Oct 022013

I’ve just finished reading Andrew Keen’s book Digital Virtigo, in which he bemoans the loss of privacy that the networked world represents, and the concentration of exhibitionism and the exhibitionist that dominates so much of the social media ideologies. Keen’s argument is a repeat of some well worn arguments that have been put forward about all forms of media. That with each new wave of media technology we will somehow witness the loss of our intrinsic moral capability and sense of self determination. Keen is arguing that social media is dehumanising, reductive and instrumental – or at least the people who dominate the industries see things that way.

According to Keen, Facebook, Google, Twitter and goodness knows who else, are fighting to control our lives and our fleeting sense of attention by providing a convenient framework in which we can note, share and mark our cultural, personal and inter-personal preferences. In doing this we are betraying the essential mystery of personhood and losing our sense of distinction between the public and the private, the personal and the social. The things that we don’t share are the things that make us cogent individuals, suggests Keen. Restraint and personal conscience are ultimately more valuable to us than being able to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a profile at the flick of a button. We play with the social personal at our risk, argues Keen.

To some extent a lot of Keens thoughts chime with my own experience of social media – the sense of distance that social media creates; the sense of perpetual judgement; the policing and thought-controlling of our ideas and our sympathies. The social media frontier is not the Wild West of the mythology of entrepreneurial capitalism. It might better be though as the oppressive and tyrannical apparatus of the Soviet surveillance state system. Oppressive and reactionary.

I’ve been thinking about two models of identity that have an almost inverse relationship in social media circles. We are living through an age in which the dominant model of social identity is the ‘hunter’. Pre-civilisation and pre-society man was defined by grazing and hunter-gathering. Men would sit around waiting for the moment when they feel hungry or need to prove themselves. When this moment arrived they picked up their spears and wandered off into the savannah and found some antelopes to kill. The carcass would be dragged back to the group and shared. Probably a barbecue would be lit and a party with wild dancing and music would ensue. Everyone would be happy. The hunters had provided.

The celebratory moment, however, doesn’t last for very long. Managing life between the peaks of abundance and the troughs of scarcity isn’t as straight forward as the hunters anticipate, and after every boom period there is an inevitable bust. This is the moment that the cultivators come forward. Recognising that a more consistent and sustainable provision of managed food supply is essential to balance out the periods of scarcity. The cultivators seek to farm and manage their resources so that they are able to get the collective through the winter and through the periods of shortage. The cultivator has the job of assessing the soil, thinking about irrigation, planning systems for crop rotation, matching plants together to enhance their yield or make them more resilient to attack from pests. The hunters grab the headlines and the glory, but it is the cultivators who build civilisations.

I agree with Andrew Keen that we should be sceptical about social media, but for different reasons. We are living through a time when the discourse of the hunter is predominant. In our society it’s the executive head-honcho who gets all the glory. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Fred Goodwin… The cult of the leader has even gone so far as to propel common headteachers into the realms of super-star managers, with egos and pay cheques to match. We are living in the age of the muscular individual who has to be seen making startling social media pronouncements to their network of online acolytes, amassed in the form of hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. These are the equivalents of the modern day spear-wielding huntsmen. The alpha-male huntsman roaming the digital savannah looking to make a killing in the markets of public opinion.

For the rest of us, it’s the grind of cultivation that dominates our thinking. Building and maintaining collegiate working relationships. Developing incremental improvements to services and the capability of organisations to deliver over the long-term without putting too much strain on the one another. Storing and holding a store of intellectual and physical resources back for the dry seasons when the period of abundance is finished. There inevitably comes a day when the wandering herds of dumb animals are reduced to a trickle and the hunter starves.

Building a lasting civilisation, on the other hand, is a job that requires careful cultivation. It can’t be subject to fashion – economic, political, ideological, personal or social. Ideas have to stand the test of time and have to be communicated in a way that proves their enduring worth, and are not just the immediate play-things of attention-seeking hunters.

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