History Works Against Andrew Keen’s Latest Diatribe Against the Internet

The internet economy has changed the world, and Andrew Keen (still) isn't happy about it.

Andrew Keen has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it. He has already declared in The Cult of the Amateur that user-generated internet content is “killing our culture”, and in Digital Vertigo, that digital social media is “dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us.” Now, in The Internet Is Not the Answer, he considers the digital economy. Astute readers will not be surprised to learn that—in his considered opinion—it, too, is hastening the apocalypse.

Today’s internet billionaires, Keen argues, are 19th century robber barons repackaged for the 21st century. They may wear jeans and gray t-shirts rather than silk cravats and diamond stickpins, but—like Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller before them—they amass obscene levels of private wealth while exploiting their employees, undermining organized labor, ruthlessly crushing competitors, and bending public laws and regulations in order to better serve their own interests. That they do so while simultaneously touting the value of their companies is, for Keen, insult added to injury. It’s easy to imagine him grumbling (though he does not) that at least the 19th century robber barons were forthright about their rapaciousness, and made no promises of utopia as they picked the public’s pocket.

The internet billionaires’ towering arrogance is, in Keen’s view, compounded by their childlike indifference to the consequences of their actions. They chase (and encourage a gullible public to chase) the glittering digital dreams that enrich them, not realizing, or not caring about, the devastating economic side effects of doing so. The “smashing” of established industries and “obliteration” of innumerable jobs (there is more destruction in a chapter’s worth of Keen’s verbs than in a year’s run of The Incredible Hulk) is the book’s second core theme, and the one to which Keen devotes the majority of his attention. He slams Instagram for encouraging narcissism and undermining authenticity, but its truly unforgivable sin is its complicity—along with the rest of the companies responsible for the digital photography revolution—is killing Kodak.

Readers who are convinced that the digital economy is a Bad Thing, without being sure why, will find their sense of unease bracingly validated here. They will also come away with fistfuls of (seemingly) plausible reasons to be worried.

Once upon a time, he writes, Kodak was the biggest name in photography. At its peak, it was valued at $28 billion, employed 140,000 people, and acted as the engine of the Rochester, New York economy. Then came the internet and companies like Instagram, which—when Facebook bought it for $1 billion in 2012—employed all of 13 people. Now, Keen writes, Kodak is a husk of its former self with only 9,000 on its payroll, 130,000 jobs (he calls them, without elaboration, “middle class” jobs) are gone, and the economy of Rochester is devastated. The story of what the internet has done to the digital economy is, for Keen, the story of Kodak writ large. What Instagram (and its ilk) did to Kodak yesterday and Spotify is doing to Polygram today, and MOOCs will do to Your State University tomorrow and 3-D printing will do to Gucci next week.

Keen, as the titles of his books suggest, is more polemicist than analyst. His rhetorical role model is not Socrates, walking his listeners step by careful step toward his version of the truth, but that of Jeremiah, promising his market-square audience hellfire and damnation to if they do not mend their ways. The Jeremiad, as a literary genre, has a long (if not always distinguished) history, and Keen is a master of it. Like Professor Harold Hill warning the good people of River City about “Trouble with a Capital T”, he moves—nimbly and at great speed—from one topic to the next, staying with each one just long enough to deliver dark warnings of impending doom, and then skips away before the reader can ask difficult questions.

Readers who are convinced that the digital economy is a Bad Thing, without being sure why, will find their sense of unease bracingly validated by The Internet Is Not the Answer. They will also come away with fistfuls of (seemingly) plausible reasons to be worried, since Keen scatters case studies and anecdotes with the vigor (though not the ebullience) of a Malcolm Gladwell.

Jeremiads traffic in emotion rather than reason, however, and work best when they are felt, rather than thought about. Considered carefully—analyzed, contextualized, and historicized—they often disintegrate like a paper bag in a downpour. So it is with The Internet Is Not the Answer.

Keen begins with a chapter outlining the early history of the internet, but the rest of the book is resolutely—almost defiantly—ahistorical. Bizarrely, for a book whose central story is one of technological change over time, The Internet Is Not the Answer pays little attention to the details of technological change and less to the nuances that distinguish one historical era from another. There’s only Then (a golden age of photo-processing labs, independent record stores, and abundant middle-class jobs) and Now (a desolate landscape of unemployment lines, empty storefronts, and smashed industries), and only one possible explanation for the difference between them: the rise of the internet economy.

Kodak is dead, therefore Instagram must have killed it. The independent record shops he haunted as a youth in London are gone, therefore Napster is at fault.

