Live notes from a lunch talk by Andrew Keen. Notes by Ed Platt and Ali Hashmi.
Ethan introduces Andrew as a former silicon valley entrepreneur, then historian. He’s since focused on understanding the culture of silicon valley.
Andrew set out to write about the history of the Internet. Although the book is called “The Internet is Not the Answer,” he thinks it needs to be the answer. In the book, he concludes that so far the Internet is not the ‘answer’ and that the digital revolution is not doing what it expected it to do. He suggests that “The Internet” can’t be described as a single entity. Rather he sees the beginning of a “Networked Age.” Since at least 1995, it’s been common to hear that “it’s too early” to make conclusions about the Internet. He argues that we can.
The promise of the Internet was to create a more equal world, a world of opportunity. But so far, Andrew believes, the Internet has not been the answer. He doesn’t see conspiracies, but rather winner-take-all and power law effects that have led to a disappointing outcome.
Inequality: The central thesis of the book is that astonishing amounts of money are being made by modern-day plutocrats like Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages in “a winner-takes-all” world using public data and free public labor. The Internet has aggravated current inequalities. While the Internet is not the cause of inequality, it has contributed to inequality. With the Internet, we’ve seen massive concentrations of wealth in Silicon Valley CEOs.
Employment: The sharing economy, enabled by the Internet, has been anything but sharing. Such platforms have led to unemployment and underemployment. When Instagram was acquired, it only employed 15 people. Companies like Kodak, which employed large numbers of people, are being replaced, leading to a crisis of employment.
Surveillance: Internet businesses have become ubiquitous data factories. We’re all working for these companies, but we’re not being rewarded financially. He refers to Ethan’s piece on The Internet’s Original Sin of ad-based business models. Bruce Schneier has described such business models as surveillance-based. The surveillance economy has supplanted the free economy.
Ethan opens questions by asking: if the Internet is not the answer, what is?
Andrew: No one wants to switch the Internet off. If we imagine we’re in 1812 England, talking about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, problems like polution were solved by political means. He likes to say “data is the new pollution.” He believes we are entering the political age of the web. He sees Silicon Valley libertarians, who oppose political solutions and regulation, as the enemy. He argues we’re still at the early stages of the web, what President Obama called the “wild west.”
Andrew points out that regulation and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Antitrust regulation enabled Google to emerge despite Microsoft’s dominance of the market. Sometimes, regulation can enable innovation.
Ethan agrees with the diagnosis, but points out that citizens are losing faith in the government. He asks who our Teddy Roosevelt is, or what our citizen-led movement looks like.
Andrew says we have a fundamental problem with governance, but we have two speeds: government speed and Internet speed. But, if government is not the answer, what’s the alternative?
Ethan points out the fragility of big companies like Yahoo, who were once a dominant player. Critics of regulation say that consumers have an important role to play. If we don’t like the practices of a particular company, can’t we just switch? In other words, do we have space for better alternatives that do not have the inherent problems that Andrew is talking about.
Ethan asks, what is the world you’re hoping for?
Andrew would like government to catch up with the Internet. He also wants Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to grow up and become more responsible. He gives Facebook’s Internet.org as an example. He sees it as a hypocritical attempt to turn the Internet into Facebook.
Ethan sees the necessity for political solutions, but asks: how can we turn away from the Internet when we live in a networked world? Or are we deluding ourselves in believing that the Internet can be a helpful tool?
Andrew juxtaposes the publicly-spirited attitude of Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Internet to Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos’s attitude of radical commercialization and enormous greed. He says we can’t go back to the older attitude. Tim Berners-Lee has suggested a Bill of Rights for the Internet, but Andrew would rather see a bill of responsibilities.
Yu Wang: How much of the problem is really capitalism?
Andrew: The Internet and capitalism can’t be separated. Sharing companies like Uber and TaskRabbit have used the Internet to redefine what capitalism looks like. He calls this a return to the robber-baron style of capitalism, but says he’s not anti-capitalism. He believes in the market, but is critical of the unregulated form of capitalism we currently have.
Susan Kish asks about globalization.
Andrew: One of the great dreams of the Internet was that it would be global and do away with the nation-state. He argues that the reality of the Internet is increasingly fractured with many different “Internets.”
Preeta Bansal: If we imagine this moment as similar to the Industrial Revolution, can we use the Internet to rethink government and create a more distributed governance.
Andrew: Much of the success of government in regulating the Industrial Revolution had to do with the a revolution in government. Maybe we need distributed government, but what does that mean?
Preeta Bansal: We don’t know yet.
Andrew: There were hopes that the Arab Spring and Occupy would transform into permanent social organizations. The Internet has made movements increasingly individualistic, allowing everyone to tell their stories, rather than allowing us to form new political movements and parties. He argues that we’re only going to get political movements when we’re tied together by more than emotion.
Q: As an engineer, what can we think about when we’re building technologies? Should we be trying to build monopolies rather than preventing them?
Andrew: Anyone who starts a company wants to be a monopolist. He has no problem with this, but believes that monopolies are bad for society. Now, only entrepreneurs can make change. Entrepreneurs are asking for and getting special treatment as world-changers. Andrew argues that Entrepreneurs are not and should not be the ones leading the way for civilization.
Saul Tannenbaum: The regulation needed for Uber was local-level, not national. Uber was extremely successful in launching grassroots campaigns. If Silicon Valley companies are better at this than anyone else, how can political solutions be the answer?
Andrew: It shows that the political power is there, we need parties to capture it.
Ethan: If the problem is not the Internet but digital capitalism, why not write about the importance of labor unions?
Andrew: He jokes he could have written many books, but wanted talk about the Internet as a dominant force in shaping the world. He’s made sure to connect that discussion back to political solutions by pointing out, for instance, that Uber is anti-union.
Nancy Ouyang: Corporations become effective at organizing movements, how do you bootstrap citizen-led alternatives?
Andrew: We’re already seeing these movements in sharing economy workers and in Europe. We haven’t had a Chernobyl or Enron moment to demonstrate the dangers of a data economy. He sees a role for solutions led by a regulated market.
Tim Berners-Lee: The architects of the Internet have left national borders out of technologies and protocols. But if something goes wrong, like someone , then you need to find out where it’s happening to do anything about it. Should we have Internet-level constitutions or regulations that can be applied across countries?
Andrew: In countries like China, the Internet can be walled off. What can you do if the governments won’t sign the agreements?
Tim Berners-Lee: If, for instance, the US and the EU can agree on basic principles.
Andrew: Much more sympathetic to a local model than a global one. It’s much easier to work locally when international models become bogged down in bureaucracy. We can make technology standards at an International level, but politics are much harder.
Rahul Bhargava: You could say the Internet is like everything else and has been usurped by existing power dynamics, but you can also so it’s being used by those who fight those dynamics. Aren’t those part of the answer? For example, immigrant’s rights activists interviewing their family and posting them to web forums.
Andrew: We need to figure out the next step to allow single issue organizations to transform into more viable movements.
Deb Roy: One of the main points was about having dignity in work. Mutual assistance and self-governance brings dignity. He always talks to his Uber driver and asks how things have changed. Pay is roughly equal, but they almost always say they prefer it because they control their schedule. Can’t sharing economy tools improve worker dignity?
Andrew: Is this the world we want? A world where work is controlled by increasingly monopolistic corporations, and creating massive inequality? The gig economy has contributed to the hollowing out of the middle class and amplified monopolies and inequality.