Blaming the Internet Is Not the Answer

By Evan SelingerMay 16, 2015

The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen

ANDREW KEEN WANTS to free us from the tyranny of two myths concerning the internet: that it will create a “more open and egalitarian world” and that it will foster unprecedented global empowerment for everyone. This constitutes a noble agenda, one that Evgeny Morozov, Astra Taylor, and Nicholas Carr have convincingly pursued as well. Unfortunately, though, by zealously focusing on how “the hidden negatives outweigh the self-evident positives,” Keen overplays his hand throughout The Internet Is Not the Answer. Blinded by self-righteous indignation, he delivers a rhetorically inflated polemic that covers too much ground while glossing over too many important points.

Keen’s book opens with two provocative genealogical chapters that trace the downward spiral of the internet, from the early creative dreams expressed by publically-funded, hopeful researchers and institutions, to a socially disastrous “second act.” This fall from grace allegedly occurred “in the early ’90s when the American government […] handed over the running of the Internet backbone to commercial Internet service providers.” Through massive infusions of venture capital and a shift to advertising models of revenue generation, Keen contends that privatization allowed corporations to establish a new ethos in which “the Internet lost a sense of common purpose, a general decency, perhaps even its soul.”

To be sure, Keen offers thoughtful insights into the political economy. But as the book proceeds, he lapses into a laundry list of grievances that center on Silicon Valley’s economic ruthlessness and cultural hubris. I’ll start, however, with his account of visiting Rochester, New York. A pilgrimage of sorts, his visit is supposed to reveal the big problems that motivated him to write the book.

Using the bleakest terms imaginable, he tries to get the reader to view Rochester as an ominous portent:

Rochester’s downtown — a landscape of boarded-up stores and homeless people wheeling their earthly possessions in rusty shopping carts along empty streets — resembled a picture from the dystopian future. From Bladerunner, perhaps, Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie about a twenty-first-century world in which human beings and robots have become indistinguishable […] And, like [William] Gibson’s dismal image of the future, downtown Rochester was tuned to a dead channel. The heart of this industrial city had been ripped out and not even the most nostalgic of Instagram photographic filters could have brought it back to life. It was a broken place, a town that time had forgotten.

If you think this description and related ones sound bad (“As if Silicon Valley had been transported to Rochester but somebody had forgotten to bring the humans.”), you’ll really need to brace yourself for what comes next. Apparently Keen doesn’t just believe Rochester is a wasteland of failed hopes and dreams. He also suggests its sad biography just might be the template for the American story writ large. “What happens,” Keen asks, “if the tragedy in Rochester is actually a sneak preview of our collective future — a more universal perfect storm of technological, social, and economic change?”

So, what happened in Rochester? The decisive event for Keen is that Kodak went bankrupt and then unsuccessfully tried to reinvent itself. Since Kodak was the area’s largest employer, its decline meant huge numbers of people lost their jobs.

The phrase “Kodak moments” is indelibly etched into our collective psyche. Why, then, did a company so deeply associated with photography decline when 1.5 trillion pictures were taken in 2013 — “more than all of the photos ever taken before in all of history”? Keen blames “a Schumpeterian hurricane of creative destruction.” If you want more detail than this, the closest you’ll get are platitudes about people sharing, storing, and editing their digital photos online. In other words, “Flickr and Facebook had smashed old Rochester into smithereens.”

And why should we believe that Rochester is a proxy for many other cities? Because, Keen says, it has been displaced by powerful companies like Instagram that don’t create many jobs, and, adding insult to injury, entice consumers with “free” products that aren’t really gratis, but paid for through monetizable forms of surveillance. The key comparison, then, as Keen sees it, is Rochester back in 1989, when it employed 145,000 unionized workers, and Instagram, which was sold to Facebook in 2012 for a billion dollars and “only had thirteen full-time employees working out of a small office in downtown San Francisco.”

