Hypervisibility and the Auto-Icon, according to Keen

Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen

I’ve recently finished the book #digitalvertigo by @ajkeen, or, in conventional rendering, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorientating Us by Andrew Keen.* He begins the book with the idea of hypervisibility, and draws a soft comparison between the publicness of participating in social media to Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon.

I remember learning about Bentham as an undergrad, but I don’t recall which class it was. I remember cringing with disgust when the professor described Bentham’s body as being taxidermied and then wheeled out to attend board meetings at University College in London. The description (or my recollection of it) isn’t quite accurate, as it is only his skeleton, padded and dressed up in his actual clothes, that remains on display at UCL.

(I’ll let you Google photos of the Auto-Icon and ascribe your own adjective to it. You can also find photos of his head, which was preserved but rendered grotesque by faulty methods of mummification. The head is not placed on his skeleton but locked away in a vault. You can read the story, and view a 3-D virtual tour at this link.)

But back to Keen’s point. He makes the comparison between the Auto-Icon (and apparently its dizzying effect on him) and what he calls the hypervisibility of being on social media. He writes:

“I realized that the Auto-Icon, this ‘man who is his own image,’ represents the future and Bentham’s corpse is actually you, me and everyone else who have imprisoned themselves I today’s digital inspection house.” (p. 13).

Does the comparison work? Yes, in the sense that people who post on social media willingly put themselves in the public eye, to an extent. The average person isn’t quite as “hypervisible” to other people as Keen (for most of us, our presence is limited and we are less noticed). Yet, Keen isn’t just referring to fame; he also discusses how social networks and related organizations (such as ad trackers) collect personal information about each person that posts. Even if your digital footprint is small, you are still hypervisible, Keen asserts.

To be fair to Keen, the book is more complex than I’ve described above and covers many valid and intriguing points. But I want to focus on just a couple of them over the next several days in subsequent posts.

1) The “digital inspection house.” Keen compares social media to Bentham’s idea of the Inspection House, or the Panopticon. I’m not sure the comparison fits.

2) Private vs. public. As I was reading, I kept looking for mention of Hannah Arendt. She was mentioned once, briefly, for her ideas on totalitarianism. Yet, her ideas on the private, the public, and the social are screaming to be heard here.

*If you become a regular reader (and I hope you do), you’ll notice that the books I read tend to be several years old. Or older. Several reasons for that; let’s just say, I’m not trendy. Digital Vertigo was published by St. Martin’s Press, New York, in 2012.

Only One Rule



“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.