Andrew Keen wants you to know he was here first. Or, at least, very close to the beginning. The man standing on the sidelines of the internet waving his arms and warning us social media was too good to be true? That was him, years ago.
The devoted skeptic of the digital age – “I’ve been called everything from a Luddite to a curmudgeon to the Antichrist of Silicon Valley,” he says – is hammering a new set of keys these days.
“The world has caught up with my arguments,” Keen writes in the introduction of his new book, How to Fix the Future (Grove Atlantic). “Having written three books exposing the dark side of the digital revolution, I think the time is now right for something more positive.”
Despite the kinder, gentler approach, Keen fans – and there are many – needn’t despair. In the name of a newfound positivity, the British-American entrepreneur and writer hasn’t sacrificed his demon edge. He describes his book as “a call to arms in a culture infected by a creeping (and creepy) technological determinism.”
How to Fix the Future is a reminder that the global institution known as “the internet” is increasingly run by a handful of companies that see you as product rather than customers. Keen points to Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a messenger service that employed 55 people at the time, as emblematic of an increasingly oligarchic economy that employs few, while denying the public an alternative to the online service they rely upon.
Similar to his other works, Keen rejects the notion that these problems can be fixed by the tech giants themselves. In his book he calls this a dangerous form of hero-worshipping. Instead, he calls for a cultural and political awakening, mainly in tech-obsessed America, where public servants are expected to fight these concentrations of power, rather than cater to them.
Keen sets out to profile people around the world who are working on real solutions to the issues of surveillance capitalism, big data monopolies, fake news, digital addiction, the existential threat of smart algorithms, along with just about any other social ill you want to preface with “digital.”
We started our conversation by confirming that the author of the 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, remains as unimpressed as ever with the concept of the wisdom of the crowd and community journalism efforts. This includesWikiTribune, which strives to give community members the same power as staff reporters.
“I think they’re shit, and I think they’re a waste of time, basically,” Keen told WikiTribune. “Community journalism is just ludicrous. … People are way too busy to do journalism. It’s such a hard thing to be a good journalist … why would anyone work for journalism for free? It’s profound exploitation.”
And with that we were off and running with the man who still seems to proudly wear the the label of the “Antichrist of Silicon Valley” a badge of honor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Keen: The middle of the 19th century had all sorts of people talking about the inevitability of the Industrial Revolution. Progressives like Marx said it was inevitably going to lead to some promised land, others with darker beliefs. But during the debates on the left between democratic socialists and Marxists, the realists were the ones who won out. It’s a political challenge that requires significant investment of all of our time.
I’m not saying that we have an equivalent today of 11-year-olds working in factories, or completely environmentally destroyed cities, but there are some equivalents. I think in 50 or 100 years when people look back and they see the data economy, and the way in which we were all participating in surveillance capitalism, I think (they’ll) be equally like, “Oh my God.” (They’ll) be thinking, “Could people really do that? Why’d they do that?”
WikiTribune: If Marxism was a response to the Industrial Revolution, has any movement risen in response to the internet?
Keen: I think there is an equivalent – people like Paul Mason, who talk about post-capitalism, people who believe that the tools of the digital revolution can finally liberate us, people who believe that the digital revolution can lead us to a kind of promised land. Now, it’s not as overt as the Marxist movement, but it has been historically quite strong. Those people, for example, who say blockchain solves everything … I’m much more practical, much more down the earth. I don’t believe any new technology can solve all these problems.
The solution to the Industrial Revolution wasn’t more industrial technology. It was political, cultural, it was regulation, it was innovation, it was consumer power. The same is true today.
WikiTribune: How do you visualize regulation of the biggest tech giants?
Keen: Well, I would hope that in the same way as the anti-trust investigation of Microsoft weakened Microsoft and allowed the birth of the Web 2.0 movement. Had we not had any anti-trust investigation of Microsoft, they would have essentially colonized the internet and turned it into their own backyard.
They tried to do that with Netscape, and other browsers owned by Microsoft. They would have done the same with search, and social, and everything else. I hope what anti-trust does is level the playing field and allow real competition, which I think is what the Europeans and [Margrethe] Vestager (European Commissioner of Competition) in particular are doing.
WikiTribune: Does that mean you’re advocating stricter anti-trust legislation?
Keen: I’m not an anti-trust lawyer, but I think we may need to rethink anti-trust law. Anti-trust law is premised on the idea that it’s in the interest of the consumer. Amazon, for example, is a company that clearly benefits the consumer in some ways, but Amazon is increasingly becoming the strongest of all the digital behemoths. I think there may be a need to rethink anti-trust law in the 21st century.
