Book review: The Internet is not The Answer, by Andrew Keen

My delayed birthday present this year was a copy of Andrew Keen’s The Internet is not the Answer; as you can probably surmise, it’s a polemic in which Keen argues that, far from creating the greater and more equal society we were promised, the Internet has actually made things worse for the 99%. It’s certainly a provocative book, which is why I’ve decided to review it here for my regular reader. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of reviewing a book about the negative impact of the Internet on the Internet). I should probably also mention that I’m a white man in my 20s, so I’m just the sort of person Keen asserts is wrecking the vision of Tim Berners-Lee – or at least I would be if I worked for a tech startup instead of in a factory.

I do not care for this book. Keen darts around from topic to topic, constantly switching focus like a magpie with ADHD in Tyrion Lannister’s treasure room, repeatedly brings up events and examples that would have been better treated in depth in a single section, and constantly repeats phrases like “the writing was on the wall” and “Instagram moment”. Indeed, it reads like a book-length Gish Gallop; for those not familiar, the Gish Gallop, or ‘spreading’, is a rhetorical technique in which the arguer makes an overwhelming number of arguments which require considerably time, effort, and nuance to refute than they do to make. The technique is named for creationist Duane Gish, who is notorious for using it in timed debates in order to make the evolution proponent look bad when they can’t properly explain why his 50 arguments are worthless in the half hour allotted to them. (The popularity of this technique among creationists is a big part of the reason scientists generally refuse debate challenges).

This is frustrating, because when Keen tries, he can actually examine a topic in considerable depth and put forward a real, well-sourced argument. Take Uber. Keen shows how the rise of Uber puts taxi drivers out of business, but the Uber drivers that replace them don’t earn enough to survive, all while Uber’s investors and shareholders rake in millions of dollars in profits. This is a real case in which the Internet makes the majority poorer while bloating the bank accounts of the 1%, and had the book consisted of material like this, his analysis of how TaskRabbit leads to a poor and exploited workforce, and his excoriation of successful Silicon Valley billionaires’ insistance that they’re total failures, it would have been a fine book.

Alas, Keen comes maddeningly close to identifying real issues only to fall down by his insistence on blaming the Internet. Case in point is his profile of the rise and fall of Kodak, which he spends approximately two chapters on as a case study (the constant flitting between topics makes it difficult to measure how much time he actually gives to any one). Founded in 1888, Kodak rose to prominence as a manufacturer of high-quality cameras and photographic film, for a time being the kind of monopoly Keen rails against, only to collapse in the early 21st century. If you’re reasonable, you would expect this was due to competition from Canon, Nikon, and Fujifilm, who came out with digital cameras that, due to the lack of film, were more attractive to consumers; indeed, Keen himself brings up the fact that Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but was unable to find a market for it due to GUIs having just been invented as Xerox.

But no, Keen blames Instagram, a site which launched in 2010, when Kodak was already plummeting. You see, as Kodak was on the decline, photo-sharing sites like Instagram weres exploding; 90% of all photos ever (up to that point) were taken in 2013 and posted online. Therefore, Instagram, a service for displaying photos, was what killed Kodak, a company that manufactured devices used to take photos as well as the medium on which to print them. This apparently had nothing at all to do with the companies manufacturing less wasteful cameras which, by storing images in digital format, made film obsolete and created the environment Instagram needed to flourish.

Look, even if Instagram was never founded, and neither were itss predecessors ImageShack, PhotoBucket, and Flickr, and nobody else ever had the idea of a site devoted to hosting and sharing photos, Kodak would still have collapsed due to its failure to capitalise on what its customers actually wanted, which was more useful, less wasteful (ie film-free) cameras. It’s the same basic reason why Digital disintegrated in the early 1990s after silicon got cheap and they failed to capitalise on the microcomputer revolution.

In another example, he extensively describes 3D printers as a new Internet-based technology that is going to steal jobs from hard-working manufacturing workers (like me). Setting aside the idiocy of his analysis, 3D printers have nothing to do with the Internet. Keen doesn’t even assert that they are, he simply talks about them as if they are and hopes nobody notices. I don’t doubt he’s sincere, but there is zero logic on display here; the author appears to consider 3D printers to be Internet-based because they’re new and people on the Internet like them.

One interesting idea Keen puts forward is the notion of mental real estate. In the physical world, I have two bookshops within walking distance; one is a dedicated bookshop, the other is 50% newsagent. If I’m willing to get on my bike, there are some more bookshops on the other side of town. If I’m looking to buy a new book, I can reasonably go into any one of these. If I want to buy a book on the Internet, I go to Amazon. Sure, there are other online booksellers, but Amazon is the one I know how to find (plus it’s the one that turns up at the top of Google’s list when I search for a title). This is a sort of business version of the Monkeysphere, whereby we remember the names of a few super-succesful businesses and go to them when we want something, which leads to monopolisation. This is a really interesting idea, and is the sort of thing the Internet would particularly favour, but Keen only spends a few pages on it before launching into the idea that the Internet is responsible for all monopolies everywhere ever. He repeatedly, unironically, directly compares the Internet of today to America just after World War I in terms of inequality, monopolism, and worker exploitation without ever realising that the situation to whcih he compares modern society arose without Internet or even electronic computers, and only a relatively sparse phone network. All too often, he attributes companies’ worker exploitation and anti-union approaches to the existence of the Internet, when in fact these have been standard operating procedure for non-German companies since companies were first conceived.

To give a concrete example, Keen talks in a couple of places in the book about the relationship between Amazon and FedEx. Since Amazon is a huge customer, it has enough clout to negotiate lower rates from FedEx. The size of Amazon may be due to its dominance of mental real estate, which in turn is a situation the Internet does tend to inherently incubate. However, Keen then jumps into Amazon’s well-known embrace of the Taylor System as evidence that the Internet causes companies to become evil monsters, disregarding the fact that Taylor first implemented his ideas in the 19th century. He brings up the fact that Amazon is looking to replace its workers with robots, and also that it is exploring drones and self-driving cars for delivery as the kind of bad things that will happen. The thesis here is that Amazon’s use of self-driving cars will be bad for the economy as it will result in massive numbers of FedEx employees being laid off, yet he never considers that FedEx might make use of self-driving vehicles when they become available in order to discard most of its workforce regardless of Amazon’s action, thus leading to the same situation.

Indeed, this threat of automation destroying jobs is brought up repeatedly as an aspect of the new, tech-dominated economy. However, this is something companies have always sought. Keen himself acknowledges that this is what concerned the original Luddites, citing Paul Krugman stating a position which I happen to agree with. Yet he then openly asserts that this is a new trend as opposed to simply the present manifestation of centuries of exploitation of the poor by the rich.

So all in all, the Internet may or may not be the answer. Andrew Keen, however, should first of all work out what the actual question is, and then apply logic and relevant information to work out the actual answer.

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