Keen on Keen

I’ve always lived in the shadow of one great seduction or another. My earliest intellectual memories are of my great uncle Reuben, known to outside world family as Reuben Falber, the infamous assistant general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It was my uncle Reuben who, during our marx-engels-lenin heavy walks on Hampstead Heath, exposed me to the promise of grand utopian theory.

Reuben Falber failed to corrupt me into becoming a communist, but he did succeed with another great seduction. His other grand passion, a surprisingly capitalist one for an old Bolshevik, was for the motion pictures of Alfred Hitchcock. Uncle Reuben was particularly entranced with Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s infatuating story of male infatuation. I first saw this dystopian movie, with its blonde and brunette versions of Kim Novak, at the old Everyman cinema in Hampstead. As I watched blonde Kim Novak driving her green Jaguar around San Francisco, I wanted to climb into that car and keep her company. This is what today’s digital media crowd call “remixing” culture. Back then, it was just an adolescent fantasy.

In reaction to uncle Reuben’s abstract political theories, I was drawn to the study of history. I attended London University where I had the great fortunate to study under Hugh Seton-Watson, the legendary East Europeanist. Having graduated with a First Class History degree, I went off to Eastern Europe where, as a British Council Fellow, I studied at the University of Sarajevo in Yugoslavia. And it was in the coffee houses and student dormitories of Sarajevo that I became acquainted with the second great political seduction of the modern age: ethnic nationalism.

In Sarajevo, I found the most effective antidote to the xenophobia of the street in the work of dystopian East European writers: Kundera, Skvoretsky, Milosz, Kis, Hasek and Kafka. Especially Kafka. Back then, the Kafka story that most seduced me was Amerika, with its cinematic first paragraph:

“As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbor of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illuminate the Statue of Liberty, so that he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven”

America. Another great seduction. After Sarajevo, I came to California. Unlike Rossman, I wasn’t “packed off” to America because of an impregnated servant girl. I came willingly to the Bay Area, the set for Vertigo, as a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley. There, I fell under the spell of the political anthropologist Ken Jowitt whose glitteringly original reading of modern history contrasted with the facile utopianism of the typical political “scientist”.

After Berkeley, I shifted coasts and taught modern history and politics, Jowitt-style, at Tufts, Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts. Another coast, another great seduction. Alongside my academic teaching, I developed a parallel career as a popular cultural critic. And it was as a journalist that, in the early Nineties, I “discovered” the Internet, the greatest seduction since the dream of world communism. Rushing back to the Bay Area, now known as Silicon Valley, I founded a website called Audiocafe.com and, securing investment from Intel and SAP, built it into an early paragon of the online revolution. I became an uncle Reuben of the Internet upheaval, a true believer in the historical inevitability of online community, commerce and content.

Then, in April 2000, I woke up. Audiocafe crashed, Silicon Valley crashed, Wall Street crashed. The narrative had the hallmarks of classic Hitchcock, as cruel and inevitable as the plot of Vertigo. Real life interfered with the dream, the blond turned into the brunette and the lights came back on. Amerika. In September 2000, I produced a show called MB5: The Festival for New Media Visionaries, which captured the most lucid prophesies and worst hubris of the Internet mania. Since then, I’ve played increasingly grown-up business roles at a various technology companies including Pulse 3D, Santa Cruz Networks, Jazziz Digital and Pure Depth, where I currently direct the company’s global strategic sales.

And now there is a new great seduction in Silicon Valley. Today, the trinitarianism of digital community, commerce and content goes under the name of “Web 2.0”. The new democratizing technologies are blogs, wikis, social networking sites and podcasts. But I’ve changed. I am now an outsider on the inside, revealing the great seduction and warning of its grave cultural consequences.