March 20, 2015

Talk with web 2.0-basher Andrew Keen

Lady smashing her PC (photo: Sergey Nivens_Fotolia)
The last resort? (photo: Sergey Nivens_Fotolia)
Is the Internet a common good or should it be? Andrew Keen sees our digital age as a very mixed blessing and has become one of its most vehement critics.

The British entrepreneur and author maintains that online monopolies, such as Amazon, Google, YouTube or Uber, have created a dangerous dystopia. In his opinion they destroy jobs, stifle innovation, and exacerbate global inequality.

Social media platforms also raise Mr Keen's ire as being anything but social and only seemingly free. He accuses these networks of destroying our privacy and ruthlessly marketing personal data: "Facebook is not interested in humanity, but primarily in profit."

And, if Edward Snowden's revelations are to be believed, the providers of such platforms are not only commercialising but also surveilling users in collaboration with the NSA. Keen also claims that WhatsApp, Instagram & Co promote a trivial, narcissist culture and 'the tyranny of the moment'.

Is then the Web an amoral force in desperate need of state regulation? Or is the man merely expounding his own set of biases and deliberately exaggerating in order to sell his controversial books?

Selfie-advertising in a shop (photo: Hans-Jürgen Schulz)
Smart phones, dumb people? Is our 'selfie' culture making us narcissistic? Or has it always been me, myself & I? (photo: Hans-Jürgen Schulz)
These include 'The Cult of the Amateur' (2007) and 'Digital Vertigo' (2012). His latest publication, 'The Internet Is Not the Answer', pulls no punches: "The Internet is not a gain for all, but a vicious circle where users are...its victims...The internet is in no way the answer, but the central question in our connected 21st century world."

The former academic likes to draw parallels between today and the late industrial revolution when US trusts monopolised industry and banking. For him contemporary internet stars, hyped in our culture to the status of Übermenschen, are the 'robber barons' of old, only grown more sinister by the lights of perverted science.

His favourite bugbears are therefore billionaire tech entrepreneurs and star investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Besos, Uber founder Travis Kalanick, or PayPal creator Peter Thiel. At best Keen sees them as disingenuous. These 'false prophets' merely camouflage their greed with idealism and 'the new religion of unlimited progress'.

Surveillance camera in a shop (photo: Bert Bostelmann)
Surveillance while you shop: Are retailers trying to stop shrinkage or only helping the NSA? (photo: Bert Bostelmann)
Unlike many moralisers, Keen has a practical solution to our current 'data factory economy'. The answer, he feels, is not in libertarianism, but in more regulation by national governments and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

"The old economy was certainly not ideal, but it worked within a legal framework...If we hadn't had regulators, eleven-year-olds would still be working in factories." 

Strangely this Brit, who has been dubbed the 'Silicon Valley antichrist', lives and works in the region as an internet entrepreneur. Among other things, he is Executive Director of FutureCast, a salon-style internet discussion event that aims to bring together some of the Valley's finest minds in order to discuss the digital revolution.

Family members using smartphones (photo: Robert Kneschke/Fotolia)
Communication in the family: Is the internet somehow distracting us? (photo: Robert Kneschke/Fotolia)
Keen also confesses to using Twitter and Google as a research and marketing tool. You can even find his name on LinkedIn, and, although his answers are terse, it is possible to email him.

This strident, but entertaining public speaker does not regard such activities as a contradiction. For all the harsh personal words and acrid criticism, the man, born 55 years ago in London's leafy-laned Hampstead, is neither social romantic, anti-capitalist or cyber-Luddite.

Instead, Andrew Keen strives to reform rather than reverse the digital revolution. The only question is: Will the world look up from its screens, take off its headphones and listen?

"The most important issue of our times"

Andrew Keen (photo: Andrew Keen )
Andrew Keen (photo: Andrew Keen )
Mr Keen, it's 8 a.m. in California, hopefully you have managed to have some breakfast?

We don't have breakfast in California; we're too advanced for that sort of thing! I'm going to have a cup of tea though…

'Those whom the Gods destroy, they first make mad.' To what extent do you think this quotation applies to the future of our kids in the Internet era?

I don't like to generationalise what's going on because it affects both young and old, but I think it an exaggeration to say we are going mad. We are going through a very sharp cultural and sociological shift as media becomes radically personalized.

What interests me is the addictive rather than the generational aspect of this development.

