Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet. The Internet Is Not the Answer makes the case that Erich Mielke, head of the East German Stasi, did.
The “Ministry of Propaganda,” author Andrew Keen notes, “was supposed to have gone out of business in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, like other failed twentieth-century institutions, the ministry has relocated its operations to the west coast of America.”
That Google, Facebook, and Amazon wield a more effective, and perhaps creepier, intelligence apparatus than the NSA stands as one of the reasons Keen remains not so keen on the Internet after writing several books critical of the digital phenomenon’s effect on life offline. Whereas East Germans sought to avoid surveillance, Americans increasingly feel validated by publicizing the private.
Foremost among the sins of St. Internet are replacing quality with efficiency and perversely disincentivizing the pursuit of talents valued by the market.
Keen points out that the number of photographers employed by newspapers has declined by nearly half since the turn of the century. In place of professional photography we get selfies. Tumblr thanks you for the slave labor.
America enjoyed more than 4,000 bookstores when Amazon launched. Our options to allow a good book find us in a physical store (rather than to find a book at an online retailer) have been cut in half since then.
Music industry sales in the U.S. dropped from $15 billion at its peak to $6 billion. Keen quotes former Talking Heads taking head David Byrne reporting that in order for a band of four to make the minimum wage from Spotify they would need the streaming service to play their songs a quarter-trillion times. Like the local Borders and the more delightful and dusty used bookstore, record stores—the name itself a throwback to an earlier era—appear as sadly anachronistic as a Victrola.
In place of professors, students encounter MOOGs (Massive Open Online Courses), the reductio ad absurdum of the impersonal, assembly-line education received in 500-student classes held in cavernous lecture halls increasingly since World War II by what Russell Kirk dubbed Behemoth State University. The nonprofit universities profit. The students get a devalued piece of paper.
We get cheaper. We get what we pay for.
The book is a strange combination of an atavist’s longing for what’s been lost by the digital revolution and a radical’s knee-jerk solution to what might solve the ensuing problems. Keen makes a better traditionalist than revolutionary.
The Internet Is Not the Answer doesn’t start by saying a spectre is haunting the World Wide Web or end by telling us we have nothing to lose but the invisible chains of our smartphone. But it’s method of analysis is familiar enough.
History is, in many ways, repeating itself. Today’s digital upheaval represents what MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call the “second industrial revolution.” “Badass” entrepreneurs like Travis Kalanick and Peter Thiel have much in common with the capitalist robber barons of the first industrial revolution. Internet monopolists like Google and Amazon increasingly resemble the bloated multinationals of the industrial epoch. The struggle of eighteenth-century Yorkshire cloth workers is little different from today’s resistance of organized labor to Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb. Our growing concern with the pollution of “data exhaust” is becoming the equivalent of the environmental movement of the digital age.
These analogies would all work save for the inconvenience that they don’t. They certainly fit for those seeking to muscle 19th-century answers upon 21st-century problems.
Hell hath no fury like a businessman scorned by the market. Andrew Keen entered on the ground floor of the dotcom boom by launching Audiocafe.com. On the groundfloor he stayed. The failed web entrepreneur looks down upon Silicon Valley success stories from below. Like the empty feeling given off by an elongated perusal of the web itself, The Internet Is Not the Answer reads as a disappointment. It nevertheless, depending upon the question posed, proves the correctness of its bold title.
The author wrote a book critical of capitalism and uses the Internet to illustrate his grievances. “In the quarter century since the invention of the Wide Web,” Keen writes, “the Internet has gone full circle from banning all forms of commerce to transforming absolutely everything, especially our privacy, into profitable activity.”
This, in a nutshell, is Keen’s gripe—the Internet evolved from a product of government to a plaything of entrepreneurs. Anyone familiar with the critiques of the industrial revolution in the 1840s or automation in the 1960s reads Keen’s book as a déjà vu.
In place of an argument, the author notes, with Tourette’s-like compulsion, that these digital tycoons read Ayn Rand and those ones appear too “white, male, and young.” So deep in his ideological swamp does the author remain mired that he writes that “the Bay Area has come to represent a libertarian fantasy.” He writes of the dotcoms. But in what way do libertarians hold San Francisco as the ideal anything?
The Internet has surely played as problem as well as answer. Keen might have dwelled on its erosion of literacy or the decontextualization of knowledge through humans taking on the CliffsNotes character of search engines. Instead, he focuses his ire on capitalism, a tic that tells us more about author than subject.
Keen writes, “The libertarian fantasy of private companies usurping government is, I’m afraid, becoming a reality.” One man’s nightmare is another’s dream.
The Internet may not be the answer. Marxism surely isn’t, either.
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