec­es­sar­i­ly deter­min­ist, but the more I think of and study the Internet, the more I begin to think that when we look at the Internet in par­tic­u­lar, we’re just look­ing at a mir­ror. It reflects our val­ues. That’s why I’m inter­est­ed in study­ing the Internet. Because I’m not inter­est­ed in tech­nol­o­gy, I’m inter­est­ed in soci­ety. I’m inter­est­ed in cul­ture.

Anderson: I’m curi­ous, you’ve talked about tech­nol­o­gy as a mir­ror, which implies of course that there are cul­tur­al changes that are then reflect­ed in tech­nol­o­gy. How about technology…does it have a struc­tur­al bias that sort of con­di­tions cul­ture back? The shapes of tech­nolo­gies, the way that they encour­age dif­fer­ent types of uses, encour­age dif­fer­ent types of behav­ior?

Keen: That’s a good ques­tion. There are philoso­phers who’ve looked at this in great detail. The German philoso­pher Martin Heidegger, who’s work I have to admit I’m not that famil­iar with; it’s very dif­fi­cult. I’m more inter­est­ed in cul­ture and soci­ety. I haven’t looked at tech­nol­o­gy with the kind of atten­tion to detail and knowl­edge of tech­nol­o­gy which would make me able to answer that ques­tion. But I would sus­pect the answer is yes.

I mean, it is impor­tant also to know that we’re liv­ing in an age where tech­nol­o­gy is more and more cen­tral. Even in the indus­tri­al age, tech­nol­o­gy didn’t seem to be as cen­tral. There’s this movie com­ing out now called Prometheus. And Prometheus, it’s built off of I think it’s called the Prometheus Corporation, in which the CEO talks about tech­nol­o­gy becom­ing the thing which replaces human beings, and it’s kind of iron­ic since he’s a human. But I think we are mov­ing towards that sin­gu­lar moment where it’s going to become increas­ing­ly hard to dis­tin­guish between com­put­ers, robots, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and human beings. And that’s where we’re going, that’s where all this is lead­ing.

Anderson: Do you think that is inevitable?

Keen: Well, I think it’s inevitable that we are mov­ing in that direc­tion. I don’t think it’s inevitable that com­put­ers or robots will replace human beings. But I think it’s inevitable that we’re mov­ing in a direc­tion which means that even­tu­al­ly that pos­si­bil­i­ty will pro­voke a cri­sis of our species which hasn’t hap­pened for mil­len­nia, per­haps ever.

Anderson: When I was talk­ing to Dr. More at Alcor, I think that’s some­thing that he’s keen to have us move towards.

Keen: Those guys are in a hur­ry. There’s a guy called Ray Kurzweil in Silicon Valley. He’s a pill-popping utopi­an who thinks he can live for­ev­er and all of us can live for­ev­er. I’m not some­one who wants to get there in a hur­ry. I want to get to the moment where we begin to con­front these issues. That’s one of the rea­sons I do my work. I think that we are in dan­ger of los­ing what­ev­er it is it means to be human as we live more and more exter­nal­ly, as we lose the inner self.

I’m hap­py that I’m going to die in the sense that I don’t want to be around at a time where it’s increas­ing­ly hard to dis­tin­guish between arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and human intel­li­gence. I don’t want to live in that world. And I won’t live in that world. But my chil­dren or the chil­dren of my chil­dren might.

Anderson: What do we lose? You’re talk­ing about intrin­si­cal­ly human things.

Keen: Well, when you say what do we lose, we lose what it means to be human. It’s not some­thing that can be dis­cussed in a radio inter­view. It’s some­thing that human beings have been try­ing to make sense of ever since they’ve exist­ed as a species in terms of art, lit­er­a­ture, reli­gion, love. Everybody knows what being human is because we’re all humans. I’m not going to come on your show and list what those are from one to ten. We all know what they are, and we have to, indi­vid­u­al­ly I think, con­front what it actu­al­ly would mean to lose those.

Now again, I’m not going to come up with a solu­tion say­ing, This is what we have to do.” It’s not as if we have to, oh well if we put away our iPhones for an hour a day or switch off our com­put­ers or our tele­vi­sions, we can save our human­ness. That’s again an absurd­ly trite way of think­ing about it.

Anderson: With all of these issues that we’ve talked about, there are clear­ly a lot of things that whether or not we’re at a par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal moment in his­to­ry we’re cer­tain­ly at a unique one, and there are a lot of things to talk about.

Keen: Well, just to inter­rupt there. We are always at a unique point in his­to­ry. That’s why history’s so inter­est­ing.

Anderson: I mean, obvi­ous­ly every moment’s unprece­dent­ed, right? But sort of the scale that we can affect change on the plan­et on, I think now is pret­ty unique in that I don’t think we’ve every been able to cause glob­al warm­ing with the same rapid­i­ty that we can now.

