Book Review: The Internet Is Not the Answer, by Andrew Keen

Keen internet not the anwserThroughout 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.

30 thoughts on “Book Review: The Internet Is Not the Answer, by Andrew Keen

  1. Wow, where to start? I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me that ascribing all of society’s ills to one cause is an oversimplification. The internet is a tool, and like any tool (except perhaps a gun), it can be used for both good and bad. Also, many of the problems discussed here started long before the internet came into wide use.

    As examples, Amazon has certainly destroyed many businesses and jobs, but Walmart did the same thing without the help of the internet. The US government’s subsidy of big agricultural firms along with NAFTA effectively destroyed the Mexican economy, no internet needed.

    A new social contract is sorely needed, but not limited to the use of technology. This book raises many important issues, and they need to be addressed holistically. Reforming the internet would be an important step, but only one of many needed.

    • It’s not ascribing all of society’s ills to the internet; it’s focusing on those industries that are most affected by it.

  2. Wow, where to start? I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me that ascribing all of society’s ills to one cause is an oversimplification. The internet is a tool, and like any tool (except perhaps a gun), it can be used for both good and bad. Also, many of the problems discussed here started long before the internet came into wide use.

    As examples, Amazon has certainly destroyed many businesses and jobs, but Walmart did the same thing without the help of the internet. The US government’s subsidy of big agricultural firms along with NAFTA effectively destroyed the Mexican economy, no internet needed.

    A new social contract is sorely needed, but not limited to the use of technology. This book raises many important issues, and they need to be addressed holistically. Reforming the internet would be an important step, but only one of many needed.

    • It’s not ascribing all of society’s ills to the internet; it’s focusing on those industries that are most affected by it.

  3. I have to agree with Larry: This book (based on limited excerpts, natch) sounds like an overly simplistic and narrow analysis of the problems of the Internet, while ignoring any of its benefits. For example:

    “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.”

    Seriously? There are whole swathes of musicians, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who would not have had a career without the internet. Musicians like Jonathan Coulton have given away large portions of their music, gained a fanbase, and gone on to make millions by selling the remaining content, or by playing concerts that people are happy to pay for. Same thing with writers; E. L. James is probably not a great example in terms of quality, but she is a fanfic toon writer who gained popularity and turned it into a book and movie series. And filmmakers are being supported by Kickstarter and able to find a support group that never, ever would have been possible under the traditional studio system. And that’s without even talking about the benefits of online collaboration among creators from different regions or even countries, who never would have even been able to meet before.

    And the idea that it’s a “winner take all” society is ridiculous. Popularity and fandom is becoming broader and more diverse. You don’t have to be the Most Retweeted Person to have an impact. You can find those ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred people who want to follow your work, and you can interact with them on a daily basis. Artists can connect with clients for commissions. Hell, I have a friend who does paintings, and he sells prints of those from a third-party online store. He only makes a couple of hundred dollars a month, but it’s more than he ever would have made before the Internet, for paintings he does at home for fun in his spare time. The Internet has connected people in so many ways, I find it hard to imagine the argument that it’s only benefited the most popular 1%.

    • Whole swathes of…. Don’t think a couple of anecdotes compensates for the huge cuts in the number of writers earning a living, musicians able to afford playing music, and so on. Journalist jobs have been cut around the world; musicians who are selling fewer albums aren’t able to compensate for the difference by the pittance they make from streaming (and how many albums even sell more than a million units any more?); and in publishing, the mid-list is dead, with publishers only looking for big titles rather than helping build authors.

      Your friend may make a couple hundred dollars a month, and that’s great, but it’s not a career.

      I agree that the Internet has connected lots of people, but look where the money goes: look how much the people running the big companies have.

      • “And how many album even sell more than a million units any more?” Yes, that’s exactly what happens when music becomes more democratized and there is more competition. And yes, there were people who couldn’t make money as musicians before the Internet even existed. And even successful musicians were being screwed by the music industry before; it is well documented that the publishers offer bands a big advance on a new album, but then that money goes into recording costs and distribution costs and managers’ fees, and bands can have multiple successful albums and wind up worse off than when they started. I have a friend who is a music producer (yes, an actual music producer) who has told me horror stories of bands who were wildly successful and then ended up in debt just from the studio fees alone.

        But now you have sites like Loudr and Bandcamp and a dozen others, where people can put their music out essentially for free, and they can make money without paying the publishers. And sure, they’re not selling as well as Taylor Swift, but they can actually make a living at it, even by giving away large portions of their music for free. Ask any of the thousands of artists on those sites, and then go talk to people like Lyle Lovett or Prince about how the studio now owns the music they created, or how they got screwed out of royalties.

        • Musicians have been ripped off for decades, that’s true. But more competition is not making the same sized pie that’s shared among more people; the pie has shrunk drastically. In fact, in many areas – and this is one chapter of the book – overabundance actually leads to fewer sales.

