The Internet Has Failed Us

Andrew Keen is a British-American tech entrepreneur and CNN commentator. His new book, The Internet Is Not the Answer, acknowledges many benefits of technology but argues that we ignore the darker side of the digital world at our peril.

The Saturday Evening Post: You write that the Internet has failed to live up to its early utopian promise. Since we all have such short attention spans nowadays — in large part thanks to the Internet — can you remind us what exactly that early promise was?

Andrew Keen: The original idea, as described by its many evangelists, was that the Internet would democratize the good and disrupt the bad. It would get rid of the gatekeepers, do away with national boundaries — and all this would radically change society for the better.

SEP: But it hasn’t happened?

AK: No. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is the central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class. Rather than making us wealthier, the so-called sharing economy is making us poorer. Rather than creating more jobs, automation is destroying jobs. And rather than increasing competition, it has created immensely powerful new global monopolies like Google
and Facebook.

SEP: But from the perspective of the average consumer, one could argue that the Internet has also given us a lot. My email service is free; Facebook is free; classified ads are free now, thanks to Craigslist. But you’ve made the case that none of this is truly free. Can you explain?

AK: Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and one of the early Internet idealists, describes the concept of free services as the Internet’s original sin — in my view, that’s an appropriately biblical reference. The reality is we, the consumers, are the ones doing the manual labor; we’re the ones putting up our photographs; we’re sharing our stories and our personal data. In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists refer to ordinary citizens as “data factories.” So, to put it bluntly, in the Internet economy, we’re the product. It’s exploitative. We’re on the verge of an increasingly ubiquitous data economy. And the business model of collecting all that data and essentially giving us stuff for free, that business model depends on surveillance. That’s the trap. The service is free, but corporations will be observing your every move: what you do, what you say, even what you think. Free is never really free.

SEP: The sharing economy — using the Internet as a tool for matching products and services to consumer needs such as renting out a room in your house through Airbnb or driving a cab for Uber whenever you want — has been promoted as a great benefit to society. Can’t it be argued that the Internet empowers those who’ve struggled financially to now be able to find a way to make a living?

AK: Sure Uber allows anyone to drive a cab, but now there’s a single cab company in the whole world that takes 30-40 percent of every single taxi fare. I don’t want my children to inherit a world where everyone is basically selling their labor on these monopolistic platforms where huge companies are growing fatter off their labor, where they have no security, where what they do is not even treated as a “job.” The sharing economy is systematically destroying the hard-won protections built up since the Industrial Revolution — such as unions, pensions, the minimum wage, laws about child labor. As a result, the working poor have to work harder and harder just to survive. It’s just more work, more struggle, less security — more of a dog-eat-dog kind of economy.

SEP: But isn’t some pain always the price of progress? The Industrial Revolution destroyed several types of jobs, but didn’t it create many more new ones?

AK: Technology has created some new jobs, but it’s destroying far more. In the not-too-distant future, machines will be able to diagnose our diseases, figure out complicated law cases. So, even doctors and lawyers will be unemployed. The reality is that we have an increasing inequality of power and wealth in this world. Every industry is being radically transformed, undermined, restructured by the digital revolution — education, health care, taxicabs, hospitality.

SEP: Is that why you say consumers need to consider their roles as citizens, not just shoppers in the Internet bazaar? You say we mistakenly think of the Internet culture as “one of rights, not responsibilities.” What are our responsibilities?

AK: Let’s use the example of Amazon. You can shop any time. And the pricing is too good to be true. You can buy my book at a bookstore for $25; on Amazon it’s $15. But if you do have a nice local bookstore that you like, where you get service, where the bookseller knows your taste and can recommend titles, maybe it’s worth paying the extra $10 to help keep them in business. People need to make the connection. If you care about your local retail business surviving, then you have a responsibility not to focus only on the immediate cost of an item. You have to consider the longer-range cost to you and your community.In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists refer to ordinary citizens as 'data factories.' So, to put it bluntly, in the Internet economy, we're the product.

SEP: Another cost of today’s Web-based existence that you describe is its so-called rage, or shaming, culture. Some people feel free to trash others for the slightest provocation or politically incorrect thought. There is a disconnect between how we talk to each other online and how we speak face to face.

AK: That’s true. Minorities, women in particular, are subject to rape threats and threats of violence, just for expressing themselves. The Internet was supposed to have created a civil environment for discussion. Ironically, it has become one of the great engines of intolerance. It’s created an echo chamber culture — a more parochial, narrow, selfie-centric universe. Thanks to the Internet, we live in the perpetual present. We stumble from one outrage to the next. I call this the tyranny of the now. We go from someone saying something stupid to the next person’s sexual scandal to some political scandal, and then, you know, after about an hour, we’ve forgotten what the last one was. All these stories acquire such importance while they’re happening, and disappear once they’re over. It’s like fast food.

SEP: Are there rules or guidelines that might help to curb some of this?

AK: James Madison said, “If men were angels we wouldn’t need government,” which is why the Founding Fathers built checks and balances into the American Constitution. Well, we need the same checks and balances on the Internet. Without them, we’ve opened the door to state-sponsored or corporate-sponsored dishonesty, such as when companies seed Wikipedia with marketing material or trump up information on consumer review networks such as Yelp. We need an accountable, strong government able to stand up to Silicon Valley big data companies. As economist Richard Sennett said, if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today “I believe [he’d] concentrate his [trust-busting] firepower on Google, Microsoft, and Apple. We need modern politicians who will be similarly bold.”