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The Internet Is Not The Answer

Andrew Keen

Don't wait for permission.

The future is already here - just not very evenly distributed.

Online commerce has very slim margins. Amazon able to negotiate favourable discounts with UPS, giving it a financial advantage over competitors.

Amazon a job-killer, not a job-creator. BAM retailers emply average 47 people for every $10m sales - Amazon employs 14.

Google's power increases every time we use it. Every search and every click gives Google a bit more information on which to improve search results.

Zuckerberg insists that everyone should have one, authentic identity on Net, and "having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

"We are asked to perform for our friends, to create things they like."

1989 Kodak employed 145,000 people and was worth $31 billion. Its decline has been even more precipitous than that of the record industry. Slogan "You press the button, we do the rest". But there is no longer any "rest" to do.

We are taking huge number photos - 350 billion in 2011, 1.5 trillion in 2013. Over Thanksgiving 2013 200 Instagram moments were being posted every second.

Clayton Christensen's idea of "innovator's dilemma" which implied an orderly succession of new inventions. Larry Downes and Paul Nunes in Big Bang Disruption suggest that this has been replaced with the "innovator's disaster" - citing Kodak as prime example - a whole city (Rochester, NY) gutted by bankruptcy.

The second half of C20 was a middle-class world built by state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways and credible news agencies.

Author is really, really pissed at selfies: "... everything has degenerated into the intimate and self-obsessed. And I, for one, don't like what I'm seeing."

Popcorn Time - Napster for movies - decentralised peer-to-peer films.


It's funny to think the act of hailing a cab has come to symbolise the forces reshaping the global economy in the 21st century. But that's exactly what's represented by the growing backlash against private car-hire company Uber from the taxi industry.

Taxis have been disrupted by a fleet of iPhone-toting 'transportation entrepreneurs', who charge an average of $1.45 per kilometre travelled compared with $3 on the meter in a taxi.

As consumers, we're willingly participating in the internet shake-up of bloated, inefficient industries. First it was the recording industry, then the media, then retailing and soon, maybe, with the rise of peer-to-peer lending, finance.

Drones, 3D-printing, Tinder dating, Bitcoin and missions to Mars: disruption is taking place everywhere at an accelerating pace. But it's not without a cost, argues author Andrew Keen in The Internet Is Not the Answer.

The price is lost jobs and shrinking earning potential as industries are turned upside down. It is also the encroachment on privacy as data about us is fed into algorithms for marketing and other purposes. And it is the loss of control as a small number of extremely powerful internet companies take over our online existence.

Oxfam last month calculated that the world's richest 1% now own nearly half of all global wealth. Keen's thesis is that the network effect of the internet has accelerated inequality, a far cry from the democratising effect the web's creators dreamt of.

'Silicon Valley's guilded class,' writes Keen, 'believe that the internet, as a hyper-efficient and so-called frictionless platform for buyers and sellers, is the solution to what they call the 'inefficiencies' of the 20th-century economy.'

Billionaires such as Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg form a libertarian tech elite increasingly dictating the terms and reaping massive profits but in many cases delivering little economic value in the countries where they operate.

You could say that Keen, a failed tech entrepreneur who previously lamented the internet's influence on the culture industry in The Cult of the Amateur, is just envious of the Valley's success. Or perhaps he's put his finger on something a growing number of us are feeling as the influence of the internet becomes more pronounced. Disruption, after all, is fine until it's your livelihood that's affected.

After taxis, what's next? Keen reckons it'll be the tertiary education sector, which is threatened by so-called massive open online courses (Moocs). It's already possible to unofficially take courses at some of the world's top universities, logging in from your laptop. What happens when employers start favouring candidates educated in the world of Moocs over those trained by our own universities?

What's Keen's answer? Look to history. Internet billionaires Sean Parker, Peter Thiel and Uber's Travis Kalanick, he says, 'have much in common with the capitalist robber barons of the first industrial revolution'. What happened to them? Like Standard Oil, many of them were legislated out of existence when they became too dominant, as many feel their digital-age equivalents - Google, Facebook and Apple - are getting.

Is it time to break up Google and rein in Apple - or at least make them pay appropriate taxes in the countries in which they make their money? Might Uber be forced to act more like a regular taxi company, and would that be a bad thing?

