Dead since 1832, Jeremy Bentham is a cadaver that has been living in public ever since, on display beside "Dapple," his favorite walking stick, in a glass-fronted wooden coffin at London’s University College. His coffin was coined as an “Auto-Icon” by Bentham, which is a neologism meaning "a man who is his own image." Below is an excerpt from Andrew Keen’s new book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, in which he describes recognizing the Auto-Icon as a symbol for the digital age.
I continued to gaze into the Auto-Icon for enlightenment. As the picture became clearer and clearer, my dizziness intensified and the room began to spin around me with more and more violence. Yes, I now saw, Bentham’s corpse did, after all, have something to teach me. The true picture of the future, I realized, had been staring me straight in the face all along.
In spite of my own feeling of vertigo, this vision -- a painful kind of epiphany -- grabbed me with an icy clarity. I froze momentarily, my mouth half open, my eyes fixed on the corpse. It suddenly became clear that I’d been peering into a mirror. Reid Hoffman was right: the future is always sooner and stranger than anyone of us think. I realized that the Auto-Icon, this “man who is his own image,” represents this future and Bentham’s corpse is actually you, me and everyone else who have imprisoned themselves in today’s digital inspection house.
Jeremy Bentham's "Auto-Icon" at University College London
Photo credit: Michael Reeve
What I glimpsed that late November afternoon in Bloomsbury was the anti-social future, the loneliness of the isolated man in the connected crowd. I saw all of us as digital Jeremy Benthams, isolated from one another not only by the growing ubiquity of networked communications, but also by the increasingly individualized and competitive nature of twenty-first-century life. Yes, this was the future. Personal visibility, I recognized, is the new symbol of status and power in our digital age. Like the corpse locked in his transparent tomb, we are now all on permanent exhibition, all just images of ourselves in this brave new transparent world.
Like the immodest nineteenth-century social reformer locked in his
eternal wooden and glass box, we twenty-first-century social networkers -- especially aspiring super nodes like myself -- are becoming addicted to
building attention and reputation. But like the solitariness of my own experience
in that University College corridor, the truth, the reality of social media, is an architecture of human isolation rather than community. The future will be anything but social, I realized. That’s the real killer app of the networked age.
We are, I realized, becoming schizophrenic -- simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous. Cultural critics like Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard have used the word “hyperreality” to describe how modern technology blurs the distinction between reality and unreality and grants authenticity to self-evidently fake things like William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon, the gothic building on the Californian coast made famous by Orson Wells’s 1941 picture Citizen Kane. Eco defines hyperreality as “a philosophy of immortality as duplication” where “the completely real becomes identified with the completely fake.”
"Absolute unreality is offered as real presence," Eco thus explains hyperreality.
But as I gazed at the Auto-Icon, an equally absurd neologism came to mind:
“hypervisibility.” The man who is his own image in the digitally networked
world, I realized, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and the more
completely visible he appears, the more completely invisible he actually is.
In this fully transparent world where we are simultaneously nowhere and
everywhere, absolute unreality is real presence, and the completely fake is
also the completely real. This, I saw, was the most truthfully untruthful picture of networked twenty-first-century life.
Join us for IE Radio today at 2:00 p.m. ET to hear more about Andrew Keen's book, Digital Vertigo.
— Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley author, broadcaster, and entrepreneur, can be reached on Twitter at @ajkeen.