The Internet is Not the Answer

Internet is Not the AnswerLast week a new book, The Internet is Not the Answer came out by Andrew Keen. This book looks in detail at some of the negative consequences of the Internet, and there are many. Following are a few examples of the themes of the book:

  • The Internet is creating immense wealth for a few, but not the jobs that go with it. Examples are WeChat that is worth $19 billion and employs 55 people. Airbnb was valued at over $10 billion last year with 700 employees compared to Hilton that is worth half as much and employs 152,000.
  • Rather than creating a transparent society, the Internet is allowing businesses and governments to spy on us full-time.
  • Rather than creating a cultural renaissance the Internet and on-line piracy have destroyed the music, newspaper, photography and book industries.
  • Rather than promoting democracy, the Internet allows anonymous bullying and the rule of the mob on social media and on sites like 4Chan and Reddit. Social media had created a pandemic of racism and sexism.
  • Rather than create wealth the Internet is contributing to the wealth gap and is helping to make the average person poorer. Multi-billion dollar start-ups are widening the chasm between rich and poor.
  • Online data services like Pinterest and Tumblr are getting wealthy by having the public build databases for free.

When you first read Keen’s arguments you find yourself agreeing with most of them (and there are many more than the ones listed above). But as I read I realized that there are pretty powerful counterarguments for most, but not all of his arguments.

I certainly am as puzzled as Keen about why some of these Internet start-ups are worth billions. But then I think back to the other tech booms during my life – supercomputers in the 70’s and telecom and companies in the 90s and I remember that we’ve seen this before. And I also know that over time the market gets over its exuberance for start-ups and overvalued companies eventually get right-valued. Let’s face it, Uber is a taxi service and there is nothing more brick-and-mortar than that. Airbnb is a giant rental agent, not much else. Eventually these companies are going to get valued according to the revenues and cash flow that they generate, just as happened in the past to Cray Computers, Control Data, NextTel, and all of the CLECs of the late 90s.

I think everybody shares Keen’s concern about lack of privacy. Right now there doesn’t look to be a solution to that, but one can hope that over time that somebody will find some spy-proof ways for us to websurf and communicate. Whoever does that is going to get very rich.

But some of his concerns such as the death of the music and newspaper businesses feel a bit reactionary. Every major new technology kills off old technology businesses. It’s inevitable and frankly a necessary part of modernization. Keen spends a lot of time lamenting the death of Kodak, but they were dead at the first release of a digital camera and not from anything the Internet did. And I have trouble lamenting the slow death of large news organizations that were gobbled up a decade ago by large corporations and that quickly stopped taking stances that went against their owner’s interest. And newspapers were largely supported from ads. Does anybody really miss newspaper ads compared to the Internet?

I actually got a chuckle at his complaint against 4Chan. This is a website that is largely populated by teens, and mostly teenage boys. That is an age when being obnoxious is normal and if you have never been to 4Chan, it’s everything you can imagine hordes of anonymous teenage boys can be. It’s raunchy, sleazy, sex-driven and obnoxious. I went there once, shuddered and moved on. But I bet that nobody reading this blog has ever been harmed in any way by 4Chan. It is its own little sleazy neighborhood on the web where teen angst, grossness and testosterone rule the day. Teenagers are never going to be politically correct, so I’m actually glad they have their own niche.

I am puzzled about his rant against sexism and racism on social sites. Certainly anybody is free to say what they want on Facebook and other social media, but there is generally a big lash-back against overt nastiness. Certainly folks of the same ilk tend to hang out together on these sites and so no doubt there are pockets of racism and sexism and every other ism hidden inside social media. But social media also has a lot to do with trends in the opposite direction. I think a lot of the reason there is more acceptance of the LBGT community and issues like marriage equality has been the social media world assuring people that it’s the right thing to do.

The Internet certainly has made new billionaires. But there were just as many billionaires made in the generation before the Internet. Wall street has been making billionaires out of the selected few who have been able to take companies public for several generations now. The Internet didn’t make billionaires out of the Walton clan from Walmart or Martha Stewart. There are a whole lot of reasons that the rich have been getting richer and I can’t see this being pinned solely on the Internet. Cutting tax rates and creating tax loopholes for the wealthy has probably had more to do with our wealth disparity than anything the Internet has done.

I definitely recommend the book. Anti-technology folks will have a field day with the book since it lists everything they might imagine is wrong with the Internet. But the books is well written and for the rest of us it gives us reason to pause and think about the issues Keen raises. Some of his concerns like privacy are shared by many and perhaps books like this will add to the cry to fix some of these issues. But I doubt if many will share his overall concerns about the Internet, because for every negative impact there are also very positive ones. And even Keen is not entirely pessimistic in the end and he sees some hope for the Internet, even with all the ugliness that he sees in it.

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