Throughout the 20 years that I’ve been using the Internet, numerous people have pointed out that this technology could have consequences very different from what its boosters claimed. Andrew Keen’s new book The Internet Is Not the Answer (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) discusses the many problems that the Internet has caused and exacerbated over these past two decades.
“ rather than democracy and diversity, all we’ve got from the digital revolution so far is fewer jobs, and overabundance of content, an infestation of piracy, a coterie of Internet monopolists, and a radical narrowing of our economic and cultural elite.”
A number of Keen’s arguments are familiar. Far from encouraging openness and freedom, the Internet is often a hotbed of hatred and inequality. New monopolies, such as Google and Amazon, are increasing inequality and taking control of our data. Jobs are being destroyed, entire swathes of the economy are being decimated, and the middle class is disappearing as there is little room for those other than the wealthy or participants in the gig economy.
And those with the money controlling the Internet are attempting to impose their libertarian views to prevent unionization of their employees, block government regulation, and avoid paying taxes.
Keen points out that the Internet, designed to be open and cooperative, is anything but. “Instead, it’s a top-down system that is concentrating wealth instead of spreading it.”
Keen sketches the early history of the Internet, and explains how money started pouring into new ventures. And this is when thing went wrong:
“As Wall Street moved west, the Internet lost a sense of common purpose, a general decency, perhaps even its soul.”
Far from being open and egalitarian, and far from creating competition, the Internet has spawned winner-take-all companies. Amazon’s dominance of online retail, as well as e-book sales, has reached a dangerous level, killing off retail stores in every country where it exists. Google’s dominance of search is such that it is nearly impossible for any company to compete with. (It’s true that Microsoft’s Bing, and Yahoo, are not dead yet.) And in many other industries, one player is in a quasi-monopolistic position.
The Internet has also spawned a new approach to identity. In an attempt to emulate stars, people take selfies and share their statuses on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, Yet these services “delude us into thinking we are celebrities. Yet, in the Internet’s winner-take-all economy, attention remains a monopoly of superstars.”
One of the biggest problems with the Internet is the fact that we trade access to free content in exchange for providing personal data to companies like Google. “Most of these Web 2.0 businesses have pursued a Google-style business strategy of giving away their tools and services for free and relying on advertising sales as their main source of revenue.”
Keen goes on to say:
“The problem, of course, is that we are all working for Facebook and Google for free, manufacturing the very personal data that makes their companies so valuable.”
All our activity is being quantified and monitored. “We think we are using Instagram to look at the world, but actually we are the ones who are being watched. And the more we reveal about ourselves, the more valuable we become to advertisers.”
This, of course, highlights the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the early days of the Internet, companies gave away all their content for free because they were trying to attract users to a new platform. We have seen how free has become so rooted in the mindset of Internet users, that people are hesitant to pay even $1 for an app, or to pay a subscription to read the news. Of course, the recent kerfuffle around ad-blockers in Apple’s iOS nine has shown that users no longer want to put up with advertising overload, and all these content providers need to figure out a new way to monetize their work.
And all this has caused many people to lose their jobs. Sure, we have Amazon Prime delivery, Uber, AirBNB, and Netflix, but all these companies are making money for the tech 1%. These companies have few employees, who are often treated as disposable. “The problem is the Internet remains a gift economy in which content remains either free or so cheap that is destroying the livelihood of more and more of today’s musicians, writers, photographers, and filmmakers.”
Keen offers some ideas as to how to change directions, but these suggestions are sketchy at best. “The answer […] can’t just be more regulation from government. […] The answer lies in our new digital elite becoming accountable for the most dramatic socioeconomic destruction since the Industrial Revolution. Rather than thinking differently, the ethic of this new elite should be to think traditional. […] Rather than an Internet Bill of Rights, what we really need is an informal Bill of Responsibilities that establishes a new social contract for every member of networked society.”
This thought-provoking book may make you think differently about how the Internet affects your life, and how it will continue to affect your future.