Keen: Yeah.

Anderson: And so I’m always curi­ous with peo­ple, how do we start to bring about a con­ver­sa­tion about the future?

Keen: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not con­vinced that that’s real­ly the impor­tant— I mean the present is also an impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion, as indeed is the past.

Anderson: I’m think­ing sort of, there are these moments in his­to­ry where lots of peo­ple have come togeth­er and there’s been sort of a zeit­geist where many peo­ple in the cul­ture are talk­ing about change and ideas. Because it doesn’t feel to me like we have that now. I feel like we’ve got a lot of peo­ple talk­ing in their own lit­tle cliques.

Keen: Even this idea of hav­ing a dis­cus­sion I think is kind of ide­o­log­i­cal. The idea of all these gen­er­ous peo­ple sit­ting around and talk­ing about the future is Jeffersonian, per­haps. It’s ide­al­is­tic, and I don’t see much evi­dence of it ever hap­pen­ing. We read Plato and we like to think well, the Socratic dia­logues were won­der­ful. People sat around talk­ing about ideas, but that was in the midst of car­nage and dic­ta­tor­ship. You know, there have been times I guess in American his­to­ry where peo­ple have sat around and been more thought­ful. And maybe the 50s, odd­ly enough, I think will be seen per­haps as a hal­cy­on peri­od more and more as we look back.

But it’s very hard. When you have to ask the ques­tion, we have to have a dis­cus­sion, we need to get togeth­er, it gen­er­al­ly means something’s seri­ous­ly gone wrong and it’s not just because no one’s orga­niz­ing it. These things hap­pen. If they’re going to hap­pen, and they can hap­pen, they will hap­pen. And if they don’t they won’t, by no amount of encour­ag­ing peo­ple to do it.

Anderson: So you think that the Conversation is some­thing that only hap­pens when there’s some kind of cri­sis or struc­tur­al, social thing to make it hap­pen?

Keen: No, some­thing has to go… I mean, I think in America, the country’s had it so good for so long that some­thing prob­a­bly has to go seri­ous­ly wrong for peo­ple to actu­al­ly be…and I use this word care­ful­ly because it’s not a word I par­tic­u­lar­ly like but I can’t think of anoth­er one…humble enough to actu­al­ly acknowl­edge that some of the things they think maybe are wrong. The prob­lem is at the moment that every­one thinks they’re right. No one, or very few peo­ple, are will­ing to acknowl­edge that they’re wrong or that some of the way they view the world is wrong, and you have this increas­ing polar­iza­tion.

One of the odd things about my work, and I think it’s one of the rea­sons why some­times I get mis­un­der­stood, is often I’m not real­ly both­ered by being wrong. I know that some of the things I say are wrong, but I don’t real­ly mind. I don’t think it’s impor­tant. I think it’s much more impor­tant to to have inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions.

Again, I’m prob­a­bly falling into a stereo­type and reflect­ing what you’re say­ing, but I think some­thing has to go much more seri­ous­ly wrong. I think that peo­ple are so wed­ded to their ver­sions of the world, which is so rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the oth­er side. I mean the peo­ple that live on the West or the East Coast, peo­ple who live in San Francisco, peo­ple who live in New York, they lit­er­al­ly have noth­ing in com­mon, per­haps apart from a pass­port, which peo­ple in the inte­ri­or don’t have, with oth­er peo­ple liv­ing in this coun­try. They may share a lan­guage and a pass­port, but that’s it. They have entire­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the world, entire­ly dif­fer­ent ref­er­ences, lan­guages, reli­gions, expe­ri­ences. These are, again, huge ques­tions which are very very hard to fig­ure out, and which reflect this dichotomized way of liv­ing.

And it’s not just two, but it does seem to be two dom­i­nant worlds are liv­ing in the same phys­i­cal space, but actu­al­ly have noth­ing in com­mon and view the world in entire­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry ways.

Anderson: Are you opti­mistic about the future?

Keen: Well, I’m suf­fi­cient­ly skep­ti­cal, even if I’m a skep­tic of the future, to be skep­ti­cal of my own skep­ti­cism about the future. So I’m a cheer­ful pes­simist. I’m sure that things will get worked out one way or the oth­er. I’m not as opti­mistic about America as I am about the world. One of the clichés is the future is East, and the future is China, and the future is India, and I think those things are obvi­ous. So I think I would be quite opti­mistic about the future if we were hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion in Beijing or in Hyderabad. I just think in America something’s gone seri­ous­ly wrong. Or per­haps America’s peri­od of glob­al dom­i­nance didn’t last very long because the cycles of glob­al dom­i­nance, like the cycles of cor­po­rate dom­i­nance, are get­ting short­er and short­er.

