Six ways in which Andrew Keen is wrong about the internet

11 Comments

Andrew Keen, a man who has been called the “Antichrist of Silicon Valley” and a “digital Chicken Little” for his previous books about the downside of digital culture, has another book out called “The Internet Is Not The Answer, in which he continues many of the same themes he introduced in his earlier titles — such as the argument that rather than empowering individuals, the social web has given rise to a “cult of the amateur” and destroyed the livelihood of skilled professionals, and that the internet is hollowing out the middle class and ruining the economy.

Keen sums up much of his argument in the foreword to the book, saying that while its proponents present the Internet as “a magically virtuous circle, an infinitely positive loop, an economic and cultural win-win for its billions of users,” in reality it is actually “more akin to a negative feedback loop, in which we network users are its victims rather than beneficiaries. The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing us.” Instead of making things more democratic, he says the internet has created a “winner-take-all” economy made up of monopolies.

In preparation for a panel discussion this week that I moderated, in which Keen debated Canadian digital marketer and blogger Mitch Joel, I read “The Internet Is Not The Answer” and found — as with Keen’s two previous books — that I disagreed with almost everything in it. I’m not disputing the fact that the internet and the social web have exacerbated certain kinds of bad behavior, both personal and corporate, but I think Keen’s relentless negativity (while it may help to sell books) is misplaced. What follows are a few examples of his arguments about why the internet is bad for society and for the economy, and where I think those arguments go astray:

It has created giant monopolies: Do Google and Amazon and Facebook have large shares of their respective markets? Sure they do (depending on how you define those markets — is Amazon in the digital-book market, or print as well, or all of retail?). But monopolies are nothing new. And while it’s true that network effects can help entrench these monopolies, they can also help disrupt them, just as Facebook did with the dominant social network MySpace and Google did with the dominant search engine, AltaVista.

Monopoly

In one of Keen’s favorite examples of the disruption of the internet, services like Instagram helped destroy Kodak (although of course the real story is much more complicated than that). But as the author himself notes, Kodak at one point accounted for 90 percent of the film sales in the U.S. and 80 percent of camera sales. So are monopolies only bad when they are internet monopolies? The internet destroys as many as it creates.

It’s free, but we are the product: This is a popular criticism of the internet and social media, that Google and Facebook and Instagram grow larger and more profitable by taking the fruits of our labor and profiting from the data related to it, usually by selling us to advertisers. But is this really that much worse than the world of mainstream entertainment, whether it’s cable television or Hollywood movies? TV networks have been luring us in with “free” content and then selling our eyeballs and behavior to advertisers for half a century. Is what Facebook is doing really that bad by comparison? At least platforms like Google and Facebook and Instagram give users the tools and the ability to create their own content and monetize it themselves.

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The jobs it creates are not real jobs: While it has helped to destroy thousands of secure and well-paying factory or middle-class jobs at places like IBM and Kodak, Keen says the internet has replaced these jobs with the “gig economy,” in which people sell things they have made on Etsy or rent their homes out on Airbnb and do odd jobs through TaskRabbit or other services.

Rather than being a positive thing, Keen says this is hollowing out the middle class and replacing it with a celebrity-style American Idol contest in which only a few people get the kind of attention that is required to make a living. But isn’t this better than nothing? The barriers to entry into the old factory-like markets of Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the publishing industry were much higher than they are now — was that really a better world? I would say no.

It hasn’t created enough value: This argument is related to the two previous ones. In a nutshell, Keen says we have traded real jobs making physical products for jobs in the “data factories” of companies like Google, where we work for nothing and are taken advantage of. But is it really fair to compare posting a photo on Instagram or a status update on Facebook to working on the line at General Motors, or to criticize Google because it isn’t creating as many jobs as GM? Not really.

Most of what Keen calls digital work is entertainment, something we choose to do because we enjoy it. Why should it be seen as a failure because it doesn’t create the same amount of economic value as an automotive assembly plant? On top of that, the economic value of millions of jobs through services like Etsy or Kickstarter may be difficult to quantify compared to looking at GM’s investment in plants, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Crowdfunding generic

It promotes a narcissistic culture: Keen uses the rise of Instagram to buttress a lot of his arguments, and this is another example — a topic that he also attacked in his earlier book, Cult of the Amateur. This is a classic case of seeing the latest technology as the worst thing that has ever happened to society, and statements like Keen’s can be seen repeated throughout the past century or so — used to refer to paperback novels, radio programs, TV and video games.

