I’m old enough to remember when everybody liked the Internet. Lately, not so much. Our admiration for online pioneers like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is giving way to suspicion and envy. We mourn our lost privacy, and fret over the economic and political power of the online giants.
So Andrew Keen should have little trouble finding sympathetic readers for his new book, “The Internet Is Not the Answer.” Never mind that he leads us through terrain already well covered by fellow Internet skeptics like Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, and Evgeny Morozov. And don’t sweat Keen’s pedestrian, cliche-rich prose style. His message is clear enough, and downright radical. Keen believes that we’d be better off if the Internet, at least as we now know it, had never been created at all. Its “hidden negatives outweigh the self-evident positives,” he declares.
To Keen, the Internet has fallen from grace. It was a grand and noble thing during the 1970s and ’80s, when it was controlled by high-minded academics working in government-funded labs. Then in the mid-’90s, the money-changers entered the temple. At that moment, writes Keen, “the Internet lost a sense of common purpose, a general decency, perhaps even its soul.”
That’s an absurdly limited perspective. Government alone could never have put broadband Internet access in 70 percent of American homes, or delivered at least rudimentary Internet service to 40 percent of all humans. Free enterprise made it happen.
But at a cost. Like the Industrial Revolution of old, the digital revolution has spawned a surge of economic inequality. The 19th-century tycoons who built the mills of Manchester, England, and Pittsburgh were rewarded with a level of wealth beyond the imagining of the typical clerk or mill hand. It’s the same for the titans of tech. Google’s founders, for instance, command a private air force, including a pair of customized Boeing airliners and a decommissioned fighter plane.
Nothing wrong with that. But what about everyone else? John D. Rockefeller’s oil refineries and Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills employed hundreds of thousands. These and millions of other industrial workers became the prosperous American middle class of the mid-20th century. Even today, General Motors, which earned $5.3 billion in profits in 2013, employs about 219,000 people.
But the massive wealth generated by digital enterprises mainly enriches their shareholders, not the next generation of middle-class workers. Google, which generated $13 billion in profits in 2013, created a mere 55,000 jobs. Facebook made $1.5 billion in 2013, but employs just 8,300 souls.
Keen takes a bitter tour of the Rochester, N.Y., headquarters of Eastman Kodak Co., the once-great manufacturer of photography gear. At its peak, Kodak employed 145,000. Today, thanks to digital photography and online picture sharing, fewer than 9,000 are left. It’s one of many examples in which digital technology seems to be killing more jobs than it creates. Online retailers like Amazon.com have annihilated countless brick-and-mortar stores; ride-sharing services like Uber threaten to wipe out traditional taxicab companies. E-mail has ravaged the US Postal Service, and plans by online retailers to deliver packages via robotic drones could kill even more jobs.
And even as they drain the economy of gainful jobs, Internet companies happily profit from the unpaid exertions of others. Google, for instance, collects and analyzes sensitive personal data, including the locations of our Android cellphones and the contents of our e-mails, to more precisely target us with the advertising messages that bring in 90 percent of its revenue. Facebook, Twitter, and other online giants do the same. In effect, Keen rightly notes, we’re working for these guys every time we log on.
No question that Keen is onto something. But a snapshot of life in England during the early Industrial Revolution would have highlighted even uglier consequences. The immense benefits of industrialization took decades to fully manifest. The Internet age is barely 20 years old, far too soon to write it off.
Keen himself holds out hope for reform. He favors an all-out antitrust crusade to diminish the power of titans like Amazon, and new legislation to limit a host of online activities he considers dangerous or exploitative. Too bad his suggestions are uniformly absurd. For instance, he favors the European Union’s idea that a citizen has a “right to be forgotten,” so that information about him must be deleted by Google and other Internet services. In other words, government-mandated censorship masquerading as protection of privacy. No thanks, Mr. Keen. I still like the Internet far too much to sign on for ideas like that.Hiawatha Bray is the technology reporter at The Boston Globe and author of “You Are Here.”