As Andrew Naughton perceptively notes in his review of Keen’s book in The Guardian, “Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fueled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians.
His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterized the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organizers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.
If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveiled world that we have been building with digital tools.
In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.
Like these other critics, Keen challenges the dominant narrative about the internet – that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. The problem with this narrative, he points out, is not that it’s wrong – the network does indeed have the potential to do all of these marvelous things, and much more besides. The problem is that it’s not the whole story, and perhaps it will turn out to be the least important part of it.
The more important truth about the internet, Keen thinks, is that it has evolved into a global machine for creating a world characterized by vast and growing inequality. ‘The error that evangelists make,’ he writes, ‘is to assume that the internet’s open, decentralized technology naturally translates into a less hierarchical or unequal society.
But rather than more openness and the destruction of hierarchies, an unregulated network society is breaking the old center, compounding economic and cultural inequality, and creating a digital generation of masters of the universe. This new power may be rooted in a borderless network, but it still translates into massive wealth and power for a tiny handful of companies and individuals . . .’
Far from being the ‘answer’ to society’s problems, Keen argues, the internet is at the root of many of them. As a result, it poses an existential question for democracies everywhere: can elected governments control the waves of creative destruction now sweeping through our societies as the digital revolution gathers momentum?”
As Keen told Brian Lamb in an interview on C-SPAN on January 15, 2015, part of which included an excerpt from a TED Talk Keen delivered in Brussels, “we are being sold something also, which is a scam. Something which is undermining who we are as a species. One of the previous speakers talked about the importance of community-what I call the ‘cult of the social’- this idea that community is everything . . .
You come to these events and all you ever hear about is community, community, community. Community is supposed to be so wonderful. Community brings us together. These books-too many of them-all about the ‘we.’ All about how important it is for us to work together. All premised on this absurd idea that technology will finally enable community.
For those of you who read Marx’s German question, it’s really taken a lock stock and barrel from Marx – the idea that technology allows us to realize our species being, that we have this network, 2 billion people on it now, all this data, DNA. We are all becoming information, and we can share that information and become community. But of course, it’s nonsense. And worse than nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense . . .
It’s dangerous because it’s not true. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, as [John Stuart] Mill realized in his great work On Liberty, it’s the interior that’s so important. And the role of government . . . is to protect that interior. I’m a believer in the Mill-ian idea of protecting the individual to think for themselves and that the social tends to lend itself to conformity. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is that the social – which I’m not against. I don’t think being social is a bad thing. I don’t think we should lock ourselves in our room. I’m not in favor of going back to the cave and separating myself from my fellow man. But the other problem is that social media in the digital age isn’t social. It’s an extension of the self. It’s an extension of the culture of narcissism that increasingly pervades the internet.
So when you go on Facebook, you’re not really networking. You’re not really being social – or some people of course are. But more and more people are using it- or on Instagram or any of these other networks or on Twitter. You’re using it to broadcast yourself, to show off yourself. And actually, ironically enough, it’s more and more alienating.
As I show in The Internet Is Not the Answer, a lot of research shows that the more people use Facebook, the lonelier they are, the more separate they are. So the social is actually fragmenting. It’s alienating, it’s atomizing.”