Anderson: Do you think it’s pos­si­ble to parse a dif­fer­ence between the fate of America and the rest of the world? Are these prob­lems now glob­al?

Keen: Oh, some prob­lems are glob­al. Environment’s glob­al. I think I can be crit­i­cal of American media. I don’t think Indian media or Chinese media is prob­a­bly that much more pro­found or valu­able. So I think that these prob­lems are in many ways glob­al. And America still has val­ues and strengths which oth­er coun­tries don’t have. I think the abil­i­ty to invent and rein­vent your­self, the lack of a bureau­cra­cy. But I think America has its unique prob­lems. And the con­fu­sion is that American cul­ture cre­at­ed glob­al cul­ture. So now that America’s in cri­sis we tend to think that the cri­sis is glob­al, of glob­al val­ues and glob­al cul­ture. But in many ways it’s sim­ply a cri­sis of America, and we mis­take American val­ues for glob­al val­ues.


Aengus Anderson: So, we’ve recon­vened and we’ve just lis­tened to the inter­view. And we actu­al­ly get to record one of these out­ros in per­son.

Micah Saul: Which is awe­some [crosstalk] I think.

Anderson: Yes. Hopefully, though, we’ll get more con­cise and sharp­er on the theme. 

Saul: Exactly. So, I think there was a lot of inter­est­ing stuff there. I’ve got to admit, a lot of it I found very prob­lem­at­ic. He was talk­ing about the abil­i­ty to have a com­mu­ni­ty of like-minded peo­ple as being sort of a neg­a­tive? Or at least being counter to the way com­mu­ni­ties used to work. I was intrigued by that. It seemed to me that…well, alright, you know…I live on the Internet. My Internet com­mu­ni­ty and my real-world com­mu­ni­ty over­lap fair­ly strong­ly. I’m won­der­ing what are the things that a com­mu­ni­ty pro­vides in the real world that they don’t pro­vide on the Internet and vice ver­sa.

Anderson: Right. Because he sug­gests that the in-person com­mu­ni­ty is more ful­fill­ing.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Or makes peo­ple less lone­ly than the Internet does.

Saul: Right. Exactly.

Anderson: This is one that I wish we’d explored in a lit­tle more detail. And it’s dif­fi­cult to know, because what are these essen­tial human qual­i­ties… You know, when I asked what are we los­ing. I felt that I still don’t real­ly know what we’re los­ing. It felt like he didn’t want to engage on that issue, and I under­stand that because you don’t want to get into spelling out what essen­tial human qual­i­ties are. But I felt that if you’re going to cri­tique the idea of a vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty not hav­ing the essen­tial human qual­i­ties that we want in a phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty, I kind of need to know a lit­tle more for that to work for me, too.

Saul: Yeah, I agree com­plete­ly.

Anderson: There’s an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion here with Dr. Camerer think­ing about the idea of who ben­e­fits from these dif­fer­ent types of com­mu­ni­ties. So where I think Andrew has a strong sense that the phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty is real­ly valu­able, I think Dr. Camerer also gave us a good exam­ple of where the vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty is valu­able. His hypo­thet­i­cal exam­ple is the gay teen in the place that has a very strong sense of com­mu­ni­ty that does not accept the gay teen. And so, pre­vi­ous to the Internet what do you do? You’re an out­cast. After the Internet, you’re able to reach out and find peo­ple. So in a way, in that exam­ple you’re less lone­ly. But at the same time I under­stand where Andrew’s com­ing from because phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty pro­vides a lot of things that I think a vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty does leave peo­ple lone­ly about. 

Saul: I guess real­ly what it comes down to is I don’t see the two as being mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. I feel like that’s a fal­la­cy in a lot of cri­tique of social media, is that you can either live a dig­i­tal life or you can live a phys­i­cal life, and I don’t buy that.

So let’s start talk­ing about what else we can take from this con­ver­sa­tion going for­ward. There were two big things for me that we cer­tain­ly hadn’t got­ten yet, in many ways kind of call­ing into ques­tion our whole intent.

Anderson: That was one of the parts I was most excit­ed about in this inter­view because it felt like Andrew just was not on board with our premise.

Saul: Yeah. No, exact­ly.

Anderson: Which I think is great because we may not entire­ly be on board with our premise.

Saul: Exactly. I mean, obviously…assuming our lis­ten­ers can tell, in read­ing our descrip­tion of the thing and lis­ten­ing to us talk, every­thing about the premise is just like, we believe that we’re liv­ing in very inter­est­ing times. We believe that through­out his­to­ry there have been these moments of con­ver­sa­tion that caused great men­tal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, social change. Is that us pro­ject­ing our own thoughts on his­to­ry? Like he said, every­body thinks that they’re liv­ing in inter­est­ing times. Everybody thinks that they’re liv­ing at the end of the world.

