The Big Issue : Edition 477
30 THEBIGISSUE6–19FEB2015 Net Loss ILLUSTRATIONBYKATEBANAZI that dark side, evoking many disturbing facts and figures about what he variously calls a ‘winner-take-all economy’, ‘new feudalism’, an ‘app economy’ and a ‘data factory economy’. Whatever its name, he argues that our ‘networked’ society is built on fast-rising companies with tendencies towards monopoly. Take Amazon, whose strategy was to get so big so fast that they’ve become all but invulnerable to competition. Keen says the number of bookstores in the US has halved since Amazon launched in the mid-1990s, and the company only employs 14 people for every US$10 million in sales revenue (versus 47 for brick-and-mortar retailers). And with companies like Facebook and Twitter, users provide most of the content for free. “On the internet, most of us are perpetual interns,” he quips. He adds that Instagram, which is worth billions of dollars despite having merely dozens of employees, is “selling us the seductive idea that we own this technology”. Despite the book’s title, Keen doesn’t come across as spiteful, and he presents his research openly and lucidly. He does edge into nostalgia when describing the “perfect cultural experience” of shopping in London’s Soho district in the pre- internet days, but he’s not advocating dismantling the internet entirely. Rather, he wants to point out the destructive impact it’s having in its existing form. That includes stoking an internet economy that takes and takes without giving much back, especially when it comes to paying taxes and creating enough jobs to replace the ones it helps to erode. “I’m endlessly accused of being a Luddite and a reactionary and anti-tech. I’m certainly not anti-tech: I’m talking to you on my iPhone. I’m as connected and wired as anyone.” In fact, he’s talking from Las Vegas, where he’s attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show. But of course, the people benefiting from the status quo don’t take kindly to books with titles like this one. “They believe that anyone who criticises them is somehow against the world and wants to destroy civilisation,” says Keen. Whether or not you agree with him, The Internet Is Not the Answer doubles as a valuable history of the internet, including a lot of developments you’d think would be widely known. “It’s public knowledge, but it’s not well- known public knowledge,” he says. “It’s information people could know if they made the effort.” The book combines elements of his narrative-driven Digital Vertigo – which Keen himself has no trouble calling “over-elaborate and over-indulgent” – with elements of his first book, 2007 breakout The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, which he sees as “a very narrow polemic against the user- generated-content industry”. Keen has had firsthand experience with Silicon Valley, having helmed the failed music start-up Audiocafe in the mid-1990s. But that doesn’t mean he’s jaded or jealous, he argues, despite the venture having costed him “quite a lot of money” and perhaps even his marriage. He insists that he doesn’t regret it: “It was the most intense and exhilarating and also terrifying experience of my life.” While Keen’s latest book exposes what, in his view, are the many economic perils of the internet age, he devotes only a thin closing chapter to possible solutions. “I hope there will be books that focus exclusively on solutions,” he says. “But with books like mine, I’ve acknowledged that many of the deepest cultural and social and economic problems are actually being compounded by the digital revolution. Once you accept that, then we can begin to think about solutions.” by Doug Wallen » The Internet Is Not the Answer is out now. A FUNNY THING has happened to Andrew Keen since writing Digital Vertigo (2012): his scathing critiques of today’s ubiquitous digital revolution have started earning support rather than dismissal. Now back with a third book – unambiguously titled The Internet Is Not the Answer – the London-born, California-based author admits he’s surprised by the gradual change in public opinion. To be honest, he’s even somewhat uncomfortable with it. “The zeitgeist is shifting where more and more people agree with me. I’m half disappointed because, as a polemicist, you want to create debate. You don’t want everyone to agree with you.” Keen wears the polemicist tag well, tackling such internet giants as Facebook, Google and Amazon in the new book, as well as picking apart the economy that ‘Web 2.0’ has enabled. Namely, a system where billionaire investors get richer while thousands of traditional jobs are lost, the poor get poorer and the middle class is (in Keen’s words) “hollowed out”. He visits Rochester, New York, the home of fallen film icon Kodak – victim of a society that uses free services like Instagram and Snapchat to share photos, without seeming to care that there’s a cost to anything that appears to be free. In the case of most Web 2.0 ventures, that cost is users’ personal data and privacy. Keen says: “There’s always a dark side in an economic arrangement where we’re getting something for free, as with Google, or getting something at such a steep discount, as with Amazon, that it seems to be almost free.” The Internet Is Not the Answer sheds extensive light on IN HIS LATEST BOOK, AUTHOR ANDREW KEEN EXPLORES THE DODGY SIDE OF TODAY’S DIGITAL WORLD.