It’s almost a cliché now to think of the internet as ‘taking over’. However, as technology advances and becomes more integrated into our daily lives, it’s hard not to wonder whether our personal relationship with the internet is healthy, or one of dependence and habituation. And, as for its role in society, we need to ask whether the way it is changing how we make money and how we spend it is really a good thing.
I am interviewing Andrew Keen, perhaps ironically, over Skype. He is one of the leading figures in this discussion – and arguably one of the most polemical. I quiz him on his newest release, The Internet is Not the Answer, which broaches the issues of the internet that we might otherwise not see. “The book is an attempt to argue that the Digital Revolution so far has been a failure,” he tells me. “Rather than creating more equality and opportunity in jobs and individual rights, it’s actually undermining our rights. It’s creating a long-term employment crisis. It’s compounding the inequality between rich and poor, it’s creating a surveillance economy, and it’s also undermining the opportunities for people to make money through the sales of their creative products.”
Keen was vilified for this critique of the internet not ten years ago, but his way of thinking is becoming more recognised and more mainstream, with The Guardian – a franchise that once riled against his views – and the New York Times now quietly forwarding this internet-suspicious thinking. He summarises – “all in all, it’s been a failure so far. This doesn’t mean it will be a failure in the future – hopefully it won’t be – but so far it hasn’t been that successful.”
“all in all, it’s been a failure so far. This doesn’t mean it will be a failure in the future”
The book’s scope is broad, with much to say about how the global economy has had to adapt to suit and now be centred around the internet to the detriment of the creators of content such as writers, musicians and filmmakers. “It needs a change of business model. The current model of giving stuff away for free and selling advertising, which essentially means packaging us up and creating a surveillance-style economy, that isn’t working,” Keen says. He’s also concerned about issues of our privacy and our growing dependence on social media. “There needs to be more regulation when it comes to monopolies, to rights, to surveillance and privacy. There needs to be a lot of fixes – some government, some corporate, some individual; you can’t rely on any single institution to solve these issues.”
Perhaps the internet is indicative of the society that birthed it. We bemoan the pop-ups and adverts on YouTube videos, ‘Sponsored Posts’ on Facebook, and impossible terms and conditions, and yet simultaneously expect the actual content on the internet to be free. Further, many of us expect content that isn’t intended to be free – music, films and books – to be freely available. I wonder whether we have more of a role in this than we are aware of. “I think that students have a responsibility,” he replies. “You’re the generation growing up in this world; you’re the so-called ‘digital natives’ […] It’s one of the dominant issues of our age: especially the impact of networked technology on jobs, and on privacy, and on who has power. Those are huge issues that your generation has to confront.”
Keen proposes that online issues are somewhat misunderstood by those who are most affected by them. “The internet isn’t about Facebook or Twitter or Amazon, buying stuff and posting stuff. That has something to do with that, and some of my work is a cultural critique of the narcissism – the ‘selfie culture’ that’s emerging – but there are bigger issues for your generation.”
“It’s one of the dominant issues of our age: especially the impact of networked technology on jobs, and on privacy, and on who has power”
So just what are these ‘bigger issues’? I ask Keen what advice he would give to our generation. He first suggests we must seriously consider how much privacy we want to give up for free online services, whether it’s Google, Twitter or Facebook etc. Keen is careful to qualify this statement – “sometimes it doesn’t seem that bad; it’s not as if there’s a little man at Google or Facebook spying on us – I don’t argue that. We’re not in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But, at the same time, we want to maintain our autonomy as individuals in this increasingly networked age.” He sees a tension between online benefits and offline privacy, “where we can develop ourselves, and build ourselves, and refine our individuality, of who we are as unique human beings. Do we want to throw in our chips and say ‘this technology’s great, and I don’t mind living my life as an open book’?”
His second piece of advice is directed particularly at us – students studying at university. “You need to understand that the old world, of learning a trade as an accountant, a lawyer, or a doctor, is quickly finishing,” he warns. While there will always be people in these professions, in the future he sees them as an elite class working with intelligent machines. The best thing we can do to compete in that sort of economy is “to be flexible, entrepreneurial, able to invent and reinvent yourself” so that we’re not dependent on a single job. “If you just want to live like your parents, and be a lawyer or an accountant for fifty years then the likelihood is that you’re going to have rather a big disappointment, as that way of life and that kind of economy is quickly going away.”
While technology is shaping our professional lives, if anything it has greater influence over our personal lives. Andrew Keen gets some flak from those in tech for being too puritan over use of the internet. He sets the record straight for me. “I’m not in favour of banning [the internet] or switching it off or any sort of ‘internet sabbaths’. Some people are addicted, although I’m not convinced whether it’s like tobacco or narcotics.” What changes does he suggest then? “If you want a happy life you need be able to master your technology as opposed to letting this technology master you. We’re going to have a 60s kind of counter-technology moment, and rather than smashing our devices and becoming luddites we need to learn to use them in a more moderated, sensible way where we are the masters rather than these devices becoming our masters.”
“rather than smashing our devices and becoming luddites we need to learn to use them in a more moderated, sensible way”
I quip that we might hope that there can be some sort of movement that can inspire people to think more in this way.”If there were, it’d be on Facebook and Twitter, and people would be tweeting ‘don’t tweet’ or something,” he jokes. “The idea of a ‘movement’ I think is wrong; I just think that people need to remember that there is a life outside technology, and that they may be missing it. Everyone has a balance – some people don’t need to listen to that, others do; some people need to address it in a more serious way; for some here may even be a medical issue.” So, technology should be a supplement to life, not life itself? “Exactly,” he says.
As perhaps the first generation to fully grow up in the digital revolution, we’ve watched computing grow from its roots – those white, clunky towers of virus-riddled PCs running Windows 95 or, heaven forbid, 2000 – to the phones and tablets that we check habitually for notifications. Tucked up in bed trawling through the wastes of Facebook or Twitter on our expensive tablets and phones, we don’t often step back and see how this technological saturation affects us, as well as society as a whole. The Internet is Not the Answer is a great starting point for this discussion.
Andrew Keen is on to something – whilst a lot of what needs to be changed about the internet lies with big corporations and world governments, we, the end-users of the technology, give them this power, and have the power necessary to effect change. I disagree when he says that the internet is not democratising; if anything, never have individuals had as much power to communicate with the world, express themselves to a global audience, and access to the cumulation of millennia of human thought.
The internet is about more than buying things and posting pictures of food. It’s just up to us to realise it.