But Keen and a growing number of critics who profess to love the internet are asking for something deeper - for the Silicon Valley elites, the one-percenters who want to win at all costs, to take some responsibility for the jobs they eliminate, the industries they make obsolete and the lives they disrupt. Don’t hold your breath.

There's one relatively simple - but surprisingly difficult - thing we can do to hold on to our identity in this hyper-connected world: say 'no'. We can be brave and opt out, swipe left, reject the terms and conditions and set the permissions before they are permanently set for us.

More books on Computers


During every minute of every day of 2014, according to Andrew Keen’s new book, the world’s internet users – all three billion of them – sent 204m emails, uploaded 72 hours of YouTube video, undertook 4m Google searches, shared 2.46m pieces of Facebook content, published 277,000 tweets, posted 216,000 new photos on Instagram and spent $83,000 on Amazon.

By any measure, for a network that has existed recognisably for barely 20 years (the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was released in 1993), those are astonishing numbers: the internet, plainly, has transformed all our lives, making so much of what we do every day – communicating, shopping, finding, watching, booking – unimaginably easier than it was. A Pew survey in the United States found last year that 90% of Americans believed the internet had been good for them.

So it takes a brave man to argue that there is another side to the internet; that stratospheric numbers and undreamed-of personal convenience are not the whole story. Keen (who was once so sure the internet was the answer that he sank all he had into a startup) is now a thoughtful and erudite contrarian who believes the internet is actually doing untold damage. The net, he argues, was meant to be “power to the people, a platform for equality”: an open, decentralised, democratising technology that liberates as it empowers as it informs.

Instead, it has handed extraordinary power and wealth to a tiny handful of people, while simultaneously, for the rest of us, compounding and often aggravating existing inequalities – cultural, social and economic – whenever and wherever it has found them. Individually, it may work wonders for us. Collectively, it’s doing us no good at all. “It was supposed to be win-win,” Keen declares. “The network’s users were supposed to be its beneficiaries. But in a lot of ways, we are its victims.”

This is not, Keen acknowledges, a very popular view, especially in Silicon Valley, where he has spent the best part of the past 30-odd years after an uneventful north London childhood (the family was in the rag trade). But The Internet is Not the Answer – Keen’s third book (the first questioned the value of user-generated content, the second the point of social media; you get where he’s coming from) – has been “remarkably well received”, he says. “I’m not alone in making these points. Moderate opinion is starting to see that this is a problem.”

What seems most unarguable is that, whatever else it has done, the internet – after its early years as a network for academics and researchers from which vulgar commercial activity was, in effect, outlawed – has been largely about the money. The US government’s decision, in 1991, to throw the nascent network open to private enterprise amounted, as one leading (and now eye-wateringly wealthy) Californian venture capitalist has put it, to “the largest creation of legal wealth in the history of the planet”.

The numbers Keen reels off are eye-popping: Google, which now handles 3.5bn searches daily and controls more than 90% of the market in some countries, including Britain, was valued at $400bn last year – more than seven times General Motors, which employs nearly four times more people. Its two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are worth $30bn apiece. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, head of the world’s second biggest internet site – used by 19% of people in the world, half of whom access it six days a week or more – is sitting on a similar personal pile, while at $190bn in July last year, his company was worth more than Coca-Cola, Disney and AT&T.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon also has $30bn in his bank account. And even more recent online ventures look to be headed the same way: Uber, a five-year-old startup employing about 1,000 people and once succinctly described as “software that eats taxis”, was valued last year at more than $18bn – roughly the same as Hertz and Avis combined. The 700-staff lodging rental site Airbnb was valued at $10bn in February last year, not far off half as much as the Hilton group, which owns nearly 4,000 hotels and employs 150,000 people. The messaging app WhatsApp, bought by Facebook for $19bn, employs just 55, while the payroll of Snapchat – which turned down an offer of $3bn – numbers barely 20.

Part of the problem here, argues Keen, is that the digital economy is, by its nature, winner-takes-all. “There’s no inevitable or conspiratorial logic here; no one really knew it would happen,” he says. “There are just certain structural qualities that mean the internet lends itself to monopolies. The internet is a perfect global platform for free-market capitalism – a pure, frictionless, borderless economy … It’s a libertarian’s wet dream. Digital Milton Friedman.” Nor are those monopolies confined to just one business. Keen cites San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit’s incisive take on Google: imagine it is 100 years ago, and the post office, the phone company, the public libraries, the printing houses, Ordnance Survey maps and the cinemas were all controlled by the same secretive and unaccountable organisation. Plus, he adds, almost as an afterthought: “Google doesn’t just own the post office – it has the right to open everyone’s letters.”

