Author, "The Internet Is Not the Answer"
Keen: Nice to be here. So I’ll try to be not too much of a curmudgeon, but I can’t resist a little bit. And I appreciate what Jaron was saying about the danger of being a curmudgeon in this world. I want to talk a little bit about curmudgeoness. But David Marcus revealed that everyone, and I think I’m quoting him, “Everyone in Spain is on WhatsApp.” And I wonder why? It’s because of course 50 percent of the kids in Spain are unemployed, and that might be good if we thought that WhatsApp was generating value, but of course Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion and there were 35 people working there. I don’t know how many more people are working within Facebook. David Brooks of The New York Times described the WhatsApp acquisition as the moral—I think he called it the moral crisis of contemporary capitalism. And I think he’s right. I think something’s gone seriously wrong.
Now, Jaron said we can’t be curmudgeons. Maybe he isn’t, but I am in a sense. Last time I did this speech in Detroit about my book, which is coming out, “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” it’s coming out in January. It’s in your bags. I’ll hope you’ll have a chance to read it. David said to me I sounded like a communist. Which actually I didn’t—you know, some people might have taken that as a compliment. I didn’t because, of course, communism is out of fashion. It was destroyed in 1989, and the great debate between liberalism and communism, or capitalism and communism, was supposed to have ended in this end of history moment as the wall came down, the end of the wall being a symbolic moment which has been celebrated partly and referred to at this event.
But of course, we have a new world. Fukuyama said in 1989 that we’re at the end of history. Most of us in 1989 thought that the end of the Cold War, this structural division between capitalism and communism would result in some sort of unification, the end of history, the end of debate, the end of complexity. But something else happened in 1989. Many of you are familiar, Jaron, I think referred to it. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the World Wide Web, and over the last 25 years what has happened is that we have a new system, we have a new debate, a new set of issues. The old debate between communism and capitalism is finished, but today the great debate is I think between technologists and the rest of the world, between the acquirers or the people in WhatsApp, the Facebook world, and people like David Brooks, who worry more and more about what we’re going to do in this brave new world of the network.
Now, some of you of course are worrying about it. At the beginning of this event several people stood up, Barton Gellman talked about the dangers of data and the way in which we’re becoming data and that both state and private companies are watching us all the time. Someone else stood up and worried about the impact of all this technology on work, the WhatsApp problem. Someone else stood up and worried about our selfie-centric culture, a culture in which we are talking to ourselves, the echo chamber culture. What I’ve argued in my book, “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” is that at the moment over the last 25 years this great debate is becoming whether or not the Internet should become the operating system for our new world. And I think today, in 2014, or in early 2015, we’re ready for an answer. I think, ready to conclude that at the moment—and that doesn’t make me a Luddite. I was talking to Walter Isaacson a couple of weeks ago and he defines Lord Byron as the ultimate Luddite, so in a sense I probably should try to become more of a Luddite, since we all want to be Lord Byron, at least in our private lives.
But over the last 25 years I think we have this new world coming into being. We know the old left-right divisions don’t work anymore, and I think the new world that’s coming into being, the divisions are between those people who believe that the Internet, the digital network is the answer. They tend to be libertarians. They tend to believe that government should stay out. They tend to believe that the market works. But of course, as Jaron has revealed in his brilliant speech this morning, what we have is the destruction of the bell curve, and it goes beyond, over the last 25 years, the destruction of the bell curve. We’ve seen the disappearance of the middle in many different aspects of our lives, in economic aspects, the crisis of the middleclass, the impact on jobs, the WhatsApp problem in the network. We have the problem in culture. I’ve written extensively, in 2007, I wrote a book called “Cult of the Amateur,” which worried about the impact of amateur content on photographers, on writers, on filmmakers, above all else, on musicians. What we’ve seen over the last 25 years is a decimation of the cultural industry. So the Internet, this network which is increasingly becoming the thing in itself, the thing that defines our world, isn’t working. It’s not the answer. It’s creating more problems than answers.
So what is the answer? It’s all very well—you know, I’d love to be Lord Byron, but I don’t have his ability to travel. We need to figure out an answer. Now, I think Jaron came up with one very coherent and interesting response in terms of the market and in terms of micropayments, but I think we need to recognize collectively—and that’s why I’ve joined David’s team, that’s why I’m excited to be involved in Techonomy. I may be the resident curmudgeon, but I’m not the resident reactionary. I’m not really the resident Luddite. I don’t believe that we need, or can, even if we wanted to, smash the machines. When Byron was giving his famous House of Commons speech in 1812, the idea of smashing the machines, of smashing the looms, was reasonably possible, and of course that’s what the Luddites did. But now whether or not we want to smash the machines we can’t.
So what is the answer? The answer I think is events like this. The answer is to recognize the system at the moment isn’t working, that it’s decimating our culture, that it’s compounding unemployment, that it’s turning us into data, turning us into the product. The answer is recognizing, as Jaron said, that the free economy isn’t really free. Every time we put ourselves on the network, we’re becoming, as someone else said, we’re becoming the product. The answer I think is a recognition that things aren’t working and a realization that we need external adult supervision. That doesn’t mean that we have to nationalize the Internet. It doesn’t mean that we have to rely on government for everything. But it does mean that there is a role for external authorities and a role for government in terms of managing these various crisis, whether it’s the crisis of unemployment, whether it’s the cultural crisis, the selfie crisis, the echo chamber crisis, whether it’s the crisis of new massive monopolies like Google and Facebook, which dwarf 20th century capitalist monopolies. These issues need to be addressed.
But of course we can’t just rely on government. The answer isn’t going back to the old communist-capitalist discourse of the twentieth century. We don’t want to nationalize these things. And, again, that’s not a viable alternative. We need discussion. We need responsibility from private companies. I know David’s going to interview Marc Benioff later. I think he’s an example of someone who’s making an effort to recognize that the revolution’s gone wrong, that the Internet on its own isn’t the answer. I’m very critical of Google, but there are a lot of good people at Google, a lot of good people at Facebook. I respect what Mark Zuckerberg has done with education. We need more public responsibility. And we need companies to work together. We’ve seen it on the copyright front. The piracy curse has destroyed the music business, at least it’s cut the revenue of the music business industry in half over the last 25 years. So we have companies like Microsoft, and indeed Google, taking initiative to work with the police, work with other authorities to try and challenge the decimating—and I’m going to quote Jaron here, the decimating impact of piracy—he may not talk about piracy, but decimation of our cultural industries.
Above all else though, I think we need to recognize that technology on its own, left to its own purposes, Peter Thiel’s fantasy, his libertarian visage, the idea that if we only leave this world to the superheroes of Silicon Valley, guys like him—and he is a superhero. He’s an über man. He’s a guy who’s certainly smarter than me. He certainly would beat me at chess. But it’s not working. It’s not good enough. We need more discussion with educators. The MOOC movement doesn’t work. I interviewed Sebastian Thrun last week at Futurecast. Even he, the inventor of the MOOC, acknowledges that it doesn’t work. Again, destroying the old middle, destroying teachers, creating superstars, destroying what Jaron talks about as the bell curve.
So overall, I hope you’ll have the opportunity to read my book, comment on it, and let’s have more discussion about the way in which this revolution at the moment, this network, this grand ambitious project which was begun in 1989 with good intentions of people like Tim Berners-Lee—these weren’t the people who made it wrong, but this revolution has gone off the rails and unless we react collectively as Silicon Valley people, as policymakers, as influential investors, then someone else will do it for us. Thank you.