The Internet Is NOT the Answer by Andrew Keen (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), 273 pages.
You can learn a lot by changing the context on an issue or problem. So if, as this book says, the Internet is NOT the answer, what was the question in the first place?
Before I reveal what I think the question that Andrew Keen is asking might be, let me back up a bit. Generally, I like books that question technology and the role it plays in our society. Having made a good living in technology (telecommunications and the Internet in particular), I feel that I have a vested interest in what people are saying about my line of work, the same way that power plant operators might care about how the general public feels about coal. I’ve already looked at Cory Doctorow’s book on intellectual property, so I read this looking to see how they might relate.
But Keen is more focused on the role the Internet plays today in people’s everyday lives. His position is spelled out right up front in the preface (page x). Not only has the Internet (I still use the “capital I”) spawned monopolists like Google and Amazon, Keen says, but it also:
- Encourages mob rule instead of democracy.
- Intensifies the “war on women” and other minorities instead of tolerance.
- Fosters a selfie-centered narcissistic world of voyeurs instead of a renaissance.
- Enriches a few white males in Silicon Valley instead of spreading the wealth.
- Compounds people’s rage instead of promoting their happiness.
The rest of the book is devoted to marshalling arguments to support his positions. It’s not hard to do, of course, because the real world exhibits a remarkable degree of plasticity when it comes to looking at a set of facts and going “so here’s what it means.” There is a great book called Historians’ Fallacies by David Hackett Fischer where at one point he mentions a law against littering in old New York that sets out very severe penalties. This one fact can be used to (a) support the idea that the streets were spotless and clean and they wanted to make sure they stayed that way, or (b) support the idea that the streets were knee-deep in trash because this severe law was needed in the first place.
This does not mean the Keen’s arguments are without merit or that the Internet has ushered in an age of wonderful prosperity and justice for all. It hasn’t. But, as I’ve said again and again, once things change, they don’t change back.
Keen’s best line is on page 188 during a discussion of Uber, the service that summons an un-taxi Uber-service-driver from a smartphone app, a service that is giving registered and regulated taxi drivers a lot of competition. Services like Uber, says Keen, quoting George Packer, solve “all the problems of being twenty years old with cash in hand.” It’s one thing to need a ride home from the club when you’re tipsy, but is Uber going to wait in a line at the airport and help you and your family with your bags? Maybe not.
And it’s certainly true that there’s little chance that another Amazon or Facebook or YouTube or Google will come along: the heady days of Internet pioneering are all but over. But all might not be lost: MySpace got blindsided by Facebook, and kids today have moved on to Vine and Instagram.
So if, as the title says, the Internet is NOT the answer, then what is the question? Keen says the question (page ix) is along the lines of “wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the world could communicate directly with everyone else?” Then everyone would have a voice and equality would reign.
It’s true enough that the Internet falls short. Countries censor the Internet routinely, and the race for the latest gadget leaves a lot of people in the dust. But why is this the Internet’s fault?
Let me, as a kind of “Internet insider,” try to put some of this in perspective.
Keen is a consummate hand-wringer when it comes to the impact of the Internet and technology (he often blurs any distinction between the two) on our daily lives. A large section of the book (especially pages 76-86) is taken up with the demise of Kodak in the face of the rise of digital photography and uploaded cell phone “selfies.” The once-thriving city of Rochester, New York, home to Kodak, is now struggling with these effects and striving to find a substitute employer to stave off complete chaos and bankruptcy.
But isn’t this story also about how the dunderheaded executives at Kodak were slow to embrace or adapt to changes in the photography industry? They invented the digital camera and then didn’t want to tell anyone because they might mess up their 90% share of the film industry. But wasn’t an even bigger mistake made when Kodak passed on becoming the “official film” of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and letting Fuji Film grab all the glory?
Were the Kodak folks any worse than the executives at Xerox who sent the inventor of the laser printer off to Palo Alto into a sort of corporate exile because the Connecticut headquarters guys were only concerned with copier sales? (The way that Xerox “fumbled the future,” as one book put it, is legendary. One way or another, Xerox gave up the rights to the PC, the mouse, computer networks, network protocols, graphical displays, windowed processes, and more…all while managing not to make a dime from any of them.)
And what about the city of Rochester? Did they think Kodak was the only company that could open offices and factories? All they needed to become Flint, Michigan was to invite Roger Moore to visit and make a movie. When you put all your eggs in one huge basket, what do you do when the bottom falls out of the basket?
The truth is that business has always turned over, sometimes slowly, often quickly. When I used to teach this stuff, I always pointed out that no railroad became an airline, although the railroads had plenty of expertise in transportation. Why should it be any different today? Why should print publishers flourish in an online world, even if they know a lot about authors and marketing? In the 1980s I read that the list of the Fortune 500 companies turned over 50% with each generation. If it was that fast then, why should the “post-Internet” world be any different now?
Given my background, you can see I’m not an Internet basher, but I’m not an uncritical cheerleader either, especially when you compare the promise of the early Internet and Web with the mind-numbing content of the bandwidth hogs of today. As I said at the start, a context shift can be revealing, and Keen does provide a good context shift: are we really better off than we were before we started the Internet journey?
We had a lively debate at work this week about a classic problem involving books on a shelf. If you read it as straight “word math” problem, you’ll get the wrong answer. But if you shift the context to a problem of visualization, the answer is easily grasped and even trivial. Sometimes I think the shift involving the Internet is from “I wish they’d make a network that could survive a nuclear bomb. We’ll call it the Internet” to “I wish they’d drop a nuclear bomb on the Internet. We’ll call it the end of annoyingly cute cat videos.” It all depends on how you look at it.