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Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer (1) is the most frightening book I have read in years (perhaps in my lifetime), as frightful as the conservative Supreme Court justices and the deniers of climate change. The damage of these three is certain to do us all in, probably much more quickly than the most astute analysts are willing to admit, but even one by itself will result in a bigger train wreck than anyone can imagine. And like the climate change deniers and the conservative Supremes, the Internet billionaires are not people we can count on to suddenly make an about face —certainly not if it might alter their elaborate lifestyles and their convoluted misconceptions of equality.
Let’s not begin with Keen’s book but a response he makes about the causes of today’s income gap and unemployment crisis in “A Conversation with Andrew Keen” : “The Internet is compounding many of the most disturbing economic trends of the early twenty-first century. It has created a winner-take-all economy in which a tiny proportion of astonishingly successful companies like Google and Amazon have accumulated huge power and wealth for a tiny group of technologists and entrepreneurs —the new elite of our digital age. Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg are each now worth around $30 billion— but little of this wealth has trickled down to the rest of us. Amazon, for example, is not only decimating the traditional retail industry by creating low-wage nonunionized jobs in their notorious distribution centers but is also pioneering the use of artificial intelligence devices in the workplace that will eliminate even low-paying jobs”.
This is not the way it was supposed to be, certainly at the beginning. We deluded ourselves with early expectations : “global village”, unlimited access to free information, democratization of our lives —i.e., equality of everyone and everything. But roughly twenty-five years after the birth of the Internet, here we are : “The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing us. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is the central reason for the growing gulf between the rich and the poor and the hollowing out of the middle class”. Most of us are poorer than we were before ; the Internet didn’t create more jobs, it eliminated them. We’ve evolved to a one-percent economy or, as Keen refers to it, “the winner-take-all network”.
Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has had “a disturbingly negative impact on the broader economy”. Half the bookstores in the United States have disappeared. And it’s not just books Amazon sells but products in virtually every retail sector. The US Institute of Local Self-Reliance refers to Amazon as “a job killer rather than a job creator”, eliminating 27000 jobs in “the American economy in 2012” alone. Replicate that for other years and other Internet businesses and the result is totally depressing. Bezos has been called “the prophet of no profit”. Amazon is only one of several companies Keen cites as the Internet’s biggest destroyers.
Google and Facebook have hollowed us all out. “We are all working for [them] for free, manufacturing the very personal data that makes their companies so valuable”. The comparison that Keen makes between Google and a traditional bricks-and-mortar company is one of several such examples in The Internet Is Not the Answer. “Google, with its mid-2014 market cap of over $400 billion, needs to employ only 46000 people. An industrial giant like General Motors…with its market cap hovering around $55 billion, employs just over 200000 people to manufacture cars in factories. Google is around seven times larger than GM, but employs less than a quarter of the number of workers”. Worse, because the new technological companies do everything they can to keep their profits offshore —in order to avoid paying US taxes— these companies (Apple, Google and Facebook) are latter-day scrooges. That term is not Keen’s but a writer he quotes from the Financial Times.
No surprise that the Internet “has triggered one of the greatest accumulations of wealth in human history” but only for an elite few and their stockholders. And we all work for them because of the harvesting of the data we leave for them every time we go on to one of their sites. Facebook, especially, has discovered a way to successfully monetize “the data exhaust from our friendships, family relations, and love affairs”. As it became more popular, Facebook helped destroy Kodak. We used to get our photographs printed and sent to us as physical property. But, today, Facebook has 500 billion photographs it can use freely in its advertising or for anything else without your consent or —horror— paying you for your work. In 2012, when Kodak collapsed (for multiple reasons including a failure to innovate), it had to eliminate its remaining 47000 jobs (from a high of 145000 people in 1989), Instagram was purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars (also in 2012), at which time Instagram had only thirteen full-time employees. That’s a staggering contrast of numbers —and jobs lost.