The Many Confusions Of The Internet Is Not The Answer, By Andrew Keen

from the what's-the-question-again? dept

Any book with a title like The Internet Is Not the Answer leads one to wonder what the question is, and whether there’s a “right” answer to it.

The book’s author — Internet entrepreneur, talk show host, and social critic Andrew Keen ? is a little dodgy on these details. What he gives us is a tour of the Internet Age’s problems ? the loss of jobs, privacy, and copyright residuals. The central question at which he seems to be driving is how to build a digital economy that does not result in ruined lives and radical disparities in wealth and power, but the precise question in Mr. Keen’s book remains elusive.

So does the answer. The book does have a concluding chapter called “The Answer,” and it is apparently “all of the above”: more government oversight; “voluntary, market-led solutions”; and an effort to get Internet slackers to accept a new “Bill of Responsibilities that establishes a social contract for every member of networked society.” Keen does not, however, develop the specifics of such regulation, solutions, or contract, or of a communitarian ethic which would inform them. More critically, he seems little interested in positive solutions for information equity.

Keen is feted on the book jacket as “the Christopher Hitchens of the Internet” (complete with British accent and rhetorical swagger), but what he’s selling is more entertainment than critical analysis. His book is chockablock with amusing and sometimes telling anecdotes about the quirks and excesses of the new digital mandarins ? Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, et al. ? but provides little specificity about the problem as Keen himself frames it: “As we all step into this brave new digital world, our challenge is to shape our networking tools before they shape us.”

The book is short ? 226 pages, essentially a compilation of dystopian Internet commentary over the last several years, with some original reporting ? and skips entirely the major skirmishes in this space. The seminal network neutrality battle now coming to a head in Washington D.C. goes entirely undiscussed. He complains about how the Internet has become “monetized,” but fails to address the primary drivers of that, including for example Comcast’s extraction (extortion?) of extra fees to carry those Netflix programs requested by Comcast broadband subscribers. And while Keen devotes a chapter to online piracy and copyright, he omits any reference to Congress’ recent addition of 20 years onto the copyright term, making information harder to find and more expensive to access, whether on the web or elsewhere. Aside from snarky references to Wikipedia as the province of white males with some sort of social adjustment disorder, there is scant attention paid to other attempts to carve non-monetized spaces out of the Internet’s bounty.

Keen is at his best when he essays something akin to objective reporting. His chapter on the intellectual predecessors and development of the Internet is a quite useful addition to the literature. His chapter on privacy (“Chrystal Man”) is also worthwhile, outlining the dark side of information utopia, how governments and corporations vacuum up and aggregate data on individuals, with obligatory stops along the way at Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and Facebook’s emotion- manipulation experiments. He quotes reports about data broker Acxiom, for instance, which has “profiles of 75% of all Americans, each around five thousand data points that can be constructed and deconstructed” for both marketing and government surveillance purposes. What he does not do is indicate the sources of this data ? the key question posed by recent Senate, FTC, and GAO reports ? the phone and cable operators, credit card companies, and government agencies that feed information into these huge databases.

At times, Keen is stunningly na?ve. “Elected governments exist so that we can shape the society in which we live,” he writes, “There’s no other alternative [sic] to controlling technological change.” Yes, Congress should get right on it, and elected officials should lead. The only problem is that Congress is controlled by what Susan Crawford rightly calls a “mosh pit” of special interests. The 1996 Telecom Act took years to write, back when Congress still half-functioned, and the telco and cable corporations filed suit against the Act’s regulations before the ink was dry on the Federal Register.

At no point does Keen give the reader a handle on the real-world issues along the divide between open access information and architecture on the one hand, and a “top down system that is concentrating wealth rather than spreading it” on the other. What Keen offers is a critique of the Silicon Valley’s reigning libertarian ethic which is entertaining at times, but ultimately as facile and shallow as that ethic itself.

Chris Witteman is a telecommunications attorney in San Francisco.

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Comments on “The Many Confusions Of The Internet Is Not The Answer, By Andrew Keen”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“There’s no other alternative [sic] to controlling technological change.” Yes, Congress should get right on it, and elected officials should lead. The only problem is that Congress is controlled by what Susan Crawford rightly calls a “mosh pit” of special interests”

The last bit claims he doesnt want special interest groups, yet the first bit downright guarantees it……i guess i might be a little bias with that comment, ill admit, as i too have special interest group its called the special interest group of every fucking individual on the fucking globe……..whose your special interest group mr i dont care enough to find out your name

Anonymous Coward says:

our challenge is to shape our networking tools before they shape us

Actually, our challenge is to shape our networking tools to continue the pace of us shaping ourselves.

Technology has often been viewed as something distinct and separate from ourselves. This has never been true. The shape of the internet is merely the shape of the human imagination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

our challenge is to shape our networking tools before they shape us

The less restriction there is on people talking to and cooperating with each other, the safer place the world becomes.
Those who wish to shape the Internet are those who wish to shape society to what they consider it should be, which is what terrorists and politicians try to do, and create wars and strife by doing so.

jameshogg says:

“the Christopher Hitchens of the Internet”

He obviously hasn’t read “In Defense Of Plagiarism”.

He complains about how the Internet has become “monetized,”

The internet has ALWAYS been monetized, ever since ISPs started charging for internet connections and advertising has been rife.

Cyber-utopianism is self-evidently a false idea but unfortunately a popular one, just like the utopia of copyright philosophy. However, it will come to falsify itself in clear colours, without the need for unnecessary regulation that will not solve any problems and just accumulate power to the state.

The questions about liberty and freedom remain the same regardless of the internet’s existence. Which means the state and corporations should all be seen as suspect, just like before.

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