The case against the Internet

Double click to enlarge. Source: Visual Capitalist.

Andrew Keen’s book, The Internet Is Not The Answer (2015), which I recently finished reading, is a good antidote to cyber-utopians such as Kevin Kelly.

Keen says the Internet is shaping society in ways we the people don’t understand.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but all are out of control.

Like Kelly, he writes about technology as if it were an autonomous force, shaped by its own internal dynamic rather than by human decisions.  Unlike Kelly, he thinks this is a bad thing, not a good thing.

He does not, of course, deny that the Internet has made life easier in many ways, especially for writers.   But that is not the whole story.  He claims that—

  • The Internet is a job-destroyer.
  • The Internet enables business monopoly
  • The Internet enables surveillance and invasion of privacy.
  • The Internet enables anonymous harassment and bullying.
  • The Internet enables intellectual property theft

Keen quotes Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “We shape our tools, then our tools shape us.”

What he doesn’t quite understand is that the “we” who shape the tools is not the same as the “us” who are shaped by them.

Or to use Marxist lingo, what matters is who owns the means of production.

Technology serves the needs and desires of those who own it.  Technological advances generally serve the needs and desires of those who fund it.

Advances in technology that benefit the elite often serve the general good as well, but there is no economic or social law that guarantees this.   This is as true of the Internet as it is of everything else.

Let me look at his claims one by one—

∞∞∞

Job Destruction

Keen’s Exhibit A of the destructive power of the Internet is the fall of Eastman Kodak Co., which in 25 years went from the dominant company in the photographic industry to Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Kodak’s peak in Rochester (D&C)  Click to enlarge

He visited Rochester, N.Y., a few months after Kodak came out of bankruptcy in Septenber, 2013.  What he saw reminded him of a science fiction dystopia, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The main cause, he said, was the rise of companies such as Instagram, which dematerialized the process of taking pictures.   The Kodak workers who labored to make cameras and photographic film were replaced by software applications.

Keen’s take on Kodak is of special interest to me because I have lived for more than 40 years in Rochester, N.Y., and, for 12 of those years, my main job as a reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle was covering Kodak.

He got some of his facts wrong.  Kodak never employed 145,000 people in the greater Rochester area, and Kodak’s work force never was unionized.   And, as he noted, there were many reasons for Kodak’s decline.

The larger question is whether the information economy destroys manufacturing jobs.  Every means of storing words, pictures or data, whether a printed page or a computer service, is a physical object, and that object has to be manufactured somewhere by someone.   The idea that “bits are replacing atoms” is a misleading metaphor.

Now if it is possible to produce something with less labor, less raw materials and less energy, that should be a good thing, not a bad thing.   It is a bad thing when a small group of people monopolize the benefits of the saving of labor, materials and energy.   This is a political, economic and social issue, not just a technological issue.

Kodak’s decline in Rochester (D&C)  Click to enlarge

The history of Rochester is a history of successions of industries—an example of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction.   It first became an industrial center by harnessing the power of the Genesee River for flour milling.  Later it became a horticultural center and a center of the garment industry.   Bausch & Lomb Inc. made late 19th century Rochester a center of the optics industry.   This made early 20th century Rochester a center for photographic company start-ups, of which Kodak was eventually the sole survivor.  A Kodak supplier called Haloid Corp. transformed into Xerox Corp. and created the xerographic copying industry.

The question for Rochester—and for the United States as a whole—is what, if anything, comes next.  There’s no law of economics or technology that determines what comes next.

Business Monopoly

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is a classic monopolist.  He established Amazon as the world’s leading on-line retailer of books, then as the world’s leading on-line retailer, by investing heavily in growth so as to dominate his markets before any competitor could catch up.

He cut prices to the bone, virtually sacrificing profit, in order to attract customers.  He made himself indispensable to book publishers and also to second-hand bookstores, then used their dependency to squeeze their revenues.

This is not too different from the way John D. Rockefeller Sr., a classic monopolist, established the Standard Oil monopoly.

The reason that Bezos and others can do this is a change in the attitude of the federal government toward anti-trust enforcement that began in the Carter and Reagan administrations and continued through the administrations of the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  The new attitude was that economic concentration was allowable if it led to greater economic efficiencies.

So it was not just the characteristics of Internet technology that led to monopoly.  It was the public policy in effect when the Gore Act of 1991 opened up the Internet to business activity.

The problem of monopoly is not a technological problem.  It is a familiar problem of public policy with well-established solutions—enforcement of anti-trust laws, regulation of monopolies as public utilities and / or creation of publicly-owned enterprises as alternatives.

Surveillance and Privacy

The business model of Google and Facebook is to gather information about users which can be sold to advertisers.   The power of computer technology to store and integrate information is unprecedented.

