The Internet Is Not the Answer

Andrew Keen Andrew Keen 2015

There have been many books about the evils of the internet, from complaints about the way that online life deadens our brains to warnings about the pervasive surveillance to which we subject ourselves whenever we use one of our electronic toys.

The Internet Is Not the Answer is a complaint and a warning, but its focus is different. Andrew Keen’s main concern is the economic consequences of what he sees as a libertarian hijacking of what began as a communitarian ideal: access for everyone, all the time, for free.

Today, argues Keen, “the more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing to us.”

Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer. Rather than generating more jobs, this digital disruption is a principal cause of our structural unemployment crisis. Rather than creating more competition, it has created immensely powerful new monopolists like Google and Amazon.

And,

Rather than creating transparency and openness, the Internet is creating a panopticon of information-gathering and surveillance services in which we, the users of big data networks like Facebook, have been packaged as their all-too-transparent product. … Rather than fostering a renaissance, it has created a selfie-centered culture of voyeurism and narcissism.

Refocusing Marshall McLuhan, Keen warns that we must “shape our networking tools before they shape us.” Corporate shaping has begun in earnest. As Keen reports, “while brick-and-mortar retailers employ 47 people for every $10 million in sales, Amazon only employs 14 people to generate the same $10 million sales revenue.” And “Google is around seven times larger than GM, but employs less than a quarter of the number of workers.” Keen returns throughout the book to his contention that the Internet is the embodiment of the libertarian ideal of winner-take-all, freedom-above-responsibility uber-capitalism:

[I]n today’s libertarian age … Silicon Valley has become the new Wall Street because Berners-Lee’s invention has become the vehicle for a twenty-first-century networked model of capitalism that offers astounding financial rewards to its winner-take-all entrepreneurs.

The consequences for the rest of us are dramatic, says Keen. It’s not just outsourcing that has assaulted the middle class jobs that have sustained our economic and social lives since 1945.

The late industrial age of the second half of the twentieth century was a middle-class world built, Packer notes, by state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organizations. … [T]his was a golden age of labor in which increasingly skilled workers won the race between education and technology and made themselves essential to the industrial economy.

Keen documents how the bricks-and-mortar, job-producing Kodak was driven into obsolesence by the software that is Instagram. Instagram doesn’t make anything. It enables users to create albums of themselves. The result has been devastation for the citizens of Rochester, NY, which for most of the 20th century was the real place where real people had real jobs, helping them to create real lives for themselves and their families.

Just as Instagram is the anti-Kodachrome product, so it’s also the anti-Kodak company building an anti-Kodak economy.

How do essentially virtual companies like Instagram make so much money with so few employees? Keen answers with the obvious: “[I]ts our labor on these little devices, our incessant tweeting, posting, searching, updating, reviewing, commenting, and snapping that is creating all the value in the networked economy. … And the more we reveal about ourselves, the more valuable we become to advertisers.”

Nothing on the web is truly altruistic. Many of us take MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), but Keen cites education expert William Deresiewicz, who notes that “MOOCs are not about democratizing education. That is just their cover story. The truth … is exactly the reverse. They’re about reinforcing existing hierarchies and monetizing institutional prestige, he warns. The kids at Harvard get to interact with their professors. The kids at San Jose State get to watch the kids at Harvard interact with their professors.”

What’s the solution to the problem of the Internet? Keen admits that there are as many answers to that question as there are interest groups:

Just as there are many questions about today’s networked society, so everyone from activists to writers to entrepreneurs to academics to governments has their own answer to the Internet’s failure to realize most of its much-trumpeted promise. Some of these answers are more coherent and viable than others. But they all are understandable responses to the wrenching economic and social dislocation of networked society.

Keen’s favoured solution is a combination of government regulation and corporate responsibility. You’re probably as unconvinced by this formula as I am. “Government regulation” is a non-starter in a full-blown market economy. And “corporate responsibility”? There’s a word for that. It starts with “oxy-.”

Still, The Internet Is Not the Answer is a worthwhile book, if not for its answers, then certainly for the questions it asks and the too-often overlooked economic viewpoint it provides.

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