Friday 24 November 2017

Books: The holes in the internet

Ian O'Doherty on a new book which explodes the myth that the web is improving life for everyone

Does the web really improve live for everyone.
Does the web really improve live for everyone.
Author Andrew Keen
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Ever get the feeling you've been had? Andrew Keen does. In The Internet Is Not The Answer, the former start-up entrepreneur has produced an astonishing J'accuse against the creeping power of the web which, he argues, has utterly destroyed traditional industry and warped the way we communicate with each other.

Those of us old enough to remember the first web browser, Mosaic, in the mid-90s, look back on that era with a mixture of nostalgia and despair. After all, this dawn of the Information Age ushered in a libertarian, Utopian fantasy world where the traditional gatekeepers of the mainstream media - newspapers, the publishing industry, record companies, movie studios - would no longer have a monopoly over what we consumed, how we consumed it and where we consumed it.

The hypnotic, enticing lure of the web, as Keen points out, lay in the hollow promise of 'true' democracy, where everyone could become an internet guru, where the MSM was no longer in charge and where, if you could conjure up just one good idea, you could become an instant billionaire. Like all gold rushes, of course, this initial digital Klondike was doomed to failure, but even though the dot-bomb implosion of 2000 saw most of those early start-ups go to the wall, the last decade has seen the emergence of a business phenomenon that was meant to be eradicated - the monopoly, whether that be Google, Facebook, YouTube or Amazon.

Rather than freeing everybody up, Keen argues, the internet has simply created a new feudalism, where the majority find themselves as serfs while the tech billionaires spend their time crushing any opposition and chronically distorting the culture and the market place.

It's not the first time such a theory has been espoused, of course, but coming from a man who was at the forefront of the digital explosion and who works as a tech consultant, his bleak and frequently despairing summation of the world we live in is one that carries far more weight than any screed penned by a technological Luddite. Rather than being the 'answer', Keen argues, the internet is actually "the central question about our connected, 21st-century world. The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less value it is bringing us. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is the central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor."

Of course, everyone suspected this on some vague, ephemeral level, but Keen backs up his argument with the kind of facts and statistics which should terrify us all.

He visits Rochester in upstate New York, a city that can claim to be first metropolis killed by the internet. Home to Eastman Kodak, that company was worth $31bn 20 years ago, yet was forced into bankruptcy in 2012.

Supplanted by the rise of people taking pics on their phone, there is simply no demand for traditional photography and, as a result, jobs were lost, pensions wiped out and the town of Rochester is rapidly becoming the next Detroit - a wasteland with no money and a surfeit of crime.

That's the reality of the free market, of course, but Keen argues that: "I have no objection to the destruction of the old - providing there is something to take its place. This isn't a technological issue; it's a question about the world we want to live in."

Kodak employed 150,000 people. By contrast, Snapchat, which is valued at $13bn, has fewer than 20 on the payroll - companies that are worth billions no longer provide employment because they aren't actually producing anything.

This unprecedented scorched earth policy has resulted in the absolute devastation of the newspaper business.

More than 20pc of all American journalists have lost their job in the last few years, while snappers fared even worse, with nearly half of all newspaper photographers finding themselves on the scrapheap.

Similarly, the record industry no longer exists as we traditionally understood it. The so called 'sharing economy' has bred a generation of people which demands that their music, their TV and their newspapers provide content for free, with the content providers now operating under the patently absurd notion that such a Faustian pact will bring in non-existent advertisers.

Without traditional media, Keen argues, standards have slipped, expectations have been lowered and we now live in an age of disposable cynicism and rampant entitlement. As he asks: "If there's no exchange of cash for your article, your photograph, your movie, your book, your song, how else are you supposed to make money?"

When nobody can afford to be creative anymore, we find ourselves in a cultural wasteland where rumours are treated as news, ignorance really is bliss and the covenant of trust between provider and consumer ceases to exist.

Keen is particularly strong when demolishing the myth that the internet has broadened our horizons. Instead, he compares it to "attending a wealthy American college where everybody you meet is the same as you are."

This is because, I suppose, we expected the Global Village but we got the Global Balkans instead.

People have become dumber, more tribal (the rise of identity politics, the most obvious example) and more belligerent. In fact, the old Utopian aspiration that the internet would elevate us all through exposure to new ideas, flounders in the face of a perpetually angry online mob who only communicate with like-minded people and who lose all sense of proportion when their ideas are challenged.

Those of us who are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the cultural, economic and political stranglehold of the internet are often accused of being a technological King Canute, angrily and impotently shaking our fists at the inexorable waves of online material.

In reality, of course, Canute was actually making the point that even a King can't control the tide.

So maybe Keen is our modern Canute - acutely aware that he can't stop the electronic waves that have enveloped all of our lives, he is desperate to warn us of its perils.

We should thank him for it.


The Internet is Not the Answer

Andrew Keen

Atlantic Books, tpbk, 288 pages, €19.45

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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