We are all individuals in an increasingly anonymous world. What's so wrong about personalization?

One thing that strikes me wherever I travel in the world is that no one really talks to anyone else anymore on airplanes. When I was growing up, everyone used to talk to one another. Now we are all in our little world with our headphones and smartphones.

The irony is that is that social media is supposed to be social, but it isn't. Instead it is driving us deeper and deeper into ourselves. The most recent manifestation of all this is the 'selfie' where we constantly photograph ourselves. I find all these developments troubling.

To what extent would you say that retailers and the fmcg industry are to blame for these developments, or are they merely trying to adapt to them?

Your question is extremely broad, and I am not an expert on your trade, but I will try to answer it. I would say that traditional retailers, such as independent booksellers, are obviously one of the victims of the online revolution. Also the labour practices at Amazon are as troubling, if not more troubling than at Walmart.

As far as brands are concerned, I think that even big ones such as Procter & Gamble are fundamentally challenged by the online revolution. They need to rethink their role and reinvent themselves. Why else would, for instance, Coca-Cola have a Chief Digital Officer?

You mention labour practices at Amazon, but don't many other companies bully under our capitalist system, regardless of whether they are based on clicks or bricks?

I am not against capitalism or the free market, and I am not socialist. However, I do see a glaring contrast between what we were originally promised by those who built and promoted the Internet and what it has become today.

We were told that the Web would be something idealist and something different and that it would be able to escape the influence of huge multi-national corporations. The whole point of my most recent book is that nothing has really changed.

The new internet companies, in spite of all their rhetoric of 'not doing evil' and 'connecting the world' etc., are in reality just as monopolistic and even more powerful than the Old Economy ones.

I think that one can draw a historical parallel here. In the early Industrial Revolution an uncontrolled market led to monopolies that needed antitrust legislation in order to protect both private leisure and the environment.

Today, the Digital Revolution is largely untrammelled, and I believe that an uncontrolled market never works.

So are you saying, in effect, that Mark Zuckerberg and Google etc. are hypocrites?

I think Mark Zuckerberg actually believes what he says, and some may even swallow their own rhetoric at Google.

The salient fact, however, is that many people clearly believe what they have been told. Many users think of Google as a friendly paternity and probably couldn’t explain what the Google business model is.

I would prefer a paid model to the pseudo-free one we have today in order to end such confusion.

You also criticise Facebook, which is free to all users. Why get so worked up about a service that no one is obliged to use if they don't want to?

But Facebook is so essential on the network that it is hard not to be on it. There are many applications which require you to be a member. I choose not to be a user, but I find it very annoying that I can't use a lot of applications without it.

If you are not on Facebook, it's making a very radical statement. Of course, you don't have to be on it, in the same way that you don't need to be on the Internet, but you'd be out of everything. You wouldn't have a reputation, and no one would know who you are. If you wanted a job, you would struggle because there would be no record of you.

But I find Google more worrying.


Think of all the things it has: there is Google surf, Google Maps, Gmail, and God knows what. Many people with Google accounts don't understand the way in which the company is joining the dots on all of us in order to serve us up with more and more personalised advertising.

Here too, of course, you could say that you don't have to use their services, if you don’t want to, but actually the whole Google phenomenon is much more complicated than meets the eye.

Google also claims to be very transparent, but in reality they are an incredibly opaque company.

Presumably, you are not happy that Google also bought YouTube for nearly $1.7bn in 2006?

It's obviously now connected with the suite of other Google products. I admit that I enjoy watching football on YouTube, but, again, my problem is with its business model, which gives an impression of being free. I would far prefer it if YouTube monetized its product.

Admittedly, YouTube is pioneering the free economy, but it has often turned a blind eye to piracy, at least in the past. Also, I don’t think it helps a lot of processional, creative people or that many of the movies and TV shows we watch there do particularly well out of it.

Last but not least, the reality of the network is that they are monopolists. The dominance of YouTube inn online video is astonishing. I don’t know what the exact market share is, but they don't really have any competition.

Why do you regard social media as 'not social'? Isn't technolgy merely being used here to extend the possibilities of social rituals? Why shouldn't, for instance, migrant workers keep in touch with their families via Facebook etc.?

I have never said that the Internet doesn't also do a huge amount of good, and it is certainly not for me to say that people shouldn’t communicate with their kids or grandchildren.