          And be careful of the words you choose. Bandcamp is not “free;” it takes a cut. And musicians always have to pay “publishers;” you probably meant record labels. (Publishers control the rights held by songwriters.)

          • Maybe fewer sales are the byproduct of having a more democratized industry. I would say that a smaller pie that goes primarily to the artists is better than a larger pie that goes primarily to the music studios and copyright holders.

            And I said “essentially free”, not “free.” Again, paying a small percentage for a service is much, much better then paying the lion’s share of the revenue to producers and managers and record labels who also retain all the rights to any music you produce.

            As another example, do you think that you would be better off selling your “Taking Control of iTunes” book under the traditional publishing model? Going to a publishing company, pitching the book, getting an advance, then paying back that advance if the book undersells or if the publishing costs are too high or if they printed too many copies of the book or they had to pay extra for a second printing?

            • No, and that’s why we started this initiative back in 2003. But you don’t pay back in advance even if the book doesn’t sell.

            • But you get my point: You are no longer beholden to a publisher for an advance. The Internet has democratized the publishing process. And don’t even get me started on Amazon vs. local bookstores.

            • Why is it better? Before, when I wrote print books, I had guaranteed income with an advance. Now, I write on spec, and my income is not guaranteed. It so happens that I am doing better, but there is no guarantee that any of my books will sell enough for me to earn more than what I would have made from an advance. So I think you kind of miss understand the economics here.

            • Do you understand that most people who want to write aren’t able to get an advance from a publisher? The process of pitching a book to even get a book deal is a difficult one, and a lot of writers don’t even make it to a book deal. You’re arguing from the perspective of the minority who were able to get book deals before the Internet, but the majority of writers (or artists, or musicians) were not able to do so. The Internet provides them with an opportunity to self-promote and reach an audience that they couldn’t before.

            • And now we are back to one of the things that I, and this book, pointed out. Publishers are leaving behind the mid-list, focusing only on those authors and titles that they are sure to be able to sell. They are no longer investing in an author’s career. And self-promoting is now just part of a huge amount of noise. There is an over abundance of content making it very hard to get noticed.

            • That makes sense that publishers are focusing more on guaranteed successes, because, again, that’s what happens when there are more authors and more competition. But that’s because their business model is being supplanted by writers who are able to connect directly to their potential customers. And I can understand why that would be difficult for people who relied on the publishing model for their income, but again, that’s the tiny minority of authors who are able to make money under the new model. I have multiple friends (including myself) who have self-published books today, without having to pitch to a publisher, and were therefore (for good or bad) able to make money closer to what their work is worth.

  4. I have to agree with Larry: This book (based on limited excerpts, natch) sounds like an overly simplistic and narrow analysis of the problems of the Internet, while ignoring any of its benefits. For example:

    “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.”

    Seriously? There are whole swathes of musicians, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who would not have had a career without the internet. Musicians like Jonathan Coulton have given away large portions of their music, gained a fanbase, and gone on to make millions by selling the remaining content, or by playing concerts that people are happy to pay for. Same thing with writers; E. L. James is probably not a great example in terms of quality, but she is a fanfic toon writer who gained popularity and turned it into a book and movie series. And filmmakers are being supported by Kickstarter and able to find a support group that never, ever would have been possible under the traditional studio system. And that’s without even talking about the benefits of online collaboration among creators from different regions or even countries, who never would have even been able to meet before.

    And the idea that it’s a “winner take all” society is ridiculous. Popularity and fandom is becoming broader and more diverse. You don’t have to be the Most Retweeted Person to have an impact. You can find those ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred people who want to follow your work, and you can interact with them on a daily basis. Artists can connect with clients for commissions. Hell, I have a friend who does paintings, and he sells prints of those from a third-party online store. He only makes a couple of hundred dollars a month, but it’s more than he ever would have made before the Internet, for paintings he does at home for fun in his spare time. The Internet has connected people in so many ways, I find it hard to imagine the argument that it’s only benefited the most popular 1%.

    • Whole swathes of…. Don’t think a couple of anecdotes compensates for the huge cuts in the number of writers earning a living, musicians able to afford playing music, and so on. Journalist jobs have been cut around the world; musicians who are selling fewer albums aren’t able to compensate for the difference by the pittance they make from streaming (and how many albums even sell more than a million units any more?); and in publishing, the mid-list is dead, with publishers only looking for big titles rather than helping build authors.

      Your friend may make a couple hundred dollars a month, and that’s great, but it’s not a career.

      I agree that the Internet has connected lots of people, but look where the money goes: look how much the people running the big companies have.

