Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Internet Is Not the Answer – how the digital dream turned sour

Andrew Keen’s pleasingly incisive study argues that, far from being a democratising force in society, the internet has only amplified global inequities

The Guardian
Sunday 1 February 2015

The internet that we use today was switched on in January 1983, and for its first 10 years was almost exclusively the preserve of academic researchers, which meant that cyberspace evolved as a parallel, utopian universe in which the norms of “meatspace” (John Perry Barlow’s term for the real, physical world) did not apply. In fact, for most of the first two decades, the real world remained blissfully unaware of the existence of the virtual one.

And then Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, and in 1993 Marc Andreessen released Mosaic, the first graphical browser, and suddenly the real world realised what the internet was and, more importantly, what it could do. What happened next was, with hindsight, predictable, though relatively few people spotted it at the time. It was later summed up by John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, as “the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history”. More succinctly you could say that what happened was that Wall Street moved west.

Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fuelled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterised the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organisers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveilled world that we have been building with digital tools. In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

Like these other critics, Keen challenges the dominant narrative about the internet – that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. The problem with this narrative, he points out, is not that it’s wrong – the network does indeed have the potential to do all of these marvellous things, and much more besides. The problem is that it’s not the whole story, and perhaps it will turn out to be the least important part of it.

The more important truth about the internet, Keen thinks, is that it has evolved into a global machine for creating a world characterised by vast and growing inequality. “The error that evangelists make,” he writes, “is to assume that the internet’s open, decentralised technology naturally translates into a less hierarchical or unequal society. But rather than more openness and the destruction of hierarchies, an unregulated network society is breaking the old centre, compounding economic and cultural inequality, and creating a digital generation of masters of the universe. This new power may be rooted in a borderless network, but it still translates into massive wealth and power for a tiny handful of companies and individuals.”

Another chorus of the dominant narrative is the unavoidability of what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, which is another word for the collateral damage inflicted by Silicon Valley’s most revered process: disruption. Many critics just burble on about this, but Keen had the inspired idea of going to see what technology-wrought destruction is really like, up close. He goes to Rochester, New York, the city that was once the company town of Eastman Kodak, the analogue giant that was destroyed by digital technology. Kodak once employed 145,000 people worldwide. What Keen finds in Rochester is not only a Detroit-style ghost town, but also 55,000 former employees whose pensions have vanished in a puff of bankruptcy.

In the decades to come, we can expect many more Rochesters. In the pre-digital age, industrial development produced disruption, but also jobs. In contrast, the new giants of the digital revolution are a neoliberal’s wet dream, producing fabulous wealth for the owners of capital while employing very few ordinary mortals – except perhaps for those working in the concierge economy as serfs catering to the whims of elites that are cash-rich but time-poor.

Far from being the “answer” to society’s problems, Keen argues, the internet is at the root of many of them. As a result, it poses an existential question for democracies everywhere: can elected governments control the waves of creative destruction now sweeping through our societies as the digital revolution gathers momentum? Mr Keen doesn’t have an answer to this question. But then – as an inspection of our current election campaign confirms – neither do we.

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