Andrew Keen’s Countercultural Take

(Photo by Flickr/CC user kodomut)

Here is one version of youth in the Digital Age:

“Students, perhaps without even realizing it, are already seeking out ways to personalize their learning.  Looking to address what they perceive as deficiencies in classroom experiences, students are turning to online classes to study topics that pique their intellectual curiosity, to message and discussion boards to explore new ideas about their world, or to online collaboration tools to share their expertise with other students they don’t even know.”

That’s a summation by “Speak Up 2011,” a survey initiative of Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit based in Irvine, Calif.  The quotation comes from the latest survey results which show continued penetration of social media down the age ladder.  According to the survey, half of middle school students and 20 percent of 3rd through 5th graders maintain a personal profile on a commercial site.  Their aim, the report says, is to “create community, develop skills, and organize their lives outside the classroom.”

This is a common interpretation of youth digital activity, the sanguine one that grants far too much savvy and circumspection to 12-year-olds with an iPhone.  It goes along with a certain cheer-leading attitude toward primary and secondary students in education circles, often coming not from teachers but from the surrounding industry of commentators, writers, foundation personnel, and advocates.  They seem to draw conclusions from the very best uses of technology and make a general trend of it (as I noted of one prominent case in this review last month).  It is either ridiculous or sentimental to grant to more than a tiny cohort the awareness and the motivation to recognize and remedy “deficiencies” in the classroom, to set “intellectual curiosity” above other, more adolescent impulses, to witness youths “explore” and “collaborate” rather than hang out and gossip and game and plan and joke . . .

Everybody who feels enthusiastic about today’s and tomorrow’s digital tools should pick up a copy of a book that just appeared two weeks ago, Andrew Keen’s Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.  It doesn’t focus on youth, but it does provide a more accurate and informed version of social media, particularly the Web 3.0 vision of the future (yes, smart people such as Reid Hoffman have left Web 2.0 behind).  According to Keen, the explosion of social media doesn’t portend an enriching, ennobling mode of communication that puts loneliness and misunderstanding in the past.  That’s the counter-culture utopia of Silicon Valley gurus, whom Keen regards as living by the old John Phillips song that begins, “Are you going to San Francisco?”  Instead, Web 3.0 resurrects the old idea of the Panopticon, a non-stop surveillance all the more insidious because it is self-imposed.  (Keen’s first chapter on observing Bentham’s corpse is captivating.)  As Keen puts it in this interview, “we share more and are entering a painful solitude.”

For a technology insider such as Keen, it’s a contrarian thesis, especially in his world on the peninsula.  Because social media have become an ordinary feature of nearly everybody’s lives, to question them is, precisely, a counter-cultural position.  We need more skepticism such as Keen’s, though, and less enthusiasm such as Project Tomorrow’s, mindful that a counter-culture only has integrity if mainstream culture prevails.  Once, the post-Beat 60s counter-culture won the Culture War of the time and showed up in Hollywood and network TV and magazine ads, it turned into a mockery.

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