Even the rise of consumer photography itself was at one time seen as a sign of the decline of polite society, and the company whose death Keen laments in his chapter on Kodak was seen as the harbinger of a cheap, celebrity-obsessed culture. The internet didn’t invent any of these patterns of behavior, it has just provided more outlets, and at the same time, it has allowed millions of people to exercise their passion for creativity, and to share that with others. The positive social value of that is incalculable.

It is a lawless free-for-all: Keen talks a lot about the rise of piracy and how that has destroyed billions of dollars in value created by the music industry, the publishing industry and commercial photography. The figures he uses, however — such as the **’s estimate that $240 billion in value was removed from the music industry between 2000 and 2012 — are notoriously unreliable. For one thing, they usually include theoretical sales of CDs or DVDs that might have been sold if everyone who downloaded music had bought it the legal way, ignoring the fact that most of these phantom sales would likely never have occurred even if the internet had never been invented.

Meanwhile, Keen’s argument that more government regulation of the internet would actually *encourage* innovation rather than smothering it is difficult to take with a straight face — and certainly isn’t borne out by the history of government regulation of almost any emerging market you can name. Are companies like Uber and Airbnb pushing the boundaries of existing regulations? Of course they are, just like every other innovative company in history. And they will eventually be regulated, whether they like it or not.

At this point, you may already have detected a theme running throughout my disagreements with Andrew — namely, that he is relentlessly pessimistic and I am much more optimistic about the effect that technology has had on society and the economy. I suppose that makes me a Pollyanna next to Keen’s Chicken Little. But I don’t really see most of the negatives he refers to in his book as being any worse than the new technologies that preceded them, and in many cases they are much better. It’s good to think critically about any new technology — but not if that blinds us to its benefits.

11 Comments

brian fuller

I don’t think the writer here presented a very compelling case. I feel he, and a lot of commenters, want to make this a personal attack at times on Keen. For instance the charge of being too negative, or a “Chicken Little”. Keen is clearly making a coherent case with his book. He is making a case about the dangers of this new tool, and he is making it to a world that is already marinated in the opposing argument. If he was writing a book about the greatness of Mexican food, it would be silly to complain that he didn’t spend enough time on the positives of Italian food. He’s clearly making an academic case here. I’m positive if you talked with Keen he could list off many positives about the Internet, but that’s not the case he’s making. Another analogy might be complaining that a defense lawyer didn’t spend enough time explaining the prosecution’s case. As a reader I think you have to understand that. I also feel that as a reader you have to honestly engage the material and really try to agree with it as you read it, then make your internal counter-argument afterwards. A lot of the complaints and examples the writer uses are easily answered with just a cursory “think through”. It seems more likely that the writer had an emotional reaction early in the read and then worked to support their internal emotional response instead of honestly trying to hear the book’s argument. There is a process to reading and considering and you shortchange yourself, and I dare say your readers, when you skip the order of consideration.

Jimmy Cimermancic

If you take a second to think about how common sense are the rebuttals to Keen’s work, you might find the point in Keen’s work. We all recognize what good the internet has done for us, but we do -still- very much ignore any of the bad. That is why it is so easy to say “well what about this or that?” in response to any claim Keen makes. While it is foolish to follow either side to the extreme, Keen’s doing exactly that is valuable because of how little the negative aspects of the internet are discussed. Has the internet created greater equality of wealth or inequality? Has the internet created a culture of severity towards the anonymous user who happens to think differently? Has the internet intensified the idea, “it’s all in who you know,” to the detriment of those with true talent/capability? These are not simply black and white, yes or no questions. But we internetarians are bombarded with the answer that is affirming the internet’s positive impact, so we kneejerk towards that notion without giving it the thought it deserves.

chasmalloy

I have always stated ” at the exact moment in any time of its existence the world wide web is truly evil while simultaneously truly wonderful…..the internet morphed into the www a little over 20 years ago…To that point it is apter to state that the www is disappointing not the underlying internet. Moreover there are arguments, too numerous to list, that refute the bitter posture of Keen……the evolution of the single generation of the public access internet is barely 40 years old….perhaps Keen should be blaming the 50-year-old Moore’s law instead which is the principle path of exploitation taken by the vast monopolies he rails against

JohnLondon

I am sorry, Mathew, but your contribution is really shallow. We may disagree with Andrew Keen on a lot of points, you just took a few points and criticize them. Although you may be factually right, you are clearly missing the big picture. The digital age does raise many questions about its impact on us, how we should think and shape the world around us, what are the opportunities but also the threats, and how we want to create a new world (rather than being driven by things which just happen).
We need philosophers, we need economists. Then we need to understand and make decisions (including education, regulations, etc).
It’s a critical topic, and I am surprised many people just don’t take time to reflect on it.

exhibit44

I think it could have been a LOT worse than it is. I think the truly driven psychopaths of the world have been hypnotized in the last generation by making quick cash. They don’t realize cash is not very useful because now money is minted by research, not production.