In short, Keen laments that a “winner-take-all” internet-fueled economy has formed, where wealthy companies with a triad of traits — a minimal number of employees; a drive to profit from exploiting our data; and a firm command of automated, algorithmic processes — will become the dominant innovators. These companies will destroy jobs and traditional livelihoods, such as newspaper-employed professional photographers and artists, whom declined in numbers by a whopping 43 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to Keen.

Because I’m a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and live nearby, I’m fascinated by Keen’s treatment of Rochester as a case study in digital age destruction. On the one hand, I deeply applaud Keen for focusing the conversation on which jobs become available and which are displaced when different technological services are consumed. Arguably, not enough attention is paid to the creation and destruction of certain kinds of jobs in so-called tech criticism, and with a company like Apple being so wealthy that it can be viewed as “the 55th richest country in the world,” this occlusion is especially disconcerting. On the other hand, the issues that Keen doesn’t focus on are important, too. To get a more level-headed perspective than he offers, let’s consider some of the issues he should have addressed.

One reason Keen is upset about the fate of Rochester is that “people who spent their entire lives working for Kodak […] no longer even own their pensions.” This truly is tragic. It’s devastating that hardworking people who thought long and hard about their futures, and made rational decisions about how to prepare for retirement, found themselves without the resources they expected and, indeed, would be entitled to in a just world. But, at bottom, this state of affairs has absolutely nothing to do with the main subject of the book: the internet. Structurally speaking, the problem is inherent to the entanglement of capitalism with politics in American life.

The United States is a country that provides limited state-sponsored social welfare to help people get by when they don’t work, whether because they are unemployed or retired. Fearful of how little state assistance is available, and how expensive medical care can be, many Americans therefore felt compelled to embrace the ownership ethos. They got deep into mortgage debt trying to build nest eggs by banking on ever-appreciating home values. This is why the bursting of the housing bubble was so debilitating.

Unfortunately, Keen doesn’t discuss how the United States became locked into structures that leave people vulnerable to losing their pensions (or never having them to begin with!) and having no viable alternative lifelines. Nor does he seriously discuss economic and political alternatives to the status quo that might enable people like former Kodak workers to lead better lives. These alternatives typically are discussed in technically complex treatises and take us beyond simplistic laments for factory towns. They require substantial expertise to grasp and are incredibly difficult to popularize. But rather than doing the requisite intellectual heavy lifting, Keen takes the easy way out; he provides rhetorically explosive narratives that center on dramatic consequences, but not on complex underlying causes.

Even worse, by throwing in highly charged and unsubstantiated culture war barbs, Keen tries to win the reader’s sympathies for what amounts to thinly discussed progressive politics and democratic forms of accountability. After stoking our ire about Instagram having so much wealth and so few employees, Keen goes on a tirade about banal folks putting the technology to superficial use: “Hello this is us, Instagram is saying about our species. And I, for one, don’t like what I’m seeing.”

People do silly things online and rampant displays of indulgent self-regard can certainly be infuriating. But without sound sociology to backup the zeitgeist pronouncement, it isn’t methodologically sound to portray the social web as essentially a repository for narcissistic selfies. Beyond this, we should be wary of Keen’s attempt to conflate cultural and economic criticisms, even when he specifies that one is more important than the other:

Selfie culture is a big enough lie, but it’s actually billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs less dishonest than the economics of selfie culture. And it’s here — in the quantifiable realm of jobs, wages, and profit — that we can find the most disturbing implications of the shift from the Kodak to the Instagram moment.

Yes, Keen is saying the economic issues are more significant than the cultural ones. But he’s also bundling them together for a one–two emotional punch.

It’s striking that Keen doesn’t have much, if anything, to say about the shortsighted or misguided business decisions that Kodak executives made. Of course, to get a good handle on these, you need to do some serious reading in the business literature — again, wonky material that takes great patience to sift through. But perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t take a wicked imagination to see this omission as yet another rhetorical strategy for working the reader up into a frenzy.

