Andrew Keen has a lot of bile to share. He hates selfies. Instagram, he writes in his latest polemic, “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” “is a useful symbol of everything that has gone wrong with our digital culture over the last quarter century.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is “socially autistic” and Uber’s Travis Kalanick is a “libertarian clown.”
Silicon Valley, in general, is a seething hotbed of callow 21st century robber barons ripping off Americans, invading our privacy, and meretriciously (to borrow one of Keen’s favorite words) selling us on the benefits of a bogus digital revolution that rewards the few with obscene riches while exploiting the many. If we don’t do something fast, our collective future will look like Rochester, N.Y., “a landscape of boarded-up stores and homeless people ... smashed into smithereens over the last twenty-five years by a Schumpeterian hurricane of creative destruction.”
Sounds grim, but to anyone who has encountered Keen’s other work, the dismal outlook is hardly surprising. The titles of his two previous books — “The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media are Killing Our Culture and Economy” and “Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Digital Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us” — tell us everything we need to know. Keen has made it his life’s work to tell us why the Internet sucks — at every level.
His newest book simultaneously wages class and culture war, putting him in the unique position of agreeing with two New York Times columnists who never agree. From the right, he nods approvingly at David Brooks’ distaste for a contemporary ethos of “vulgar immodesty.” From the left, he cites Paul Krugman’s anger at rising economic inequality. Both problems, he argues, are made worse by the Internet.
There is unquestionably plenty to criticize about how the last two decades of technological progress have changed our world. The rhetorical hot balloons that float out of Silicon Valley deserve puncturing. The potential implications of rapid tech change on jobs and income inequality demand investigation. The rise of the Panopticonic surveillance state is distressing. The trollish hate and anger, racism and misogyny that roil endlessly through cyberspace must be condemned. Now, perhaps more than at any time since “the Internet” first became a mainstream phenomenon, is the perfect opportunity to take stock, question our direction and wonder how and if we could do better.
But Keen, despite a lifetime of preparation for this moment, misses the mark. Drawing almost entirely from secondary sources, “The Internet Is Not the Answer” sometimes reads as if it were assembled by an algorithm programmed to sift out and stitch together every negative comment published concerning the Internet or Silicon Valley over the last 10 years — Keen never digs deep enough to make his ranting ring true.
He reveals, in passing, that he too owns an iPhone and iPad, and he concedes once or twice that, OK, maybe “the Internet” isn’t “all bad,” but overall, there’s precious little consideration of an obvious question: Surely, we must be getting some value from our networked world? What purpose do our “selfie-centered delusions” serve? Why are we so willingly giving up our time and energy and money to Facebook and Google and Apple?
If Keen had taken the time to do serious reporting rather than cut-and-paste polemicizing and understand why teenagers love Snapchat or what economic function the so-called sharing economy serves, he’d be able to make a more convincing argument. We don’t have to look far for an example of how do it right. Just last year, activist and critic Astra Taylor covered much of the same ground in “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.” Taylor is plenty critical, but also willing and able to grapple with the nuanced heart of how complex all of this stuff is. It’s not just a con job by Silicon Valley snake-oil salesmen who took the smartphone from nonexistent to ubiquitous in eight years. Smartphones are incredibly useful, as are Amazon and Google, and even Uber.
We are the Internet’s “victims rather than beneficiaries,” writes Keen. But actually, we’re both.
Keen reaches stronger ground when he lambastes the unwelcome economic implications of the digital revolution. The data are clear: The rich are getting richer and the middle class is falling behind, and a good argument can be made that Silicon Valley is exacerbating this unwelcome trend. But “The Internet Is Not the Answer” makes no attempt to take on any of the arguments deployed in favor of technological innovation and its possible long-term effect on the global economy. Nor does it consider how political and historical trends — globalization, deregulation, political dysfunction — that long predate the arrival of Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley are more fundamentally responsible for contemporary economic injustice than anything to do with networks.
By giving us only one side of the story, Keen demonstrates all too well the kind of shallow posturing so common to the Internet discourse he decries.
Leonard is a freelance writer who has covered “the Internet” for 20 years.
The Internet Is Not the Answer
Atlantic Monthly: 273 pp., $25