Let me be clear, when I say anti-trust I don’t mean that these companies have to be broken up. That’s the most radical conclusion. But when you have hugely powerful companies, it’s not good for startup entrepreneurs. It’s not good for innovation.
WikiTribune: You talk about the concentration of power in hubs like Silicon Valley, but the internet has had the opposite effect on media, hasn’t it? Hasn’t digital access broken the role of informational gatekeeper?
Keen: What? Is that a joke question? When you have 85 percent of all the advertising controlled by two companies, online advertising, Facebook and Google, no, absolutely not.
WikiTribune: Fine, but these platforms have also given historically marginalized communities a voice in new ways. Black Lives Matter blossomed into a global movement in part because of social media.
Keen: Social movements existed before the internet. But I think you’re right that these, what you call “marginal” movements, do seem to blossom on the internet. You have Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo, or Occupy Wall Street. My problem is that these movements tend to struggle to be institutionalized and achieve coherent political power.
Occupy Wall Street was a really interesting movement with an important message, but it was like an internet meme. It came and went, everyone heard of it, and now no one talks about it. So that’s what worries me. But I think you’re right. For people who haven’t traditionally had a voice, I think that the digital revolution has been empowering and important. That’s one of the reasons we should celebrate the internet.
But it’s hard to say “it definitely wouldn’t have happened without the internet,” because you had the rise of the women’s movement and Black consciousness in America before the internet. So the notion that these things couldn’t happen is wrong. But certainly, their immediacy and power, and the vitality of their message is something that seems to go with digital media.
WikiTribune: What’s been your reaction to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal? Are you surprised at the outrage, considering Facebook’s business model is data mining its users?
Keen: I’ve been making this argument for ten years. I wrote a whole book about it. I wouldn’t say I’m “surprised.” I’m “amused” that people are suddenly realizing what’s actually going on.
WikiTribune: When you say “what’s going on” do you think people actually understand why Facebook’s in trouble?
Keen: I don’t know. It comes back to your question about these movements. Everything is so immediate in our online culture that I’m still not convinced that Facebook’s actually in trouble. This may pass, but we’ll see. [Facebook] is convenient. When something’s free, people don’t want it to have bad repercussions, they’d rather not think about it.
I’m not on Facebook, because it gets on my nerves, but it still is an amazing product. And it’s free, so why wouldn’t you want to believe in all the nonsense that Zuckerberg tells everyone? But then when it becomes clear that they are actually mining our data, people have to make hard choices.
WikiTribune: Is the solution another Facebook, a competitor people could move to?
Keen: I’m not sure. I think we may be beyond that. I like the idea of these decentralized autonomous communities – perhaps shape social networks along those lines.
The other alternative is to pay for (social media). I mean, look at news. I was an internet entrepreneur in the mid-’90s, when everything online was free. It was, in retrospect, a complete disaster, particularly for the news industry. It almost killed the news industry. Then [Rupert] Murdoch, then The Times, and now practically everyone is forcing people to pay. It’s saved the news industry.
Maybe the same will happen with social media, where people pay. Then what they’ll get is a product that doesn’t turn them into the product, a product that isn’t always mining their information.
WikiTribune: You address the “surveillance economy” in your book. Is a surveillance economy necessarily a bad thing if people don’t value privacy?
Keen: Let me rework the question. Is the concept of famine a bad thing if people don’t mind of dying of starvation? It’s a stupid question.
WikiTribune: Don’t younger generations …
Keen: Garbage. (It’s) not true that some people don’t care about privacy. It’s the essence of ourselves. If we don’t have privacy, we don’t have anything. You talk to young people in China, ask them whether they like the fact that the state watches everything they do. Or you talk to young people in Russia. Or you talk to young people about what Snowden revealed. They don’t want to be watched all the time, nobody wants to be watched. That’s the core of a repressive political system that people don’t want to live in, so I don’t buy that.
It’s a very patronizing assumption to say kids don’t (want privacy). If anything, my argument’s always been that kids will say that they’re the ones who care most. They’re the ones now buying content. … If anyone’s going to save our privacy, it’s the so-called digital natives. It’s just unthinkable that people would give away their privacy in exchange for free stuff or some other online scam.
WikiTribune: You just said people use Facebook because it’s free and they don’t care that …
Keen: No, I didn’t. I just think they’d rather not care. Now that stuff’s coming out (about data sharing) they’re beginning to understand the implications and finding it a bit chilling. But most of them don’t really think about it. It’s just there and they do it.
People use Google all the time, but if you asked them about Google’s business model they would be uninterested. You guys should do an experiment. Ask people what their business model is. Most of them don’t really understand they’re advertising companies.
WikiTribune: I’ll work on that with the WikiTribune community.
Keen: Or with professional researchers.