The Internet has the potential to grant power and freedom to the masses—but that power and freedom aren’t always equally distributed. Andrew Keen, author of “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” raises his concerns over the apparently altruistic intentions of for-profit tech companies, and whether the Internet really has been a force for democratization.
Keen: So, I’ve got a new book coming out in January, “The Internet Is Not The Answer,” and of course the response to that is, what is the question? We’ve heard the question articulated a lot this morning, in different forms—I’m not sure if anyone has specifically identified it. Philip Zelikow got closest to it, I think, in his opening remarks on the excellent first panel. So, Zelikow said, and a number of other people have said that we’re shifting from a 20th-century, mass-market, top-down industrial economy dominated by firms with a strong state, what we might think of as the Great Society, to something else. The great shift began in the late ‘80s, and it’s no coincidence that that shift took place at the same time as Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. The replacement system, this new world, this new society, that Zelikow identifies—many others, Thomas Friedman, everyone’s getting it. Something different is happening, something profoundly different. Zelikow says it’s equivalent to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. Bryn Johnson and McAfee from MIT talk about the Second Industrial Revolution. However we identify it, something profound is changing the very nature of society, its shape, above all else, its economics.
Now, what we’ve heard this morning, from a number of different people, in different ways, is that the answer to this new world is the Internet. The new operating system should be this P2P sharing economy. The new operating system should be managed by companies like Google and Amazon and Uber and TaskRabbit. The implicit idea is, is as the state withdraws, as the Great Society fizzles out, so the Internet becomes that operating system.
There’s another question that came up this morning that no one can identify: Zelikow, again, brought it up. So did the lady from the big union. Just as this new world, this new economy is coming into being, so something else is taking place in parallel, simultaneously, and it’s no accident. What we’re seeing, over the last 25 years, is more and more dramatic cultural and above all else economic inequality. You know that more than I do. I’m from Silicon Valley, I’m from the place where all the money is. You’re in Detroit, the place where there isn’t a lot of money, although things seem to be getting a little better. The argument I make in my book, and I’m not alone in doing this, is that there’s an intimate relationship between the rise of this new economy, this sharing economy, and the dramatic compounding of economic and cultural inequality. Of course, you can see it above all else in Silicon Valley. The enormous wealth produced by Google, by companies like Amazon. Zuckerberg, the two boys at Google, Jeff Bezos, they’re each worth $30 billion apiece. Now, I wonder what $30 billion would buy you in Detroit. Probably buy you the city, or perhaps even the state. You laugh, but it’s not funny, at least from Detroit’s point of view. Maybe Jack Dorsey will buy Michigan. Maybe he’ll make the offer in his speech afterwards.
The problem, above all else, is not that Silicon Valley is bad, or that the P2P economy is bad, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding. You saw it with the woman from TaskRabbit, you saw it from Indiegogo. As the state withdraws, there is this illusion, this delusion, this great arrogance in Silicon Valley, that one can be rich and good at the same time. This idea was put forward by Indiegogo, uh by TaskRabbit. When you’re listening to this woman, she could have been representing the state or the local government. You never got any sense that her organization, which is a way of essentially selling per hour labor, minimum wage labor, and in Silicon Valley is being used to employ people to queue up to buy iPhones for other people. You never get the impression that this is a for-profit company. The problem, then, is that as we have this political and economic and cultural void, as we have these passing of these two ships, as we have a profound structural shift in the nature of our economy and society, these people are promising that they will replace the state, that they will be good, that they will be equitable, and of course they’re not. They’re for-profit. Uber is for-profit, it’s worth $19 billion. Airbnb is for profit, it’s worth $10 billion, and it’s not surprising that they’re not taking responsibility for the world they’re creating. The lady from TaskRabbit complained that she couldn’t get insurance. Why should she? There’s no obligation for insurance companies to provide her with it. If the economic model doesn’t work, than there’s no reason to give insurance. The same is true across the board.
The problem, of course, and the real answer, is to rebuild the state, to rebuild civic identity, to understand that a company like Google, which has branded itself as a public utility, is an enormously powerful, increasingly monopolistic company. That companies like Google and Facebook are actually turning all of us into free data workers. This economy doesn’t work. It’s decimated the cultural industries, it’s decimated music and movies and the book industries, and there’s no replacement. The money is going to companies like Google. So, for example, we’re all on Facebook, we’re all on Google, but we’re free data factory workers. The factories have been turned inside out. Yesterday, I went to see the Ford factory. That was a 20th-century factory where workers went and were paid to produce physical things. But we’re all working now, in what Mike Moritz, of Sequoia Capital, calls data factories. Places where any time we make a search on Google, or any time we enter something on Facebook, we’re providing value.
So, the point of my book, and the point of polemicists like myself, is to remind you that the world that is coming into being is worse than the world we’re losing. That doesn’t mean we can go back to the 20th century, it doesn’t mean we can return to the security of employment, or the centrality of the state, or the role of taxation, or the idea of civic responsibility, but what we’re seeing in the early stages—and they are early stages, the Internet could be the answer. There’s nothing inevitable about it failing. But so far, 25 years in, it’s an epic fail. In fact, in my book, I call it an epic fucking fail, because that’s what it is! Huge wealth shifting to Silicon Valley. No real civic responsibility. The replacement of the old economy by networks like TaskRabbit, and in economic terms, of course, what the free economy really is, is a surveillance economy. I was disappointed in the big data panel. It was interesting if you’re a data nerd, but what these guys didn’t remind you is that the data economy is a surveillance economy. Every time we use Google or Facebook, what are we doing? We are telling these companies about ourselves, our movements, our promises. What the guys in the transportation panel didn’t remind you is that the self-driving car is another way of getting our data. That’s why Google have invested in it, not because they’re interested in the public good, no more or less than Ford, because they can profit from data.
So, the thing that we need to bear in mind, and critically evaluate more than anything else, is do we all want to become data serfs in this new surveillance economy? Everyone’s watching us, it’s not just the NSA, but the very nature of the business model of these companies—and I would include most of the companies in the sharing economy, because most of these services are free—is that we become the product. We are dressed up, we are packaged. So, these are things to bear in mind.
So, Detroit gets it. What we need to do is remind America, or the rest of the world, that technology companies are for-profit companies. Don’t allow them to present their companies as public good, as public utilities. They’re not, they’re for profit. That’s not a bad thing, but they’re lying when they say that they’re improving the world. They have no interest in improving the world, their only interest is improving themselves. Thank you.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I do fundamentally disagree with that, but I think there is a huge role for polemicists who are as articulate and thoughtful as Andrew, and we need to think about his points all the time.