Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen

We live in a world where anyone with a computer can have a platform for their opinion, start a business or download any type of media that they're interest in, often at low or no-cost. But what have been the consequences to people left out of the internet boom? And what lessons can we learn now that the internet has become so tightly integrated into all of our lives? Andrew Keen, the Christopher Hitchens of technology writing, uses his new book The Internet is Not the Answer to act the contrarian to today's full-speed ahead approach to the internet and to ask the important questions that often get pushed aside in our quest for the newest cool thing or the next Google.

The book's backdrop is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which Keen observes have become increasingly divided been haves, who attend exclusive clubs that claim to cater to all types, and have-nots who live on the streets in front. What concerns Keen beyond the destruction of the middle class that has accompanied the internet economy, as jobs have simply vanished (with desolate Rochester, New York, the home of the dead film industry provided as an example), is the fact that internet "gurus" and their acolytes keep preaching job creation and freedom when evidence points to the demolition of entire industries. While the early history of the internet is based philosophically around a sharing economy, Amazon has accumulated enough power to put retailers out of business and to run modern sweatshops. Meanwhile, Uber is one of the hottest businesses around, and while it has created some jobs it has also put traditional taxi drivers out of work. And what will be the effect when driverless cars appear on the landscape? And are jobs really being created when a successful company like Instagram gets purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars when it has only thirteen full-time employees?

Keen also ponders the new narcissism of the Facebook/Instagram internet "selfie" existence, in which we all become celebrities in our own minds to a small circle of likeminded friends. Paired with a world where online journalism is defined by the self-publishing of Huffington Post while professional newspaper reporting is seemingly slipping into extinction, we have to wonder whether the internet that was supposed to open our world has actually trapped us in boxes in which the only opinions that matter to us are ones that mirror our own and we cease to exist if we are not sharing our faces and location with our friends. Our online lives themselves are becoming commodities for companies offering free services and between our willingness to share everything and a world where the government can potentially track our every online and physical movement, perhaps it's time to take a step back and consider how connected we actually want to be.

Keen even tackles the current "maker" craze, wondering whether the potential for people to create goods in their own homes is just a repeat of previous empty promises of every musician being able to have an equal platform on the internet, when the current situation of music streaming that pays artists almost nothing is much more complicated than originally envisioned. Could 3-D printing mean the end of sweatshops, as fabrics become easy to create in the home, or the end of an industry, displacing thousands of workers? Obviously the answers are not simple but at least someone is asking the questions. However, as the title of the book states, the internet itself is not the answer to anything.

Often The Internet is Not the Answer comes off as a humorless screed but that does not diminish the importance of Keen's writing. As a parent, I have often found myself wondering if the current enthusiasm in STEM education needs to be accompanied by an equal reemphasis of philosophy, ethics and critical thinking, and this book does nothing to change my opinion. In the meantime, this book will certainly get you thinking about the potential societal impact of the next Amazon purchase or Uber ride.

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