This, Keen argues, is the net economy’s natural tendency: “Google is the search and information monopoly and the largest advertising company in history. It is incredibly strong, joining up the dots across more and more industries. Uber’s about being the transport monopoly; Airbnb the hospitality monopoly; TaskRabbit the labour monopoly. These are all, ultimately, monopoly plays – that’s the logic. And that should worry people.”

It is already having consequences, Keen says, in the real world. Take – surely the most glaring example – Amazon. Keen’s book cites a 2013 survey by the US Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that while it takes, on average, a regular bricks-and-mortar store 47 employees to generate $10m in turnover, Bezos’s many-tentacled, all-consuming and completely ruthless “Everything Store” achieves the same with 14. Amazon, that report concluded, probably destroyed 27,000 US jobs in 2012.

“And we love it,” Keen says. “We all use Amazon. We strike this Faustian deal. It’s ultra-convenient, fantastic service, great interface, absurdly cheap prices. But what’s the cost? Truly appalling working conditions; we know this. Deep hostility to unions. A massive impact on independent retail; in books, savage bullying of publishers. This is back to the early years of the 19th century. But we’re seduced into thinking it’s good; Amazon has told us what we want to hear. Bezos says, ‘This is about you, the consumer.’ The problem is, we’re not just consumers. We’re citizens, too.”

One chapter of the book is devoted to Keen’s lament for Rochester, the home town of Eastman Kodak – a company that in 1989, the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, was worth $31bn and employed 145,000 people. It filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Just the previous year, as a timeline at its headquarters records, 380bn photographs were taken around the world – 11% of all the photographs ever taken – and the number of images hosted by Facebook (a business whose model is the monetisation of friendship and whose product is, essentially, us and our lives) was approaching 500bn. Meanwhile, 55,000 Kodak pensioners are out of luck.

Silicon Valley talks about the digital economy creatively “disrupting” what went before; Keen thinks a better word might be “destruction”. He insists he is “not a Luddite. I have no objection to the destruction of the old – providing there’s something to take its place. This isn’t a technological issue; it’s a question about the world we want to live in. Look, I’ve sat in the back of enough dirty cabs and been insulted by enough drivers to know the taxi business is very far from perfect. It needs to modernise, become more accountable.

“But Uber? It’s a platform. They say everyone can become a driver, but are these jobs? My problem with Uber is not that it’s new, not even that it’s sweeping away a whole old system – it’s that it’s replacing it with … nothing. This is the gig economy. The so-called ‘sharing’ economy is actually dominated by a few companies, worth tens of billions of dollars. Do we really want to live as a precariat, perpetually selling ourselves on one network or other? Take it further: can the internet really replace healthcare, education, government? Can teachers and lawyers and doctors be replaced by a tiny group of online superstars? Some people think they can. They think the internet is the answer. I think the internet is more like the question for our 21st-century future.”

Keen confesses to being “perhaps a bit of a content snob, although only in the sense that I value skilled labour and appreciate good content”. He is, he says, particularly concerned by the impact of the internet’s “culture of free” on the creative and media industries. “If there’s no exchange of cash for your article, your photograph, your movie, your book, your song, how else are you supposed to make money?” he asks. “It’s not an original point, sure. But it’s been almost 50 years since the first computer-to-computer communication now; 25 years since the birth of the web. We’ve constantly been told: wait, don’t worry, it’s a young medium, something will emerge … But nothing has. For creatives, this has been a disaster.”

The number of photographers’ jobs in the US has fallen by 43%, he notes; the number of newspaper editorial jobs by 27%. He cites US singer-songwriter Ellen Shipley, who calculated in 2012 that one of her most popular tracks was streamed 3.1m times on the internet radio Pandora, for which she received a total of $31.93, and points to the 45% of revenue skimmed off all independently produced content on YouTube. Meanwhile, the internet’s inherent “1% model” is functioning perfectly: in 2013, Keen notes, the top 1% of music artists received 77% of all artist-recorded music income. Blockbusters do brilliantly; most of the rest withers.

