Google, Facebook, and Amazon May Not Be As Benign As You Think 

The Internet Is Not The Answer
By Andrew Keen
Atlantic Monthly Press; 2015

In my personal quest to understand what’s been happening to America for the past thirty years, why, for example, have college costs skyrocketed or why our working and middle classes been so hammered economically, it was reading Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” about five years ago that put a huge piece of my “What’s happened to America?” puzzle in place for me.  Her examples of domestic and worldwide economic and financial destructiveness, all in the name of Milton Friedman Style Free Market Capitalism expansion, by governments, international organizations, corporations and legislatures, was a revelation for me.   Klein’s book, a kind of macro-economic piercing of the ever-positive, all-enshrining rhetoric of Free Market Capitalism and its theorists and practitioners, was both shocking and enlightening. 

Today, a second huge piece of the “What’s Happened to America” conundrum has fallen into place for me.    We all know that computers and the internet are large influences in our daily lives.  Although the World Wide Web was created only 25 years ago in 1989, its ubiquitous presence in our lives is undeniable.  Google was founded in 1998 and Facebook in 2004 so our history with the internet and its providers is a fairly short one.  We recognize however, that even across this short 25 year period, our activities, our relationships, our lives and indeed our society have been irrevocably altered.  We think, and rightly so for the most part, for the better.  But that’s not the whole story.

It is the underbelly of our computer age that Andrew Keen in his “The Internet Is Not The Answer” exposes for all to see.  No ivory towered scholar and no stranger to the world of the internet, Keen founded an internet music site, Audio Café, early on in 1995 that failed along with the then-existing structure of the music industry thanks, largely to Napster and the illegal sharing of copyrighted material.   He’s written several books on the internet/computer age.  “The Internet Is Not The Answer” begins with a short history of how our new interconnected world began (government funding for the most part) and then proceeds to demolish the egalitarian, democratic, decentralizing meme the Silicon Valley folks still insist are the prime attributes of today’s internet and World Wide Web.  He takes on the Bezos’s, Page’s, and Zuckergerg’s of the internet age as not so much the bold, innovative leaders of a new age, but not so very different from the Rockefellers, Carnegie’s and Melon’s of the Robber Baron Age.   In fact, with their private jets and their efforts to monopolize markets by buying up – thereby eliminating  - competitors, Keen depicts these guys as disconnected from everyday life and everyday people as were the Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s of their time.

The Battery, San Francisco’s glitzy 58,00 sf and much derided hangout building for young, innovative, creative Silicon Valley types, was supposed to be an un-club that anyone could join, where the much touted diversity, egalitarian and democratic attributes of the internet would be enthroned in concrete and glass, has, as Keen points out, been realized as just another uber-exclusive, uber-private and uber-elitist bailiwick of a bunch of Silicon Valley billionaires.

 It may be fun to chastise the Silicon Valley types for their hollow rhetoric and wealth, although not many of us do, but of particular importance is Keen’s analysis of how the data companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the Yahoos of our internet age have actually damaged our society.  Keen likens the impacts of these global data collecting and sales factories  - this is the way they make money, selling our personal data – to the vast disruption of the dawning of the Industrial age.  The examples he gives of the disastrous effects of the computer/internet age, my hometown of Rochester is one, are logical and easy to see.  Google, now the world’s largest or second largest company, for example, has a valuation of just under $1 trillion with 48,000 worldwide employees.  General Motors, with a valuation of $55 billion, employs around 212,000 people.

Keen’s primary goal in “The Internet Is Not The Answer” is more about exposing the myths surrounding the age of the internet with all it’s claims of universal benefits, expansion of democratic participation, the formation of new communities of shared interests, efficiency and transparency – all of which are touted by and wholly embraced by the Silicon Valley community.  He shows how all of these attributes are just so much propaganda rather than real world characteristics.  At this, he does a splendid job.  He shows us the real impacts of our internet age and our online existences with real world examples.  Sure, like Naomi Klein, he tends to ignore other factors that have also contributed to the disruption of our society but he clearly punctures what – except for a few bloggers and tech experts – has been, until now, only the dispersal of the one-sided “benefits” hyperbole of our new computer/internet age. 

By way of example, Keen cites Travis Kalanick’s Uber, the taxi alternative.  Uber has some 1,000 employees, operates in 130 cities around the world and is valued at $18.2 billion at the ripe old age of four years.  Avis and Hertz, by way of comparison, have nearly the same valuation but employ nearly 60,000 people worldwide.  This reduction in people employed to provide our goods and services across the economic landscape, is directly connected to the rise of internet based companies who employ way fewer people to accomplish the same means of production as brick and mortar operations.  Now I know that this form of economic activity is here to stay but it’s instructive to at least understand what might be called the “unintended consequences” of our rush towards robotic efficiency rather than accepting the idea that it is all for the good of mankind. 

I for one, had not thought of the computer/internet age as akin to the Industrial Revolution with all of its disruptive social consequences, but after reading “The Internet Is Not The Answer” I’m definitely inclined to.   My favorite part of the book?  His skewering of all the libertarian, self-aggrandizing, freedom spouting, innovation claiming, young libertarian billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zukerberg and who, apparently are so wrapped up in their isolated, protected and exclusive worlds, that they have no idea what’s really happening all around them.  They never have to rub shoulders with any of us customers as they shuttle around in their private jets and helicopter from their multi-million dollar homes in Marin County and Palo Alto to their gated, all-inclusive corporate campuses in San Jose or Seattle.  I have a feeling that they are much like John D. Rockefeller who was also isolated and protected from the people until his Standard Oil monopoly was broken up by Teddy Roosevelt and the Supreme Court.   

Ironically, Keen’s solution is much the same as Teddy Roosevelt’s – bold and courageous public actions combined with the corporate self-policing that threats of legislative action would bring about.   We’ll have to wait and see if there are a hundred Elizabeth Warren’s waiting in the wings. 

There is much more in this book that is of tremendous value in understanding just how the computer/internet revolution has affected each of us, our communities and our society.  It is well worth a read. 


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