By leaving out analysis of internal corporate operations while focusing on external changes to the technological landscape, Keen makes it too easy to see Kodak as victimized by hostile forces and lacking the agency to move history in a different direction — whether in the domains of research, advertising, acquisitions, or product development. To be clear, I’m not second-guessing the defining choices that were made at Kodak. But others have, and if Keen’s failure to reckon with them isn’t entirely an accidental eclipse of due diligence, then we have to think carefully about whether the account he presents would sound less persuasive if this material were in fact included and if he didn’t spend as much time writing himself (and his all-too-brief visit to Rochester) into the story.

Indeed, to even begin to think critically about the sorts of business considerations a company like Kodak faces today, we need to consider fundamental labor issues that take us well beyond the geographic borders of Rochester, or even Silicon Valley for that matter. While Keen rightly reminds us that photography hasn’t gone out of style and has become increasingly democratized, his emphasis on cloud storage and the companies that provide cloud-based apps underplays the fact that, to a large extent, camera-enabled smartphones are built and maintained by a poorly compensated workforce in countries like China. Far from problems with supply chain issues being entirely caused by technology or the logic of disruptive tech companies, we’re dealing with basic geopolitical issues concerning outsourced labor. Such issues concern work occurring at a massive scale (and not its elimination, which is what Keen concentrates on) and the associated struggles surrounding worker compensation abroad and the domestic desire for inexpensive consumer goods. To get a handle on these matters, nuanced analysis is required that reckons with how governments, corporations, and citizens are dealing with global commerce.

But even back on the local front, I suspect many Rochesterians would hesitate to treat Keen’s travelogue as sociology, and would take umbrage at his claim that “the only people who now visit Rochester come to gaze nostalgically at its past rather than imagine its future.” For many of us locals, Rochester isn’t just about the part of the city that Keen looked at in horror; its lifeblood extends throughout Monroe County and the greater Rochester area where many parts are flourishing thanks to low housing costs, excellent public schools, short commutes, and a thriving cultural scene. Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, is located in Henrietta, even though its mailing address is Rochester.

To be sure, the region has had to do some serious soul-searching. Besides losing steam from Kodak’s fall, big companies like Xerox and Bausch and Lomb haven’t remained juggernauts of economic vitality either. But beyond Kodak, Keen doesn’t discuss any of the other factors contributing to decline, or any of the large socioeconomic problems that plague many cities that find it difficult to revitalize downtown areas when suburban schools receive higher ratings than urban ones and massive migration to the suburbs ensues. Nor does Keen consider any of the strategies, proposals, or visions that exist for improving the region, including innovative projects coming out of the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. New York State, for example, is providing substantial programs and grants to boost growth by encouraging businesses to focus on high-tech solutions. Start-Up New York, for example, is helping companies that work in the fields of advanced materials and manufacturing, biotech and life sciences, and tech and electronics partner up with New York colleges and universities. Has this program been criticized? Absolutely! But the biggest concerns focus on investment decisions and bureaucracy. They aren’t challenging the idea that a local talent pool exists that has the potential to succeed under the current constraints of digital age commerce.

What I’m suggesting, therefore, is that rather than depicting New York and California in strictly oppositional terms, Keen would have benefited from at least considering what it would mean for Rochester to produce the high-tech talent that drives Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship opportunities exist in a wide variety of sectors, and Rochester has a role to play in all of them, not least because folks here, as elsewhere, can live in one place while working for a company that’s located elsewhere. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but I like to see Rochester as historically connected to its Kodak legacy and yet no longer fully defined by it, or at least not frozen in time, condemned never to leave its shadow. Even if this is misplaced hope, the considerations that drive it are more connected to real possibilities than the inert depiction found in Keen’s science fiction tinged reportage.

Once you see through the limits of how Keen frames his analysis of Rochester, it becomes easier to look at his other discussions with skepticism and ask whether his analysis would hold up if he didn’t omit crucial considerations. Consider the following claim about corporate exploitation:

From social media networks like Twitter and Facebook to the world’s second most valuable company, Google, the exploitation of our personal information is the engine of the “big data” economy. All these companies want to know us so intimately that they can package us up and then, without our consent, sell us back to advertisers.

