Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: The Internet Is Not The Answer

By Andrew Keen, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015

I have long been a health care cyberskeptic. I do not believe the Internet axiomatically improves the human condition, nor should all doctors have electronic medical records, nor can all doctors be judged by data, nor does data automatically better the health system.

Andrew Keen, a transplanted Englishman. executive director of Silicon Valley's FutureCast, and a regular commentator on all things digital, confirms my worst suspicions. Data, he asserts, may be part of the answer for improving society, but it is not the total answer and is often destructive in undermining our culture and our economy.

In his 272 page, 8 chapter book, Keen delivers an authoritative history of the Internet, examines the dimensions of its worldwide networks, shows how it has destroyed many major industries, creates a culture of personal narcissism, makes the U.S. a winner-take-all 1% economy, turns the Web into a giant spying machine, destroys personal privacy, and causes deepening economic and social inequalities.

The Internet is masterful at creative destruction of major industries and social institutions. Look at what has happened to newspapers, bookstores, malls, brook-and-mortar stores, local businesses, the music industry, photography firms like Kodak.

Keen devotes one chapter to the plight of Rochester, New York, where digital photography drove Kodak into barnruptcy and destroyed 145,000 jobs and pensions of 50,000 people.

Keen is particularly instructive on the Internet as a vehicle for unemployment. Amazon, for example, requires only 14 people to generate $10 million in sales while brick-and-mortar stores need 47 people to generate $10 million. Google, now the second most valuable company in the world after Apple, with a market cap of $400 billion, has 46, 000 employees but General Motors with a market cap of $55 million, hires over 200,000 to make its cars.

The digital revolution is like the industrial revolution on steroids. In less than 20 years, it has produced the world’s biggest and fastest growing companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter. Many of these company’s CEOs have a personal net worth of over $30 billion each. Before 2020, 60% of the world’s population will be connected in one way or another to the Internet.

The secret to success of these big companies, which Keen calls “data factories,” is that their users supply the data for “free” for the privilege of using their services. And the more data the factories accumulate, the more valuable their data becomes.

It’s a winner-take-all economy with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, mostly young white males, becoming richer and richer and the middle class becoming poorer and poorer. The economy has been dubbed the “donut economy” because of in giant hole in middle incomes and jobs. “ The Internet,” says Keen, “is actually compounding this inequality and deepening the chasm between a handful of wealthy guys and everybody else.” It is a dehumanizing race between computers using artificial intelligence and ordinary mortals, between a very few valuable companies with very few employees and middle of the road companies with a great number of employees.

The Internet, of course, is not necessarily bad, with its universal access to information and its data-management capacities, but it is not necessarily good either, for those of us in the middle. In his preface, Keen observes of the Internet, “Rather than promoting fairness, it is a central reason for the growing gulf between the rich and the poor and hollowing out of the middle class…the principle abuse of our structural unemployment crisis…\"

“No,” Keen adds, “The Internet is not the answer.” My only disappointment with the book is that Keen says government intervention and regulation may be the only answer. Until that happens, the Internet will grow and grow and grow as a central reality in all of our lives.

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