      • “And how many album even sell more than a million units any more?” Yes, that’s exactly what happens when music becomes more democratized and there is more competition. And yes, there were people who couldn’t make money as musicians before the Internet even existed. And even successful musicians were being screwed by the music industry before; it is well documented that the publishers offer bands a big advance on a new album, but then that money goes into recording costs and distribution costs and managers’ fees, and bands can have multiple successful albums and wind up worse off than when they started. I have a friend who is a music producer (yes, an actual music producer) who has told me horror stories of bands who were wildly successful and then ended up in debt just from the studio fees alone.

        But now you have sites like Loudr and Bandcamp and a dozen others, where people can put their music out essentially for free, and they can make money without paying the publishers. And sure, they’re not selling as well as Taylor Swift, but they can actually make a living at it, even by giving away large portions of their music for free. Ask any of the thousands of artists on those sites, and then go talk to people like Lyle Lovett or Prince about how the studio now owns the music they created, or how they got screwed out of royalties.

        • Musicians have been ripped off for decades, that’s true. But more competition is not making the same sized pie that’s shared among more people; the pie has shrunk drastically. In fact, in many areas – and this is one chapter of the book – overabundance actually leads to fewer sales.

          And be careful of the words you choose. Bandcamp is not “free;” it takes a cut. And musicians always have to pay “publishers;” you probably meant record labels. (Publishers control the rights held by songwriters.)

          • Maybe fewer sales are the byproduct of having a more democratized industry. I would say that a smaller pie that goes primarily to the artists is better than a larger pie that goes primarily to the music studios and copyright holders.

            And I said “essentially free”, not “free.” Again, paying a small percentage for a service is much, much better then paying the lion’s share of the revenue to producers and managers and record labels who also retain all the rights to any music you produce.

            As another example, do you think that you would be better off selling your “Taking Control of iTunes” book under the traditional publishing model? Going to a publishing company, pitching the book, getting an advance, then paying back that advance if the book undersells or if the publishing costs are too high or if they printed too many copies of the book or they had to pay extra for a second printing?

            • No, and that’s why we started this initiative back in 2003. But you don’t pay back in advance even if the book doesn’t sell.

            • But you get my point: You are no longer beholden to a publisher for an advance. The Internet has democratized the publishing process. And don’t even get me started on Amazon vs. local bookstores.

            • Why is it better? Before, when I wrote print books, I had guaranteed income with an advance. Now, I write on spec, and my income is not guaranteed. It so happens that I am doing better, but there is no guarantee that any of my books will sell enough for me to earn more than what I would have made from an advance. So I think you kind of miss understand the economics here.

            • Do you understand that most people who want to write aren’t able to get an advance from a publisher? The process of pitching a book to even get a book deal is a difficult one, and a lot of writers don’t even make it to a book deal. You’re arguing from the perspective of the minority who were able to get book deals before the Internet, but the majority of writers (or artists, or musicians) were not able to do so. The Internet provides them with an opportunity to self-promote and reach an audience that they couldn’t before.

            • And now we are back to one of the things that I, and this book, pointed out. Publishers are leaving behind the mid-list, focusing only on those authors and titles that they are sure to be able to sell. They are no longer investing in an author’s career. And self-promoting is now just part of a huge amount of noise. There is an over abundance of content making it very hard to get noticed.

            • That makes sense that publishers are focusing more on guaranteed successes, because, again, that’s what happens when there are more authors and more competition. But that’s because their business model is being supplanted by writers who are able to connect directly to their potential customers. And I can understand why that would be difficult for people who relied on the publishing model for their income, but again, that’s the tiny minority of authors who are able to make money under the new model. I have multiple friends (including myself) who have self-published books today, without having to pitch to a publisher, and were therefore (for good or bad) able to make money closer to what their work is worth.

  5. Sorry, my blog theme doesn’t really handle long threads, so I’m replying not to your last comment directly.

    There aren’t more authors, there are fewer sales. There have always been far more authors than publishers could publish, and there have always been vanity presses. But sales are down so much, that publishers, now run by bean counters, aren’t investing in the future. It’s the same with record labels; they’re no longer doing A&R, they’re just looking for guaranteed hits.

    Aside from a handful of anecdotal self-published successes, the average author makes something like $1000 from his or her writing. So you may think that’s fine, if it’s just something you do on the side, but if you’re a professional, then you’re out of luck. (Unless you have a teaching job to fund your living while you’re not writing.)

    I really think you’d find this book interesting, and some of the statistics the author presents would surprise you.

    • I don’t doubt that the book is full of dire statistics; however, I get the impression that those statistics are being interpreted in such a way as to make their conclusion seem as bad as possible. For example, take your “average author makes $1000” statistic above: I’m sure you could draw a graph of the average salary for an author in 1950, and compare it to now, and then conclude that the Internet has had a disastrous effect on author’s salaries. Or you could understand that authors back in the 1950s had to go through a publisher, and there were no options for self-publishing, so the only authors who made money back then were the most talented (or the most well-connected), and many other writers were never given the opportunity to grow because they did not have any chance of receiving financial compensation for their work.