This inattention to detail leads Keen to awkward problems with cause-and-effect. Kodak—to stay, for a moment, with his favorite corporate tragedy—was a major player in every aspect of film-based photography. The company sold film, cameras to shoot it with, and developing services to process the exposed film into slides or prints that could be shared with others. Instagram—an internet site dedicated to sharing digital photographs—did not, in fact, kill Kodak. The rise of the digital photography (which Kodak experimented with but failed to embrace, let alone exploit) wounded Kodak by removing film, and the need to develop it, from the process of taking pictures.

The ubiquity of color inkjet printers eliminated much of the market for commercial photo printing, and the growing sophistication of cell phones killed the market for low-end stand-alone cameras (like the Kodak Instamatics of my youth) by putting something better in everyone’s pocket. Instagram (along with Flickr, Photobucket, and Facebook) emerged in the wake of the digital photography revolution, and could not have existed without it. They no more killed Kodak than the lemurs and mice of 65 million years ago brought down the dinosaurs.

Image of Kodak Instamatic from WikiCommons

The other charge that Keen levels against Instagram—that the millions of photographs posted there lack the purity, depth, and authenticity of those shot with Kodachrome film—makes a similar hash of history. The claim is not so much wrong, as beside the point. Kodachrome, exposed in a 35mm SLR camera by a skilled photographer, can produces beautiful pictures. Exposed in a fixed-focus Instamatic by an amateur taking casual vacation snapshots, it produces mediocre pictures—adequate as a memory aid, but no more. Self-developing Polaroid snapshots, another staple of amateur photography in the film era, were (as a rule) worse still, by every measure except the immediacy that made them popular in the first place. Keen overlooks the uncounted millions of mediocre snapshots on which Kodak’s (and Polaroid’s) corporate fortunes rested, and forgets that Instagram did not invent the “good enough to show I was there” photo… only a new way of passing them around.

Keen’s misreading of the demise of Kodak reflects larger, systemic problems that run through the book. The pre-internet world was not — as he asserts, based on limited evidence or no evidence at all—the golden age he presents it as. Nor is the world that the internet economy made the wasteland he makes it out to be. The fact that he (as a music-loving teenager growing up in the heart of “Swinging London”) had access to a wide range of used record stores, doesn’t mean that many, let alone most, teenaged music lovers did.

The fact that today’s musicians are paid a pittance by music-streaming services like Spotify doesn’t imply that yesterday’s received fat royalty checks from benevolent record companies. The digitization of music and movies does not lead solely (let alone inevitably) to Pirate Bay and Napster; it also leads to Netflix, Hulu, and the iTunes Music Store. Indeed, as suggested by Cory Doctorow and other scholars Keen ignores, it could have led to those services instead of Pirate Bay and Napster, had the movie and music industries embraced digitization rather than fought it.

That companies from the pre-internet era could be stupid and short-sighted, greedy and grasping, abusive to their workers and indifferent to their customers, is a possibility that Keen seems unwilling to entertain. Yet history provides abundant evidence that they could be all that. He seems equally unwilling to admit, or at least to acknowledge in print, that technological change has been bringing down once-powerful companies, undermining once-profitable business models, and rendering obsolete once-vibrant occupations for more than 200 years.

There, too, history works against his argument. The slide-rule manufacturers and the hand-loom weavers are gone now; the sellers of men’s hats and whalebone corsets are peddling other merchandise; the farriers and the icemen have moved on to other lines of work.

Keen wants his story of the economic change—he would call it damage—wrought by the internet to be unique and unparalleled, but it’s not. He also wants it to be the work of the 21st century robber barons he loathes—something that They have done to Us—but it’s not that, either. He suggests that the changes he describes in such apocalyptic terms were made “without our permission” implying that We (he takes it for granted that “We” are monolithic in our needs and desires) would have rejected the change if only we had been asked.

The truth, of course, is that we were asked: in print advertisements, email solicitations, posts on electronic bulletin boards, and invitations from tech-savvy friends. We were asked: “Do you want to be able to do something you’ve never done before?” We were asked: “Do you want to be able to do something better than you’ve ever been able to do it before?” We were asked, in other words, the same questions our parents and grandparents were asked, but about Facebook and Amazon, rather than the transistor radio and the electric fridge.

Some of us said “no” (we are, after all, not monolithic), but enough of us said “yes” to make the new technologies, new business models, and new jobs of the digital economy profitable. Glancing from the indifferent snapshots my teenaged self took with a Kodak Instamatic to the vibrant images that my teenaged daughter sends from her iPhone to her Facebook page, it’s not hard to understand why.

Nicholas Carr, Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, and a host of others have written cogently and in depth about the unintended side effects—technological, economic, cultural, and cognitive—of the digital revolution. Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow and (again) a host of others have written equally cogently about its benefits. The internet, with all the peril and promise it holds for society, deserves that level sophisticated analysis; it deserves better than The Internet Is Not the Answer.

Splash image: Tangled cables from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 2 / 10