Thursday, November 8, 2018

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

“Surveillance is the internet’s main business”

Andrew Keen is angry. He hates what the internet has done to us. His hatred is thoroughly developed, and morphs into a totally rational, historical conclusion: this internet age is no different than feudal society or the era of Trusts 150 years ago. The inequality, the fantasy worlds of wealth, the hubris, the arrogance, the selfish navel gazing – all repeating before our Google-Glassed eyes. It’s a dark truth he explores with seemingly thousands of aspects and examples. The pacing is consistent and blistering.

He spends a lot of time and effort mourning the passing of Kodak, which worked at perfecting film. Today we don’t care much about photo quality; we just post photos of next to nothing, in their billions. But Kodak is hardly a poster child. The same can be said for numerous other formerly precious legacy systems. In the sixties, it was all about sound quality. The measure of your household was in your stereo components. Today, we accept lousy mp3 quality over pathetic earplugs without a second thought. Our appreciation and priorities change, and the internet era is no different.

But Keen seems to live in an imaginary world that used to have full employment, where everyone was polite, civil and honest, and trolls hid in English woods. The truth is, the internet simply exposes more of our inherent, narcissistic, selfish, self-centered and shortsighted selves. Greed and theft are not proprietary to internet entrepreneurs. The whole basis for the American economy is smuggling and theft, as in my review of the superlative Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America.. Apple hiding billions from the taxman is nothing new. Keen comes to the same conclusion by the end of the book.

He is wrong about our knowledge of history too. Keen trots out the canard about millennials and history: how they don’t mix. Millennials live in the present only, and history as recent as the Berlin Wall is otherworldy if known at all. But it has always been this way. Keen says he is accused of elitism, and justifiably. He is better educated, more perceptive and analytical than the hoi polloi he defends. They have never put things in historical perspective, and claiming the internet has taken this away from them by keeping everything short and superficial is wrong.

He seems most concerned by the net unemployment from Kodak giving way to the minimalist Instagram and its ilk. But he ignores the massive crowdfunding that has helped create thousands of businesses, not just individual jobs. Same for ebay, amazon, etsy and alibaba. They have spawned literally millions of businesses that could not have existed before the web. Meanwhile, Kodak had to go, like the inkwell makers and whalebone corset companies before it.

The parallels with robber barons, the monopolists and the lords of the past are apt and fit like a glove. Today’s internet giants are fiercely against unions, against government interference (unless there’s money available), above the law, and all for their own (unprecedented) wealth and power. The internet they wield is all about bottomless oceans of personal data that would make the Stasi jealous, but it’s just a byproduct they milk for profit. That people volunteer all this data, from social media to tracking devices like mobiles would move a spy to tears. That we have accepted this way of life is totally consistent with history. It’s the new opiate of the masses.

Keen is correct: the internet is not the answer. What we need is a new question.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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