Andrew Keen isn’t convinced the Plumia project will work.
The tech commentator is best known for his contrarian views of the internet. Since the publication of his scathing Web 2.0 polemic, The cult of the amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture, in 2007, he’s been critical of tech evangelism. Keen was one of the early critics of the internet’s promise to empower people, predicting instead that it would breed monopolies, destroy culture and corrupt truth.
True to his trademark skepticism, Keen questions Plumia’s ambition to build a country on the internet. In a Plumia Talks live interview, Keen explained why he believes in the need for geographically-rooted political communities, why he thinks digital nomads are political exiles, and what it means to reclaim agency over technology.
Agency, politics, and analog living
For Keen, politics and democracy can only exist at the analog level. “I don't believe you can have a digitally networked society,” he says. While he sees the current nation-state model as “problematic in a lot of areas,” he doesn’t feel a society can truly be connected solely in the digital realm.
Keen says that “the physical is essential in politics,” meaning that it’s impossible to engage in a political life – one with agency over your choices, the ability to vote, and a voice to build the community you live in – without physical presence.
“You have to be able to look people in the eye, you have to be able to sit in a room with them, you have to have neighbors,” Keen says. “And I don't think that can exist on the global level.”
He added that while it’s theoretically possible to create a political community online, he doesn’t believe it can work in practical terms. “It either turns into one kind of dictatorship or other, or into a bureaucracy – or into a farce,” he says.
Digital nomadism as a recipe for misery
Keen says the logical extension of his belief in the physicality of political communities is that digital nomads who live and work all around the world are, by definition, political exiles. In Keen’s view, digital nomads cannot set down roots, political or otherwise, because engaging in a community requires sticking around and talking to people rather than moving onto the next location.
“I think that the digital nomadic lifestyle is itself a bit of a great seduction,” Keen says. “I think it's a recipe for misery.”
While Keen agrees you can travel for political activism, namely environmental activism and other global endeavors, he says nomadism does not lend itself to political life because that requires being geographically settled.
“If you are what you call a digital native or a digital nomad, then you're going to be disconnected from politics because you don't have a place,” Keen says.
Not just rights, but responsibilities
Much of Keen’s work focuses on the need to establish agency over technology. That, to him, means being able to live outside of technology’s influence or power, which is no easy feat given its outsized role in modern life.
But what bothers Keen most about technology is not what it does or even its potential negative impact on information sharing. Instead, it’s that the internet flattens what it means to participate in politics.
“A lot of the arguments I've been making over the last 20 years suggest that the internet presents the world as just the place of rights,” Keen says. “And that's why it's been so corrupting and has resulted in such a catastrophe in political, cultural, economic terms. We need to also think in terms of responsibilities.”
For Keen, a major responsibility people have is to engage in their political communities and to leverage whatever agency one has while continually seeking more of it. But engaging in politics means staying in one place, participating in a local community, and fighting for what you believe in there.
Keen emphasizes that he doesn’t mean that people can’t move or choose a new place to live, particularly if circumstances force one to do so, but rather that he inextricably ties the notion of agency to the engagement in political life. For Keen, having real agency means laying down roots, something he thinks digital nomads forfeit by hopping from place to place.
And without people exercising agency, technology will continue to encroach on our lives and drive communities apart for the gain of the “Libertarians of Silicon Valley who fetishize the idea of the digital nomadic lifestyle,” Keen says. “Fixing the future is seizing back agency.”