The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rescuing humanity from big tech

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, has fined Apple and Google billions of euros for their practices.
Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, has fined Apple and Google billions of euros for their practices. (JOHN THYS/agence france-presse/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)

Katie Hafner is a journalist and author, whose books include “Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet” (with Matthew Lyon).

Over the past decade or so, books decrying the Internet have been published at a steady clip. These what-have-we-wrought manifestos — Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion,” Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” to name but a few — are a chorus line of King Canutes yelling, largely in vain, against the incoming tide of insidious data mining, surveillance economies, endangered jobs and smartphone addiction.

The latest volume to wash up on the rocky shores of doubt is “How to Fix the Future” by Andrew Keen, an entrepreneur turned technology pundit. Published close on the heels of his 2015 curmudgeonly treatise, “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” Keen’s new book is far less grumpy, as the author trains his lens on tools he believes can help correct our course.

The title is a bit off. Forget the future. The book is a courageous attempt to offer some constructive solutions to a world already filled with monoliths that make the Microsoft of the 1990s, whose hegemony we once feared so much that the government saw fit to break it into pieces, look like a humble Etsy vendor.

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

Keen is mercifully brief with his indictments of big tech. Just in case you need it, a quick refresher: Uber isn’t merely exploiting its drivers but working overtime to render them unnecessary. Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post) has tentacles in pretty much everything, including health care and education. Apple’s iPhone is turning us all into zombies. Facebook, conduit of fake news, is a crime scene. And just try to go 15 minutes without using something of Google’s.

So what do we do? Keen asks, reasonably enough.

Keen offers a five-part solution, consisting of greater consumer choice, social responsibility, competitive innovation, smart regulation and enlightened education. At the center, not surprisingly, is humanity itself.

In his search for the humans who are playing key roles in preserving the fundamentals of a civilized society, Keen does something admirable: He hits the road, interviewing dozens of folks around the world who are doing — and saying — interesting, innovative things.

He visits the chief technology officer of Estonia, the first country in the world to offer “e-residency,” an electronic passport that allows any small-business owner to use a variety of Estonian services and technologies. Intended as an antithesis to the “dark web,” the country is reimagining cyberspace as civic space, Keen reports.

Then there’s Singapore, one of the most wired countries on the planet, where Keen explores the Smart Nation initiative, whose goal, as its politicians would have us believe, is to reinvent Singapore so that digitized information becomes the foundation of a new public space for civic innovation. Writes Keen, “The plan is to erect an electronic mirror that will enable [Singapore] to become ever more self aware.”

So rosy is Keen’s tone in parts that I was put in mind of a wide-eyed, if craggy-faced, 21st-century Dorothy, picking up valuable lessons on her way to Oz.

It was when Keen got to Singapore that I began to wonder if he might be looking for solutions in the wrong places. Singapore? I mean, I’d like to see cleaner sidewalks as much as the next San Franciscan, but doesn’t Singapore take things a tad too far? As Keen himself points out, human and free-speech rights champions, to say nothing of privacy advocates, aren’t whistling Dixie with their worries over what Singapore might have in mind with its deployment of sensors and cameras across the island.

And the notion of e-citizenry, while fascinating, seems of questionable applicability to the United States.

Still, I came away from Keen’s world travels grateful to him for enduring all those endless flights to far-flung places so we wouldn’t have to.

Can virtual reality make everything better?

Keen’s trip to Brussels makes more sense. There he meets with Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, who is bravely standing up to the likes of Google and Apple. Vestager imposed a 13 billion-euro fine on Apple in back taxes for the company’s dodgy tax arrangements with Ireland. And she has set her antitrust sights on Google. Last year, she fined the company a record 2.42 billion euros for giving preferential treatment to Google Shopping, its price comparison service.

“How to Fix the Future” has its share of annoyances. The phrase “you’ll remember,” to remind us of someone or something he has mentioned plenty of times already, sometimes quite recently, becomes a distracting literary tic.

And there are mistakes. Some are easily forgiven. I can see getting Angela Merkel’s name wrong (which Keen does); after all, the German prime minister isn’t a constant presence in Keen’s Silicon Valley-centric world. But misspelling the first names of Sergey Brin and Marc Benioff is just plain inexcusable. And an Internet expert like Keen should know that science fiction writer William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” not in his 1984 novel, “Neuromancer,” but two years earlier in his short story “Burning Chrome.”

Eventually our Dorothy returns to Kansas, which in Keen’s case is his own back yard of Oakland, Calif. He describes with great admiration work being done by Freada Kapor Klein, a longtime tech activist. Together with her husband, Mitch Kapor, she has created a workspace in Oakland that blends high tech with humanism. Working to ensure that everyone gets a chance at a tech career, the couple invests in start-ups whose founders are women or people of color, and they’ve started a program that funnels underprivileged kids into math and science. All of this, as Keen puts it, is a “counterweight to Silicon Valley’s most corrosive indifference to the impact of its disruption on the world around it.” Well put, and a brave ambition for a scary new world.

By Andrew Keen

Atlantic. 330 pp. $26