As a consumer, I dislike giving up my privacy, but I regard it as an acceptable trade-off for getting discounts or improved service.   There is an alternative to Google called DuckDuckGo that does not store personal information, but I find its search algorithm less useful than Google’s, so I don’t use it.   I use discount cards in two supermarkets where I shop because I don’t mind giving up information about my shopping habits in return.

The problem comes when information—particularly incomplete information—is gathered and used against me, such as by credit agencies or employment agencies.   I have a friend whose career was damaged and maybe ruined because of mistaken records about her college degrees, so that she appeared to be claiming educational qualifications she didn’t have.  It took her more than 10 years to discover and correct the mistake.

Then there is the information gathered by government organizations such as the National Security Agency.   The FBI and other covert agencies collected information on people before there was an Internet, but the existence of the Internet takes things to a new level.  People are denied the right to travel on airplanes or engage in other basic activities based on somebody’s interpretation of secret government information.

I think the best solution is that proposed by science fiction writer David Brin in his essay on The Transparent Society.   He said it isn’t practical to stop government and corporate organizations from collecting information about us.  But what we can do is to make them as transparent to we, the people, as we are to them.   If somebody is collecting information on me, I should have the right to know who it is and what they know, and to correct the record.

Harassment and Bullying

There are laws to protect people against physical harassment and bullying, but these are hard to enforce against those who lurk behind the anonymity made possible by the Internet.

Somebody’s life or reputation can be ruined as a result of the person saying something thoughtless on Twitter.   Sensitive souls, especially teenagers, can be driven to suicide by threats and insults of a digital mob, operating under anonymity made possible by Internet technology.

Should people be required to post under their true names?

For a lot of people, the right to post anonymously is priceless.   People should have the means to express their honest opinions without fear of reprisal by governments, employers or public opinion.   Anonymous whistle-blowers, empowered by the Internet, protect the public from secret abuses of power.

It’s the age-old question of free speech and its abuse, made more intense by the Internet.

Copyright Violation

Andrew Keen said the Internet has ruined the music business—first by facilitating on-line piracy, second by allowing music distributors to rip off artists.    He said this is true of all forms of creative expression, including journalism.

People are so used to getting material free that musicians, artists and writers can’t make a living, he wrote, and they’d rather get free material from mediocre amateurs than highly-trained professionals.

This is a problem that existed before the Internet.  It existed even before the availability of xerographic copying and cheap video recording.  It is a political problem, not primarily a technical problem, reflecting the power balance between artists and writers on the one hand, and distributors and publishers on the other.

∞∞∞

The Internet is not the answer to the world’s political, economic and social problems.   Neither is it the root of these problems.

LINKS

Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor by Tim Berners-Lee for the Web Foundation.

We didn’t lose control – it was stolen by Aral Balkan.

Amazon Web Services outage reveals critical lack of redundancy across the Internet by Nat Levy for GeekWire.

Why Nothing Works Anymore by Ian Bogost for The Atlantic.

The Internet Is Broken – Here’s How I’d Fix It by Walter Isaacson for Medium.

Tech and the Fake Market tactic by Anil Dash for Medium.  [Added 3/31/2017]  Hat tip to peteybee.

Google’s Dangerous Identity Crisis by Brian Feldman for select/all.

∞∞∞

Afterthought [Added 4/5/2017]

One of the admirable things about the Silicon Valley culture is that entrepreneurs there celebrate the willingness to try and fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

Andrew Keen ridiculed this in his book, The Internet Is Not the Answer, but he was wrong.   You can learn as much from failure as from success.

The person who has never failed is a person who has never attempted anything.   Eric Berne, the founder of the Transactional Analysis school of psychiatry, said that a winner is not a person who never loses.  Rather a winner is a person whose losses are signposts on the road to eventual victory.

 

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2 Responses to “The case against the Internet”

  1. ashiftinconsciousness Says:

    Brilliant post.

    As often happens, humans take a good thing and use it to excess. When we refuse to put in place a system to regulate our activities, we tend toward extreme behavior – individually and collectively.

    Like

  2. Daniel Brandt Says:

    I read Keen’s new book and liked it, as well as a 2008 book by him about the Internet, “The Cult of the Amateur.” Another good read is an anti-Internet book by Robert Scheer: “They Know Everything About You” (2016). This goes into the Snowden revelations a bit, and Scheer’s perspective is important. He was an editor at Ramparts magazine from 1964-1969, and his old “New Left” perspective is much appreciated by someone like me. Next he was a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Now he teaches at the University of Southern California, where I spent 1967-1969 doing things like joining SDS and burning my draft card (and I’d do it again).

    My opinion of the the Internet is that we’ve lost an entire generation due to the dumbing-down effect of ad-driven garbage. Then, as if that isn’t dumb enough, the whole thing was amplified ten-fold by smartphone technology.

    I suspect it’s too late to do much about it.

    Like

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