      And now, where the process is democratized and more people have an opportunity to write (anecdotally, I have multiple friends who make money from writing, which was not the case 20 years ago), of course you’re going to have a lower average salary, because there are some people whose writing may only be worth $1000. And while that may seem like heresy to an author who is used to getting advances from publishers, you have to understand that for some people, it’s worth it to be published, and to be making something from what they love to do. In the past, maybe you had to choose writing as a career, but that is no longer the case. And maybe the pie is shrinking (though I sincerely doubt that), but if authors are getting 90% of the revenue now, instead of 50% going to publishers, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

      Unfortunately, based on what I read about the book, I doubt that the other examples would be any more convincing. I understand that the author feels an attachment to Rochester and the thousands of Kodak jobs there, but Instagram didn’t kill Kodak. And photography is clearly more accessible to the modern consumer than it has ever been in the past. So 130,000 people at a Kodak factory lost their jobs…and 130,000,000 people can instantly see the results of their pictures (and share them with friends) without having to pay a specialist to perform alchemy on a fragile piece of film in a room bathed in red light. The local bookstore went out of business…but instead of having to go down and ask the local seller his opinion about The Internet Is Not The Answer (if he’s even read the book), I can instantly go online and find hundreds of reviews that point out problems with the author’s logic and conclusions. (One such review is here: http://www.popmatters.com/review/191048-the-internet-is-not-the-answer-by-andrew-keen/)

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to music that would have been rejected by the record labels, read books published by friends who would never have gotten a book deal, and look at pictures taken by people who don’t have to buy a new roll of film every time they finish taking 24 pictures. Yeah, I think we’re much better off.

  6. Sorry, my blog theme doesn’t really handle long threads, so I’m replying not to your last comment directly.

    There aren’t more authors, there are fewer sales. There have always been far more authors than publishers could publish, and there have always been vanity presses. But sales are down so much, that publishers, now run by bean counters, aren’t investing in the future. It’s the same with record labels; they’re no longer doing A&R, they’re just looking for guaranteed hits.

    Aside from a handful of anecdotal self-published successes, the average author makes something like $1000 from his or her writing. So you may think that’s fine, if it’s just something you do on the side, but if you’re a professional, then you’re out of luck. (Unless you have a teaching job to fund your living while you’re not writing.)

    I really think you’d find this book interesting, and some of the statistics the author presents would surprise you.

    • I don’t doubt that the book is full of dire statistics; however, I get the impression that those statistics are being interpreted in such a way as to make their conclusion seem as bad as possible. For example, take your “average author makes $1000” statistic above: I’m sure you could draw a graph of the average salary for an author in 1950, and compare it to now, and then conclude that the Internet has had a disastrous effect on author’s salaries. Or you could understand that authors back in the 1950s had to go through a publisher, and there were no options for self-publishing, so the only authors who made money back then were the most talented (or the most well-connected), and many other writers were never given the opportunity to grow because they did not have any chance of receiving financial compensation for their work.

      And now, where the process is democratized and more people have an opportunity to write (anecdotally, I have multiple friends who make money from writing, which was not the case 20 years ago), of course you’re going to have a lower average salary, because there are some people whose writing may only be worth $1000. And while that may seem like heresy to an author who is used to getting advances from publishers, you have to understand that for some people, it’s worth it to be published, and to be making something from what they love to do. In the past, maybe you had to choose writing as a career, but that is no longer the case. And maybe the pie is shrinking (though I sincerely doubt that), but if authors are getting 90% of the revenue now, instead of 50% going to publishers, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

      Unfortunately, based on what I read about the book, I doubt that the other examples would be any more convincing. I understand that the author feels an attachment to Rochester and the thousands of Kodak jobs there, but Instagram didn’t kill Kodak. And photography is clearly more accessible to the modern consumer than it has ever been in the past. So 130,000 people at a Kodak factory lost their jobs…and 130,000,000 people can instantly see the results of their pictures (and share them with friends) without having to pay a specialist to perform alchemy on a fragile piece of film in a room bathed in red light. The local bookstore went out of business…but instead of having to go down and ask the local seller his opinion about The Internet Is Not The Answer (if he’s even read the book), I can instantly go online and find hundreds of reviews that point out problems with the author’s logic and conclusions. (One such review is here: http://www.popmatters.com/review/191048-the-internet-is-not-the-answer-by-andrew-keen/)

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to music that would have been rejected by the record labels, read books published by friends who would never have gotten a book deal, and look at pictures taken by people who don’t have to buy a new roll of film every time they finish taking 24 pictures. Yeah, I think we’re much better off.

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