Michael Pidde

The Internet Is Not The Answer

I took the time to read The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen over the last week. Because I live under a rock far away from the squabbling voices of west coast entrepreneurs and the cult of tech divination, I'd never heard of Mr. Keen before. He briefly mentions, but mostly glosses over, his personal history in this work, but we learn that he was at one time an entrepreneur himself in the early days of the Internet. Wikipedia still characterizes him as an entrepreneur in the tech industry, so we'll keep that in mind as it relates to the content of his book.

This gloomy treatise was penned (or keyed) in 2015, so we have to take some of the statistics with a grain of salt because the technology industry, and in particular the companies that he chooses to fixate voraciously on, have grown and changed within the 4 years since publication. Whether they've changed for the better or worse I'll leave up to someone else. If nothing else, the companies in question have figured out how to earn even more money, but they also employ more people. A cursory glance at the market caps for Amazon and Google compared to their numbers of employees indicates that if the market cap is doubled, the number of employees is also doubled. This isn't to contradict what Keen noted, that these large corporations (or "quasi monopolies" as he refers to them) are smashing traditional industries to bits and not replacing the lost jobs. He uses Kodak as a prime example, which he decides to spend a markedly long time analyzing. He notes that in its heyday, Kodak was worth $31 billion in 1989 and employed 145,000 workers (p. 111). This is compared to likes of today's Instagram which was sold to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, though having at the time only 13 full time employees. Kodak did not give way to Instagram, though, and Kodak's failing was not related to the emergence of Instagram or any other Internet-based photo sharing system. What I'm curious about is where the insistence that tech companies need to employee as many people as traditional businesses comes from. Keen plows forward comparing Google, with a "mid-2014 market cap of over $400 billion, [which] needs to employ only 46,000 people" (p. 61) to General Motors, with a "market cap of $55 billion, [which] employs just over 200,000 people" (p. 61). I would wager that GM would love to employ less workers and automate more processes, or at the very least pay them lower wages in the mean time, as indicated by the numerous labor strikes within its ranks throughout its history.

The overall theme of the book focuses less on the internet as a viable means of business and more as a doomsday lament against Silicon Valley giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. The gripe seems to be mostly that these companies rake in lots of money but don't employ a perceivably reasonable number of people, thus removing jobs from the middle American. But what can we say about "traditional" companies (in the sense that they're not from the Valley and they're not Internet startup based) such as CVS Health which currently has a $70 billion market cap and employs 203,000 folks? The market cap isn't necessarily the best factor by which to judge the impact that a company has on the job market. CVS Health employs fewer workers than Amazon, but it's above Amazon on the list of the top 50 companies in terms of revenue. And consider UnitedHealth Group which is even higher still in revenue. While Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like are capitalizing on mass data and some services, other large companies raking in large sums of money are capitalizing on our health and well being. We obviously all have a hill that we're willing to die on, and everyone wants to focus on a different segment of the corporate monster, but Keens book mostly comes across as an ironic diatribe against the founders of large Internet "quasi monopolies." I'm sure that he would love to be in their shoes, though.

Keen has a markedly Euro-centric view of legislation and how it should work, and this comes across strongly and redundantly when he focuses on characterizing certain tech industry leaders as living in a Libertarian dreamland. I'm not entirely sure what an Englishman would know about the ideals of Libertarianism, but clearly he lumps it together with monopolistic capitalism and excessive shows of wealth. His answer, instead of the Internet, is to use government regulation to smash these large corporations. Keen decides to leave this answer for the last few pages of his book, and tritely assumes that his answer is sensible. The question of precedent would be worth another book, but I don't much care to listen read Keen's redundant presentation style and patchwork quotations of other sources that paint a particular picture of one segment of American corporatism.

"Without our permission" was a resounding statement within his picture. That big data companies can use our data "without our permission" seemed like a far-fetched idea. If you're dumping all of your data into their system, your permission is implicit. If Keen was trying to make a poignant point about companies having our data that we've willingly fed to them, what permission does he expect them to exact in order to analyze it or use it in certain ways? We're not talking about health care data or background checks, we're talking about you posting a drunk party album on Facebook or writing stupid fragmented thoughts on Twitter about what nonsense you're thinking about. If these companies can make any sense of that tripe...

This book wasn't without value. It lends some fodder for thought about topics that the reader may not have considered before. We all have our various ideas about the accrual of wealth and whether or not it's equitably amassed by certain corporations across the globe. While I don't go out of my way to read books about these matters, I would imagine that there are more concise and established treatises on such a topic as "wealth inequality" and the like. It's a general topic that doesn't necessarily need to tie directly into the umbrella of Internet companies and whether or not the Internet has been good for us, the middle Americans. If there are more cohesive arguments, it may be interesting to read them.