Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Keen, journalist, polemicist and self-styled Antichrist of Silicon Valley. Keen’s new book, The Internet is Not the Answer, is being published by Atlantic in 2015, a historical reflection on the World Wide Web 25 years after its creation.
Keen observers will feel on familiar ground. In his previous two published books Keen has identified and reflected on the dark-underbelly of first Web 2.0 (The Cult of the Amateur), and Web 3.0 (Digital Vertigo). In both books Keen explores the destructive, destabilising impact of social media, rather than the positive benefits of sharing sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In Digital Vertigo, for example, he wrote how our constant interaction with social media means we are “simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous”.
The Internet is Not the Answer takes a broader view, detailing how first the internet and then the web were conceived and then founded, and how this current incarnation has failed to live up to the ambitions of the creators. “The Internet, we’ve been promised by its many supporters, is the answer. It democratises the good and disrupts the bad, they say, thereby creating a more open and egalitarian world. . . They thus present the Internet as a magically virtuous circle, an infinitely positive loop, an economic and cultural win-win for its billions of users.” The truth is far from this, writes Keen, instead we have “digital robber barons”, billionaires hanging out at exclusive clubs such as The Battery in San Francisco, and gigantic centralising corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Uber that thrive in this new economy because their first-mover advantage has allowed them to occupy monopolistic positions.
“How has a network designed to have neither a hark, a hierarchy nor a central dot, created such a top down, winner-take-all economy run by a plutocracy of new lords and masters?”
Keen is not the only journalist traversing this dark-web, but he is the first to put it into book format. He has been helped by the rise and rise of the controversy-attracting taxi app Uber, and its founder and c.e.o. Travis Kalanick, whose travails have been well-documented. “He could have been invented by someone like myself, he conforms to all the worst aspects of this,” says Keen.
Keen is also particularly good on Amazon, recalling that when its founder Jeff Bezos met the journalist Brad Stone ahead of the latter's The Everything Store, he questioned Stone on how he would deal with the “narrative fallacy”. The narrative fallacy was a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories. I wrote about this in a blog entitled Amazon's complex reality last year. For Bezos it was a way of taking himself out of Stone’s analysis, but Keen has a clearer response.
“The narrative fallacy is actually a fallacy. Sometimes a story that appears to be complex is, in reality, quite simple. Sometimes it can be summarised in a sentence. Or even a word.” For Keen, that word is “money”. The internet, he says, has become “monetised” with Amazon the pioneer among these “digital robber barons”, able only because of its huge size and through the abuse of its workforce to deliver undercut everyone else.
“Neo-liberals like Tom Perkins would argue that Amazon is creating jobs, enriching our culture and improving everyone’s prosperity. But he’d be wrong. The reverse is actually true . . . The real force of nature in the digital age is a winner-take-all economy that is creating increasingly monopolistic companies like Amazon and multi-billionaire plutocrats like Bezos himself.”
The interesting thing about Keen is that he is no Luddite. He is from the tech-community and clearly wants it to thrive. He believes that it has simply gone off track, and needs a reforming movement. “I can see the 60s coming to tech,” he told me.
The anti-Amazon among the book community might take solace from Keen’s analysis, but actually he remains “bullish” about the business, and describes Bezos after—after Steve Jobs—as the “most remarkable tech entrepreneur around”. Like Kalanick and those other boy-billionnaires he would simply prefer them to behave better, and sees in Bezos’ investment in the Washington Post an opportunity for that to happen.
While he is critical of the way Amazon is now bullying publishers, he is equally skeptical of how publishing has coped with this digital transition. He says the “jury is out on publishing”.
“I’m not particularly impressed. Maybe its stumbling through, and that’s a good thing. I still think the book business hasn’t really understood the digital revolution. It missed a lot of the drama, it didn’t have a Napster moment because piracy hasn’t been too disruptive, and there hasn’t been a Spotify product threatening to have a catastrophic impact on writers.”
However, he does not think the sector is entirely immune. He believes that while high-end products aimed at enthusiasts will remain, just as vinyl lives on in the music sector, but he says the rest will be “low end incredibly cheap crap” with the middle destroyed.
He argues that publishing’s big issue is that it undervalues writers. “I don’t think publishers realise how unpopular they are with writers. They don’t understand that the value is in the writer, not the publisher. A lot of publishers are really bad. Writing a book is incredibly hard, it requires enormous emotion and economic investment.”
And he says the tech industry, for all of its faults, excels in ways publishing cannot—in part because the digital sector attracts the best talent thirsting after money. By contrast, he says, “Publishing is not a very dynamic industry. In publishing if you email someone you’ve got a 50% chance of getting a response back saying ‘I’m away for six weeks, or six months’. In Silicon Valley that never happens.”
The full interview with Keen will run in The Bookseller on Friday 5th December.