“These new monopolistic platforms are more powerful, more wealthy and fundamentally indifferent to creativity,” he argues. “So I think when we look back, we might see that what we have now is actually lot worse than what we started with. Maybe, even, big media is not as evil as everyone makes out. Publishing houses, record labels, the Guardian – how much money have you guys lost over the past few years? – were and are made up of people who care about quality content, and they’re being swept away. We’re destroying the old, and what are we replacing it with? Anonymous people on Reddit spreading rumours, angry people on Twitter, celebrities online with millions of followers, selling their brand?”

Rather than encouraging creativity, stimulating competition, creating jobs, distributing wealth and promoting equality, Keen argues, the internet is in fact doing the reverse. Socially and culturally, it’s the same: “Rather than creating more democracy,” he writes in the introduction to The Internet is Not the Answer, “it’s empowering the rule of the mob. Rather than encouraging tolerance, it’s unleashed such a distasteful war on women that many no longer feel welcome on the network … Rather than making us happy, it’s compounding our rage.”

Not, he says again, that he would ever try to argue that the web has not helped us to communicate: “Even I wouldn’t dare do that. There’s obviously a huge amount of very real communication on the web.” But he does have his issues with social media.

If the “winnowing away” of 19th- and 20th-century industrial society is producing an “ever more atomised, more fragmented, more individualised” world in which “we are all basically our own brands – having to invent and reinvent ourselves because the old associations, the old certainties, the old identities are vanishing”, then, Keen argues, the internet is the perfect platform for us to do that. “That’s what we do, distribute our brands,” Keen says. “With the twist, of course, that in this particular economy, we’re also the product. The illusion of social media is that we want to be social; the reality is we’re selling ourselves. Or, at least, we think we are: actually, it’s selling us. We’re all working for Facebook and Google.”

What about social media’s role in organising protest and as a catalyst for change – in, for example, the Occupy movement, or the Arab Spring? Even there, Keen has his doubts. “It may have helped undermine old autocracies, but now it’s descending into chaos and warring tribes just like on the ground. We’ve thrown out the information gatekeepers and what we’ve got is propaganda.” During the July 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he points out, Israel was employing 400 students to run Facebook pages in five languages, while Hamas’s military wing, al-Qassam, was busily tweeting its line to thousands of followers.

Not much on social media is truly social, he argues. “We personalise,” he says. “So, you know, it’s kind of social, but in a very personalised way … One of the most troubling things for me about social media is the lack of diversity. It’s like going to some expensive US college. You only meet people like yourself.” Then there’s the whole privacy issue: “The internet is becoming structurally parochial, like a village. So not only does everyone from the NSA to the big internet companies know pretty much everything there is to know about us, but we’re all clustering in these tighter and tighter little ideological and cultural networks. There’s no serendipity, no stumbling upon random people or random ideas. Everything is pre-ordained; you’re served with what they know will suit you.”

Plus, of course, the internet is increasingly full of angry people. “It’s not that the net made us angry,” says Keen, “but it has become the funnel for our anger. We’re all now in the business of blaming someone else, we’re all obsessed with the meaningless indiscretions of strangers, and we have a platform for it. The internet’s a really great tool for persecuting people we don’t know, who we’re utterly indifferent to, about stuff that is essentially irrelevant. Stuff that, in a pub, we’d forget about in 30 seconds.”

Look, he says, at Justine Sacco, the PR executive famously shamed – and fired – after tweeting: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” In a pub, says Keen, “We’d say, ‘That’s a stupid thing to say,’ and move on. We wouldn’t throw her out, complain to her employers, get her fired, put her in the stocks to be publicly pelted …”

So if the internet is actually the question, what’s the answer? A different internet altogether, Keen believes. Socially, he thinks, we’re all going to have to become “a whole lot more tolerant. Get over this fury at strangers.” But mainly, he thinks the time has come for “the regulators and the entrepreneurs to understand that they have to work together. That this conversation really has to happen; that we have to realise the internet has not been an unmitigated success.”

Because there is, he believes, something “quite disturbing, really quite problematic, going on at the root of our culture about this networked world that we’re slipping and sliding our way into. About how we engage with other people; how we think about society, politics, values. There has been a profound, structural change in the way we all do business: personally, socially, culturally and certainly economically. A very major shift in how we organise society. And we all need to wake up to that.”

