Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen (Atlantic, £16.99) In this ambitious new book, tech entrepreneur Andrew Keen rejects the gospel of the digital revolution. His central thesis—that the internet promised innovation, opportunity and democracy, yet has merely hastened inequality—is overly dystopian but not without merit. He is making his case when suspicion and envy are eroding our admiration of online pioneers such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Keen plays on these fears, noting that the geeks are inheriting all the economic and political power—and it’s our data that’s helping them do it. Every time we log on we’re lining the digeratti’s pockets. Keen’s message, which at times is delivered through gritted teeth (his own start-up, Audio Café, was a flop) is that we’d be better off without the internet—“its hidden negatives outweigh the self-evident positives.” It started well in the 1970s and 80s when it was controlled by publicly funded technologists who toiled for scientific advancement and national security. The rot set in during the 1990s, when control was ceded to commercial internet service providers, triggering what Keen describes as the internet’s loss of a “common purpose… perhaps even its soul.” The digital revolution, he argues, has served only to fuel the egos and wallets of a white, male, middle-class few. Not only are human values being discarded in favour of a winner-takes-all economy, but technology destroys more jobs than it creates. Amazon eliminated high-street bookshops, digital cameras killed Kodak, Uber threatens traditional taxis. Yet, while this is a valid point, Keen allows his personal resentments too much space. He rants about a San Francisco members club called The Battery which is the hangout for the Silicon Valley elite. Not only does he sound like the guy who can’t get past the velvet rope, but he undermines himself with his disregard of the internet’s huge benefits to consumers, and role in supplying information and education. This industrial revolution is only 20 years old; it’s too soon to write it off.