The Internet is not the Answer Review
The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen offers a worrying vision of how the internet has changed the global economy for the worstIBTimes UK

Robert Reich, the man who served as secretary of labour when Bill Clinton was president, has a friend. That friend, who lives in Tuscon, Arizona, invented a machine that can find particles of certain elements in the air.

He has sold hundreds of these machines to customers all over the world and each and every one of the machines has been manufactured in Reich's friend's garage using a 3D printer (or additive printing machine to give it a more technically correct label).

This, as Reich points out, means his friend's entire business "depends on just one person — himself."

This story comes from an article written by Reich entitled In Our Horrifying Future, Very Few People Will Have Work or Make Money where Reich postulates that the advancements in sensor technology, artificial intelligence, big data, voice recognition and pattern-recognition algorithms will replace not only labour but also knowledge, and lead to a dystopian future where there will be no jobs or work for us humans.

While Reich postulates his own vision of the future, it is clear he has also read Andrew Keen's new book The Internet Is Not The Answer as Reich references one of the main touchstones from Keen's powerful and insightful manifesto about the failure of the internet to deliver on its promises.

Formerly know as the World's Image Centre

Rochester, which sits on the US side of Lake Ontario and looks across at Toronto, is best known as the World's Image Centre - or at least it was.

Rochester is the headquarters of the Kodak Eastman company, better known simply as Kodak. As the internet as we know it today was just taking shape in the mind of Tim Berners-Lee, Kodak employed 145,000 people in research labs, offices and factories in Rochester.

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By October 2013 only 8,500 worked for Kodak, while its successors such as Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr employ a tiny fraction of the what Kodak did at its peak, and are valued at many multiples of billions of dollars. That is the kernel of Keen's argument.

The internet promised to democratise the global economy, putting every one on a level playing field. What has transpired in the last 25 years however is that the internet has made a small group of white men in Silicon Valley incredibly rich, but has done little for the rest of the world - so says Keen.

The more we use it the worse it gets

The book, like Keen's previous works Digital Vertigo and The Cult of the Amateur, focuses on the problems related to how today's internet operates. It is impeccably well-researched and draws on the work of dozens, if not hundreds of journalists, authors and academics, to prove his point.

It is hard not to read The Internet Is Not The Answer without feeling pretty bleak about what the internet has done. Industries like the media, music and film have all been negatively affected to a greater or lesser degree by the rapid change brought about by the internet economy.

"The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing to us," Keen starkly opines on the opening page of his book.

Keen details the development of the internet, or more specifically the technology behind its development, referencing the work of Vint Cerf, JCR Licklider, Paul Baran, Robert Kahn and of course Tim Berners-Lee. He says that while all of these visionaries had little interest in money, their creation has "led to the radical reshaping of economic life."

To highlight just how much the way the world works has changed, Keen juxtaposes Kodak with Instagram.

The internet economy is a donut

The idea for a photo-sharing app came to founder Kevin Systrom while he was walking on a beach with his girlfriend in 2010. Just two years later, in the same year Kodak filed for bankruptcy, it had over 100 million users and was acquired by Facebook for $1bn. At the time, Instagram had just 13 employees.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are eating the world according to Keen's theory and are turning their users into products while eliminating millions of jobs previously carried out by humans.

"For all Silicon Valley's claims that the internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut - with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products."

At times Keens argument verges on the maniacal, and comes across as the ramblings of an old man railing against the latest newfangled technology which he doesn't fully understand. But that is not the case.

What is the answer?

Keen deeply understands this world and he is not a lone voice in calling for change in how the internet works. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is referenced by Keen as painting a "much darker picture of the effects of technology on labour."

Rather than delivering a utopian world of equals, Keen says the internet has so far delivered "fewer jobs, an overabundance of content, an infestation of piracy, a coterie of Internet monopolists, and a radical narrowing of our economic and cultural elite."

The emergence the sharing economy and companies like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit may promise to create jobs, but Keen says this model for the workforce will only serve to isolate workers and drive down wages.

So, if the internet as we know it today is not the answer, what is?

Keen believes that companies like Google and Facebook need to step up and take responsibility for their actions and realise the power they wield in today's world and until that happens the internet will continue to polarise rather than equalise.