As stated, this simply isn’t true. From a legal perspective, these companies acquire our consent by providing us with Terms of Service agreements. Perhaps what Keen wanted to say is that the terms expressed in typical TOS contracts meet the doctrinal requirements of the Objective Theory of Contracts, but nevertheless fall short of being documents that allow for meaningful consent to be given. This would be a normative claim (and a correct one, I might add), and to back it up Keen would need to do a deep dive into contract theory that includes analysis of proposals that anchor consumer reform in contracts like a People’s Terms of Service Agreement.

Or, take the problem of online incivility and harassment. Keen worries that “just as the Internet has added to economic inequality, so it has also compounded hatred toward the very defenseless people it was supposed to empower.”

On the one hand, this is an easy claim to substantiate. There’s plenty of trolling, bullying, and threatening going on online, and this problem has dire consequences. As Keen emphasizes, there are tragic cases of suicide.

On the other hand, it’s way too easy to score points with the reader by simply cataloging moving cases of meanness and misery. A far more difficult but essential task is to determine why these incidents occur, and whether anything can be done to course-correct. As Danielle Citron, the Lois K. Macht Research Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, points out, the explanatory part of the equation is complicated, even when looked at from a perspective that focuses on whether better design choices could have been made to minimize, comparatively speaking, dangerous psychological dynamics like de-individuation and group polarization.

As Citron sees it, Keen’s root of all evils — the “business models linked to data collection” — definitely played a role. But so did other things, like uncertainty about emergent social norms, the problem of creating multi-use platforms that different people utilize for different reasons, and the premium placed on free speech in the United States. The esteem given to free speech made it important for tech companies to slowly and deliberately work through the “boundary management concern” that arises when they’re tasked with determining when and how to shift defaults away from users choosing how they want to communicate.

Ultimately, Citron concedes that “tech companies had too much confidence in us.” But she’s also emphatic that meaningful reform is occurring today because the “economic reality is changing.” In other words, while Keen only sees online economics through the lens of corporate exploitation, Citron reminds us that advertisers can be responsive to public opinion, and in fact have gotten to a point where, at least in some cases, they prefer to “be on the side of angels.”

In this context, it’s important to note that Keen is especially anxious about “anonymous networks and apps.” He refers to them as the “most troubling of all,” and approvingly cites the idea that they may not be “legitimate […] from an ethical and moral point of view.” Superficially, this observation rings true. Anonymity can minimize personal accountability and fuel toxic and destructive behavior. But anonymity also can serve a crucial political function by enabling folks to speak their minds about issues that they could be unfairly penalized for articulating. The key, of course, is to go beyond associating the internet with demeaning discourse or merely acknowledging that anonymity is good in some contexts, bad in others. As Citron rightly insists, if we strive to find the “right mix of design and policy,” it just might be possible “to make anonymous communication safe.” Unfortunately, Keen doesn’t show any interest in finding this mixture — much less acknowledging that creating platforms with good rules and “real costs and consequences” for violating them can make a profound difference in how technological mediation impacts us.

Given the style of Keen’s 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 Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us, it’s perhaps utterly predictable that he’d continue on the commercially viable path of charming readers who enjoy the irritated wit of a gadfly. But at the same time, Keen’s extensive experience thinking, writing, and talking with so-called thought leaders should have prepared him to write a more compelling work.

I suppose I should have been braced for what was coming from the moment I first laid eyes on the title The Internet Is Not the Answer. I tried to be optimistic because titles are often highly contrived items designed by publishing industry professionals to bring eyeballs to the page. But Keen explicitly thanks a publisher at Grove Atlantic for “wisely” convincing him to adopt this one, thus giving his stamp of approval to an in-your-face expression of negation. Alas, this primes the reader to expect goods that go undelivered: a positive counterpoint, or even a sufficiently nuanced elaboration of the technological malady.


Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity (MAGIC).

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Evan Selinger (@evanselinger) is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.


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