The once-maligned Prof. Eric Drexler is now at Oxford, and makes an important point, love him or hate him. At some indeterminate future date, matter manipulation will be as cheap as data manipulation is today. His argument is convincing. You can imagine what Keen might say when the next generation gets gigs programming structures and vehicles (and even organisms), and not just the software that runs them.

http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/event/1738

JLo22

I think the reporter is right about Keen’s overblown relentlessly negative criticisms of the Internet. But his argument would have been much stronger had he not countered Keen’s arguments with his own attempt to throw back everything and the kitchen sink in an unsubstantiated piece. For example, the claim that we are Google’s product is well understood at this point, whether Keen says it or not, but the reporter seems to need to chalk up another one against Keen by rationalizing the opposite. Traditional media, developed over a century, operates much like a flower. It offers to the user something real – e.g., a NatGeo documentary on the latest findings of dogs and humans… with commercials; a 60 Minutes report on the drought… with commercials; an NFL Football game… with commercials. You get something, the media maker gets something. It’s a win-win situation. Content on the Internet (unless stolen from traditional media makers) rarely offers a win-win. This article, for example, is just an opinion piece written at one sitting masked as news. It was created as content to fill a channel. There is little win-win here and it essentially proves Keen’s point.

Steve Wilson

First of all I am shocked that even wrote a piece was written about Andrew Keen. I read a piece of this guy’s book in the past, was horrified and stopped listening/reading to any of his stuff ever since. He obvious is searching for a place in life and unfortunately has decided to take a low life career choice as a shock jock. His strategy: speak with a gruffy professor type voice, definitely enhance the British accent and take long pauses between sentences. This equates to intelligence. Please do some soul searching and move to a more productive use of your life. Kodak as an example – really?

jonahzona

I would have enjoyed this article much more if the author would have given some amount of weight to some of the criticisms. Not saying agree with, but at least find some nugget of truth to prove you could be slightly objective, even though you write for a technology blog.

I have read The Shallows and, while I disagreed with some of the conclusions Carr made, I could not deny that the internet has had a dramatic effect on the way that people think, including myself.

As an I.T. professional in higher education, tech is my job. Server clusters, 80″ LCDs, massive amounts of data. But I think there is this misconception that technology is in and of itself some virtuous thing. I would say it is not. It is not good or bad in and of itself. What we do with technology, and what we allow it to do to us is where things can get messy.

People don’t seem to have any sense of temperance. No, I am not saying people shouldn’t drink beer. Beer is great. I am talking about people having no sense of when to say no to technology. I call it the Jurassic Park concept. We spend so much time wondering if we could, we never stop to think if we should.

Tech is here to stay. The days of analog are gone. So are the days of innocent until proven guilty. Twitter killed that. So are the days of privacy. Snowden showed us that. So are the days of Beethoven. Because everyone is too consumed with their own haircut to realize they could change the world with their talent if they just put down their damn phone.

jjj

No time to properly comment , just a couple of things.
Kodak has nothing , nothing at all to do with the internet. Digital killed Kodak, now phones are killing digital cams but Kodak has nothing to do with the internet. Now if he hates the transistor, then sure, lets hate that for no reason too.
The craziest part is about the real jobs thing. He objects to efficiency . Damn industrial revolution! And the wheel, it was so much better without it. I bet he loves the printing press, since he makes money out of it. Maybe his next book should be wriiten by hand, i’m sure he;’ll agree that it’s the absolute right way to do things even if it is rather costly.
That so called narcissistic culture has nothing at all to do with the internet. Where and why a society is headed is lot more complex that Instagram to Youtube. The problems are far deeper and the roots elsewhere . He should also remember that kids are supposed to be idiots,that’s pretty much their job, later on they grow up

Michael Pate

I like how, on the one hand, he is arguing that Piracy has removed lots of potential income for celebrities while arguing that the Gig Economy only works for the few people who become Celebrities.

Some people benefit and some people get hurt by these sort of changes. But to argue that the changes themselves are bad is kind of silly.

johnmartin1

Throw in “The Shallows” and you have the two prevailing criticisms of the rise of digital culture. We cannot go back to the analog, isolated world. Would a heavily regulated — centrally engineered, if you will – Internet ameliorate Keen’s perceived downsides? I’m unconvinced that something that is inherently trans-national and super-human will yield to the dreams of a few bureaucrats and academics. To paraphrase Pynchon, technologies create their own great winds that drive them forward, discovery being to only necessary human contribution.

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