Anderson: What I would counter that with is the notion that for some peo­ple, they are. There were peo­ple there when Rome fell. There were peo­ple there when the Han dynasty col­lapsed. They were liv­ing in times when the world changed.

Saul: It’s the glob­al, social ver­sion of Just because I’m para­noid doesn’t mean they’re not after me.”

Anderson: Exactly.

Saul: But it was inter­est­ing to hear his sort of…really just com­ing out and say­ing, No, you’re fun­da­men­tal thoughts are flawed on this.” And I think that it’s good to have those chal­lenges.

Anderson: Absolutely.

Saul: It’s good to have some­one chal­leng­ing your ideas in that way, because I think it will help us solid­i­fy what our thoughts are a lit­tle more.

Anderson: Absolutely. And I think there are real­ly two parts of this. One is, is this a crit­i­cal moment? I feel that you can make the case pret­ty con­vinc­ing­ly that there’s no point where we’ve had the tech­no­log­i­cal pow­er to change the world and change our­selves. We can genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer things; that’s new. The envi­ron­men­tal changes are new. So I think this is an amaz­ing moment. Does that lead to the next assump­tion that we need to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion now? Maybe not. Maybe none of these things are prob­lems. But if you are wor­ried about the cli­mate chang­ing, then there’s a prob­lem.

Saul: So I guess the final thing I want­ed to talk about, some­thing I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed, actu­al­ly, was Andrew did not want to give answers. He didn’t want to pro­vide any solu­tions. And he was very hon­est about that. He said, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is.” And I think that’s an inter­est­ing thing that I want to see how that con­tin­ues through­out the project. Like, who is inter­est­ed in giv­ing the answers? Who is just inter­est­ed in talk­ing about the prob­lems? Answers are hard.

Anderson: Answers are hard. 

Saul: And answers…saying, This is the answer,” implies some sort of sure­ty.

Anderson: Right. And he’s clear­ly— I mean, I real­ly liked his sec­tion where he said that he’s skep­ti­cal enough [crosstalk] that he’s skep­ti­cal of him­self.

Saul: …that he’s skep­ti­cal of his own skep­ti­cism.

Anderson: Which is awe­some, right?

Saul: Obviously I work for a com­pa­ny called Metaweb, so I love the meta. 

Anderson: That’s embar­rass­ing.

Saul: And I don’t know that I’ve heard a more meta state­ment than that. Like, I am so skep­ti­cal I’m skep­ti­cal of my own skep­ti­cism.

Anderson: Yeah. It’s straight up Socratic, isn’t it?

Saul: It’s amaz­ing.

Anderson: At the same time, where does that get us? If the Conversation is about the future, at some point do you have to go out on a limb and risk look­ing like a fool? Do you have to real­ly put some­thing out there the way John Fife did, where he’s will­ing to say, Let’s be done with nation-states.”

Saul: Or go out on a limb like Dr. More does, where he says human­i­ty can and should move beyond human­i­ty.

Anderson: And that’s where I think for the Conversation, those voic­es may ulti­mate­ly be the most out­spo­ken, but I think at the same time even if they’re large­ly dis­missed, if the Conversation ever does hap­pen, they will inform it.

Saul: Oh no, absolute­ly. I think the peo­ple that are will­ing to go out there and say, This is the answer,” are incred­i­bly impor­tant. I also believe that it is very impor­tant to have the peo­ple that say, Listen, I don’t know the answer, but here’s the prob­lem with your answer.”

Anderson: It makes me think of the plat­i­tudes like You can’t have change unless you offer a bet­ter thing to change to.” If we feel that the Conversation is not hap­pen­ing now, man, there are a mil­lion peo­ple who you can find any­where in the media who are busy crit­i­ciz­ing now.

Saul: Oh, absolute­ly. Absolutely.

Anderson: I mean, Andrew men­tions that a lot of them are say­ing, Well, we just need to work more on edu­ca­tion.” But I think if you’re not will­ing to real­ly haz­ard a wish for the future and what it looks like, which is ulti­mate­ly express­ing a con­cern about the present, right? Those things are inex­tri­ca­bly linked. I think if you’re not will­ing to go after that, I don’t real­ly think you’re hav­ing the Conversation.

Saul: I’m going to have to give that some thought. I think that might be actu­al­ly an appro­pri­ate place to close.

Anderson: I think it def­i­nite­ly is. We’ll be talk­ing to Jan Lundberg next, going in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tion.

Saul: Awesome. I’m real­ly look­ing for­ward to that, actu­al­ly.

Anderson: I guess there’s no point in say­ing good­bye because we’re just sit­ting here.

Saul: Yeah, exact­ly.

Anderson: That was Andrew Keen, record­ed in Santa Rosa, California May 17th2012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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