(A response)

The internet is not the answer to any of your questions. It’s a depressing cybersphere saturated with images of Kim Kardashian, inane chatter about Instagramming someone else’s #brunch, shady organisations that gather your data before selling it to people who use it to hone their advertising techniques, and all-powerful websites like Amazon operating at record efficiency while treating workers like machinery. It’s a cut-throat, winner-takes-all marketplace where everyone has a personal brand and nobody gets paid for their creative output. It’s a money-spinning, cynical, anger-driven Twitter mob who will take you down if you so much as express the beginnings of an opinion.

God, the internet is awful. Why haven’t you clicked off this article, closed your laptop and left that artisanal coffee shop already, free to pursue your nobler dreams?

This was the general consensus at an event I attended last week to help launch Andrew Keen’s new and much celebrated book, The Internet is Not the Answer. In a nutshell the outlook was this: Facebook and Twitter are bad for your mental health; Uber and Airbnb are taking good hardworking people’s jobs; Reddit is replacing news publications with rumours (and nobody minds); and Google – which controls nearly 90% of the market in Britain – is doing all sorts of underhand things with your information that nobody quite knows about and you probably wouldn’t even want to if you did.

In a sense, I have to agree. I have never gained any valuable insights into the world by scrolling through my Facebook feed; “Laura is lovin Ibiza with the best boyf in the world” has not added to my consciousness in the same way as reading a passage from Plato’s Symposium. And yes, I do find it vaguely terrifying that if I mention Topshop jeans in an email to a friend, I then find them advertised on screen when I next search for something on Google. I’m ready to agree that Spotify doesn’t pay its featured artists adequately, and that Uber has gone down badly with anyone who drives a black cab around London.

These are all obvious surface problems with the online world. People’s social lives are constructed into little media-friendly facades – but then it never was the done thing to reply to “How are you?” with a long list of everything from your fear of open spaces to your grandmother’s haemorrhoids. Reddit is full of rumour-mongering – but then gossip has always existed in the real world too. People are losing their jobs left and right to robots and algorithms – but such is and always has been the way of technological progress.

As someone who was once memorably told by a fellow Twitter user that he wanted to “shove a rocket up [my] vagina”, I never really imagined myself arguing against the claim that the internet is not the answer. Scrolling through listicles on BuzzFeed hasn’t widened my knowledge base, getting regularly insulted across every social media platform hasn’t bolstered my self-esteem, and every time I read about another celebrity’s supposedly deficient “bikini bod”, I feel genuinely depressed. But there is one major thing that I owe the internet: my career.

And that’s why I have a fundamental problem with the latest fashionable claim that the internet systematically ruined our lives and society, that we all sleepwalked into a hyper-connected dystopia. It may be an often irritating, frustrating place full of raging Twitter users, but it’s a much more meritocratic one than the society I see outside my window. Interesting content gets shared between people on social media, regardless of who produced it, with no connections needed.

If you grew up, as I did, in a single-parent family in the north-east, hundreds of miles from anywhere the media pays attention to, you can still create yourself a platform and promote it on a more or less equal footing with someone doing the same thing in a boarding school whose parents are shacked up in a £3m house. Not every worthy online venture is a success, of course, but a lot are – and many attract the attention of publishers, talent scouts, agents and record labels.

Andrew Keen’s book rails against the supposed loss of creativity, but writers, musicians and artists now make their money in other ways. They are paid less for their content directly: often, articles and songs have to be given away for free. But real-life experiences now come at a premium. Concert tickets can sell for hundreds. Speaking engagements are lucrative. While unpaid internships and parental connections are more important in the outside world than ever, all you need in the digital age is an internet connection to have a chance at making it. With access to the world wide web, a person is no longer trapped at the bottom of the social ladder with no way up in sight. It’s a chance, not a guarantee – but it’s something where there once was nothing but luck.

Corporations that eat up small businesses and abuse their employees are not a problem with the internet; they are a problem with capitalism. The cybersphere that privileges Google and Amazon is a reflection of our existing society, rather than a gross addition to it. Keen argues that the most important thing to do is to take control of the internet, and impose sensible restrictions on it, while in actual fact it’s the bankers and tax dodgers in the real world (hello, HSBC) who need to be brought into line. The online world can wait.

The United Nations declared internet access a human right four years ago because it recognised that the information and opportunities are socially and economically important. Of course, the internet may not look like the answer to someone already at the top, comfortably evangelising about the mistakes of Mark Zuckerberg. But for those at the bottom, it’s not just an answer – it’s a lifeline.

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