The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Book review: ‘The Internet Is Not the Answer’ by Andrew Keen

is the author of “The End of Absence,” which won this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction.
The Internet Is Not the Answer

By Andrew Keen

Atlantic Monthly. 273 pp. $25

Sincere criticism of the mounting technopolies swallowing American culture (Amazon, Facebook, Google et al.) will often result in the critic being labeled a Luddite. For who but a nostalgic Luddite would try to halt such a big and shiny parade? Of course, those who have studied the history of the Luddite revolts know that those 19th-century cloth workers (whose jobs were threatened by the power loom) were more pro-human than anti-technology. And so Andrew Keen should proudly wear the label of 21st-century Luddite. His new book, "The Internet Is Not The Answer," is a packed compendium of all the ways digital life casts aside basic human virtues in favor of a rapacious, winner-takes-all economy.

Out of Silicon Valley’s libertarian ethos came the myths that information “wants to be free” and that the Internet is fueling a cooperative new utopianism. Keen is excellent at exposing the hypocrisy of that mythology. “Distributed technology doesn’t necessarily lead to distributed economics,” he writes. “With the creation of the Web came the creation of a new kind of capitalism. And it has been anything but a cooperative venture.”

The book is ambitious — verging on frenetic at times as it hops through the flotsam of our exploded economy and culture — but its central thesis is that the plutocrats of the Internet (the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages of the world) have availed themselves of an astonishing spectrum of rights while wholly disregarding their responsibilities.

Before delivering specifics on the current mess we’re in, Keen gives us a savvy bit of background that casts the godlike attitude of the digerati in a bleak light. The history of the Internet, Keen recounts, began with publicly funded technologists and institutions (people like Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and institutions like the Internet’s progenitor, ARPANET). These scientists and agencies cobbled together the various components of the Internet with very public goals in mind — the advancement of science and national security, largely. But that tradition was quickly cut off in the early 1990s, when the U.S. government “handed over the running of the Internet backbone to commercial Internet service providers.” It was, in the words of venture capitalist John Doerr, “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.”

One can just about hear the teeth-grinding as Keen details how Internet moguls such as Reed Hastings of Netflix and Jeff Bezos of Amazon (who also owns The Washington Post) style themselves as visionaries while the true visionaries — nary a billionaire among them — remain in relative obscurity. The instant global marketplace that the Internet produced hasn’t just created a few mega-egos, of course. It has demolished markets, too. It has left thousands upon thousands out of work. But Keen’s irate tone seems to stem less from the fact that technology can be a game-changer and more from the fact that Zuckerberg and the rest refuse to be transparently greedy. The tigers of yesteryear’s Wall Street were rather upfront about their motivations, while now we’re mired in a world of billionaires who say they just want to “make the world a better place.” And that propaganda makes it harder to see what’s happening.

Case in point: Amazon — which customers rightly love for its efficiency and ease — does not, in fact, want to make the world a better place. Neoliberals would argue that the company enriches our culture by upping access to content and products. But Keen argues that “the reverse is actually true. Amazon, in spite of its undoubted convenience, reliability, and great value, is actually having a disturbingly negative impact on the broader economy.” He points to what he describes as Amazon’s brutally efficient business methodology, which has squeezed jobs out of every sector of retail, according to a 2013 Institute for Local Self-Reliance report that Keen cites. The report says brick-and-mortar retailers employ 47 people for every $10 million in sales, while Amazon employs only 14. Perhaps the question Keen is getting at is this: Are we consumers, or are we citizens? It’s a frustratingly complex inquiry.

We are sold a bill of goods — and a suite of fabulous, free services such as Google and Tinder. But consider that the 700-person start-up Airbnb, which allows users to rent their apartments like hotel rooms, was valued at $10 billion this past spring, about half as much as the Hilton corporation, which employs 152,000 people. Meanwhile, Keen writes, the car-sharing company Uber employs 1,000 people and is valued at $18.2 billion, which gives it about the same valuation as Avis and Hertz combined — except that those two car-rental companies employ almost 60,000 people. Keen’s book is full of such figures, all of which point toward a sliver of the population amassing wealth for themselves, and it is difficult not to come away wondering how the relatively boutique tech sector is ever meant to replace the jobs it gobbles.

Keen’s critique is not limited to economic concerns. In a chapter called “The Personal Revolution,” he describes our descent into “the pre-Copernican belief” that the universe revolves around us: Social networks such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter encourage an ahistorical mentality, and while they promise to get us in touch with others, they usually breed narcissists instead. Keen calls up an old Norman Mailer title to describe what these sites are really concerned with: They are “Advertisements for Myself.” Consider: “Almost 50% of the photos taken on Instagram in the United Kingdom by 14-21-year-olds are selfies, many of whom use this medium to reify their existence.”

I've described only a portion of the massive territory covered by "The Internet Is Not The Answer," and that breadth is both the book's strength and its weakness. Keen has delivered an enormously useful primer for those of us concerned that online life isn't as shiny as our digital avatars would like us to believe. But I wish that, instead of this exuberant tour-guide strategy, he had dissected a single problem in detail. Or perhaps followed suit with Astra Taylor ( "The People's Platform") and pushed his ideas to an unabashedly Marxist conclusion.

The Internet is, indeed, not the answer. It is, rather, the all-consuming question of the first half of the 21st century. To frame that question intelligently, we need thinkers like Andrew Keen. But we need him to do more than give us the lay of the land. Take us deeper, Mr. Keen. We’ll follow.