Date Finished: July 25th 2017
Kids these days grow up in a world where the internet is taken for granted. They can Google whatever they’d like to know on their phone at any moment, send a friend a selfie on a whim, or become addicted to online poker whenever they want, and they don’t think of that as being weird. I grew up at a strange time whereby each new technological innovation was introduced to me at a time when kids my age would just about be getting into those technologies anyway, had they always been around.
Take video games: I got a Game Boy when Pokemon first came out, and was roughly the age a Pokemon player should be. I got a mobile phone in my early teens when they were just becoming commercially affordable, and my family bought a desktop computer as they were coming into vogue with ordinary people. The internet has always been in my life, but I remember the screech and static of the dial-up tone, playing polyphonic ringtones as entertainment among friends, and have seen computer graphics go from a pixelated 2-D representation of an Italian plumber, to smooth 3-D renderings of an Italian plumber. In the intervening years between the late ’90s and now, it’s a case of the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.
“Without paid curators fully accountable for their work, the Internet is degenerating into propaganda, lies, and a surfeit of information about Pokemon and porn.”
The provocatively titled The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen, rails against the hegemonic view that the internet is some wonderful, perfect creation that will rewrite our lives and iron out all the creases that currently pervade the world. First delving into the history of the internet, Keen shows how key figures in the creation of the internet have hijacked its egalitarian format by monetising various services, and creating an environment which has had increasingly toxic effects on our culture, economy and society.
We think of the internet as a great leveler, where all can communicate; an open marketplace that allows all to hock their wares and display their talents; a place where a free exchange of ideas has resulted in a more open and intelligent society. And to an extent, that’s true, but in other ways it paints a false picture of the realities of the internet. As Keen shows, monopolies abound: in 2012 alone, Amazon destroyed a net 27,000 jobs in the USA and has had a particularly disastrous affect on the publishing industry, with some publishers comparing the company to Nazi Germany, and with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos telling his staff to approach deals with small publishers as “a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle”. The company is ruthless with its employees, with workers constantly monitored – an environment that experts describe as creating a high risk for mental and physical illness – and one warehouse forcing employees to work in such high temperatures that the company keeps ambulances outside to combat the inevitable cases of overheating and exhaustion.
“Indeed, the only thing more retro than Instagram’s filters is the pre-Copernican belief, encouraged by social networks like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, that the new digital universe somehow revolves around us.”
Keen continues by laying into various facets of the new digital landscape: the disastrous effects on the music industry, the destruction of the photography industry in favour of apps like Instagram which reap millions from the photo uploads of the masses, the effects on news and journalism, the trolls and cyberbullies who cause as much damage as the skewed-at-best and lies-at-worst “democratised” media online, the billionaire free market libertarians who run the new gaff, the surveillance state being built by rapidly improving technologies that monitor our location, consumption and even our health; the list goes on.
Doubtlessly, at least one of the topics in this book will truly grab a reader. For me, that was the constant consensual surveillance we accept in return for the Internet of Things. Companies are developing smart televisions, smart ovens, self-driving cars, phones that map your surroundings in 3D… and we’ll all stampede to buy these when they’re launched, even though they’ll costs us a huge amount in privacy (as well as in money). For someone like me who just wants to be able to search for information, keep in touch with friends and family, and enjoy entertainment, that’s a terrifying price to pay. Keen emphasises the libertarian attitudes of the dot com millionaires who hold dominion over the World Wide Web, but the technologies they are innovating towards are hypocritically authoritarian in their watchful nature.
“All these companies want to know us so intimately that they can package us up and then, without our consent, sell us back to advertisers.”
Keen is a lucid and enjoyable writer, although he does seem to have a bit of an axe to grind. One could say that he focuses too hard on the negative aspects of the internet, but most of us are fully aware of the surface positives, so it seems hypocritical to unfairly criticise this element of his writing. The book is heavily-sourced and brimming with statistics on the economic impact and new demography of the internet, many of which are undeniably shocking.
The Internet is Not the Answer is a timely and comprehensive portrait of the failures and more heinous practices that have arisen in the digital world. Keen can go too far at times, but the work is undoubtedly a much-needed consciousness raiser, allowing us to evaluate the reality of the network age in a new light. It’s a book that’s bound to provoke discussion, and that discussion is sorely needed because, no matter how much you love the internet and all the marvelous time-savers and socialising apps that come with it, it’s difficult to deny that, under the surface, there are some rotten practices infecting our society.
“The savage irony is that the more accurately the internet remembers everything, the more our memories atrophy.”
Episode #78 of Waking Up with Sam Harris (Podcast): Persuasion and Control with Zeynep Tufekci, a Professor and self-stylised “techno-sociologist” (the podcast is free to download on iTunes).
The Circle – Dave Eggers