Thursday, January 22, 2015

Andrew Keen's The Internet Is Not The Answer

This is Andrew Keen's third book about how awful the Internet is. I read his first, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, when it was published in 2007, and enjoyed it immensely. It was a passionate and well written manifesto proclaiming the virtues of publishers, editors, broadcasters, film makers, journalists and other professional content producers, commonly known as gate-keepers. Their roles were necessary and critically important. As a publisher I was sold. The book had a lot of critics though, but I wasn't one of them. They said it reeked of elitism, but I was part of that elite.

Since then however the Internet has come a long way and inflicted massive social and economic change well beyond the cultural sphere. Keen would have changed the word 'change' in that sentence to 'damage'. Everything about the Internet, in his view, is just plain wrong. Here's where I part company. He's gone way over the top.

The Internet Is Not The Answer is so incredibly one-sided, so one-dimensional, it's virtually impossible to take it seriously.
From the title onwards it's a disaster. Keen is all snark, a prim, professional sneerer, seemingly antagonistic for personal reasons to the Internet as it demolished his music business fifteen or so years ago. 

He seizes upon every possible negative, providing example after example of the detritus the huge tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Airbnb and others have left in their wake. He visits Rochester in upstate New York, the former home of the former huge corporation Kodak, now a hollowed-out industrial wasteland, and that image permeates the book: 'Rather than just a city it's the whole economy that is losing it's centre. For all of Silicon Valley's claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut - with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products.'

Keen really has fun with the entrepreneurial founders of the huge tech companies, now all billionaires with their oval-sized yachts and $50 million houses. They are hostile to trade unions, taxation and regulation, and Amazon in particular cops it for its harsh, inhuman treatment of its warehouse workers. None of this is original, nor particularly significant in the global scheme of things. 

Keen swallows hook, line and sinker all the copyright owner anti-piracy narratives and numbers dished up on a regular basis to governments and agencies but universally panned as over-the-top and unreliable by independent economists. He becomes particularly exercised by music piracy, and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora who pay paltry royalties to their lifeblood, the artists. Not one single thing about today's music business is good. It's all a 'catastrophe'.

Every snippet of bad is cherry-picked to support the depressing picture.

There is an old Latin saying: Abusus non tollit usum - the abuse of something doesn't detract from the use of it. Every major and worthwhile policy, initiative, reform or innovation has a dark side, a downside, an ugly side. This insight never enters Keen's head and his book is fatally weakened by that.

Nevertheless, the final chapters of the book are excellent. They focus on the uncontroversially ugly side of these powerful Internet companies - their partnership with government spying agencies in illegal surveillance and their  massive and continuing breaches of privacy. Keen also serves it up to Uber, a truly disgraceful company on every level. I really enjoyed that.

After all the demolition work the reader is anxious to know what Keen thinks should be done. Technology can't be un-invented. So?

He calls for far more and tighter regulation. 'The answer is to use the law and regulation to force the Internet out of its prolonged adolescence'. As well, monoliths like Google should be broken up and Amazon should be vigorously pursued by the Department of Justice to curb its overwhelming market power. Bold politicians need to rise to the occasion. 

Frankly, it all seems a rather lame fix to all the negatives we've been served up thoughout this intensely depressing book. 

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