But you are only right on one level. All this communication could just as easily be done by email, and it doesn't have to be made public. If you are Turkish and work in Germany and want to communicate with your kids, you don't have to go on Facebook. Why would you want to do it in front of everyone else when you have Skype etc.?

Surely social media at least foster the growth of communities?

Networks such as Facebook claim to create community, but in reality these are invidualized communities. Often we create them on a whim and dip in and out of them; they don't require any kind of commitment.

So most of the input generates a narcissistic, indulgent culture where we broadcast ourselves to people whom we hardly know. It's not really social or communication, it's just a one-way conversation.

That doesn't mean that there aren't genuine conversations on Facebook or that it can't be a good way for families to speak together – I encourage all that. But I wish to point out the darker side to all of this, and the dark clouds are becoming more and more obvious.

You also find the modern Facebook and Instagram culture of 'selfies' narcissist?

It is a mixture of exhibitionism and narcissism, where we are all shamelessly broadcasting ourselves. It reflects the idea that there is no shame and that we shouldn't keep anything private. So, in an odd way, it's almost as if the old Roman Catholic confessional has been turned inside out.

Is the Internet contributing towards a process of trivialization and 'dumbing down'?

The issue of technology making us stupid is an old one. For instance, the American media theorist Neil Postman has written about the abuses of our television culture. I think a number of the things he once said about TV can easily be applied to the Net.

As regards dumbing down, I am more interested in the political and cultural aspect. I think the Internet is making us more and more parochial.

It was supposed to open the door of the mind, but social media have now largely become personalised media. We are collectively hearing from people that we want to hear from. This narrows everything down until we have an echo chamber culture.

In the old pre-digital world, we would read a newspaper where the editorial page would be full of arguments from people whom you would not necessarily agree with. There were also independent bookstores, where you could walk in, browse around and find stuff serendipitously.

All our culture does today is collect people around us whom we already agree with. So all the capitalists, communists, and religious communities talk to each other in exclusivity. This makes us increasingly parochial, intolerant, and unaware of the rest of the world.

You can see the same phenomenon happening on American TV too, for instance, on cable channels Fox News or MSNBC, where they churn out what the audience already thinks.

I find all this troubling. Both TV and social media were supposed to give people access to opinions and views that they would not normally have access to. Networks like Twitter are really a unity of like-minded people congregating with each other. They simply confirm and compound what each other think. So they are not opening up our mind, they are closing our mind.

You have written that such networks contribute to the "tyranny of now", where users simply skip like butterflies from one sensational picture or sound bite to the next?

Yes, they have destroyed both the past and the present. Particularly on Twitter and Facebook, we all get bound up in perpetual mad storms, but then 20 minutes later everyone has forgotten what we were thinking about.

So we are living in a trending culture where trends are of the minute and of the instant, and as soon as they’ve been trended, we've forgotten them.

Thus, the irony of the Internet is that, on the one hand it doesn't allow us to forget, while it is destroying our collective memory on the other. We are also losing our historical consciousness.

There are obviously many other reasons for this, including the massive decline in the study of the humanities at schools and universities. But when you live in the now and the instant, you can barely remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone 50 or 500 years ago. 

But surely the likes of Wikipedia are useful, free tools which democratise knowledge?

Admittedly, Wikipedia is an interesting experiment, but I don't think it's a success. You are much more likely to find a long, complex entry on some recent software designer or social media entrepreneur than on some great historical figure such as Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I of England. 

Given the predictions you make in your book 'Digital Vertigo', you were probably not unduly surprised at Edward Snowden’s revelations as to cooperation between US social media companies and the NSA?

My book did predict a panoptical world where we are being watched all the time. However, even I was surprised at the extent of the intimacy between the NSA and Facebook and Google.

Some companies clearly resisted government pressure more than others. Twitter, for instance, comes out of the affair looking a little bit better.

Do you believe that too much privacy is being sacrificed on the holy altar of global security?

I am not a libertarian and governments exist to protect their citizens. Clearly there are enemies out there who want to destroy both America and world democracy. I therefore believe that the NSA has a right to tap people’s phones, when there is credible proof that they are trying to blow the country up.

Although I think that America is exaggerating and has become paranoiac about the terrorist threat, it doesn’t mean that we should dismantle the security services!

At the end of the day, however, I think Snowden's revelations provided the public with a sharp jolt that has made internet companies more responsible and respectful as to how they treat their users' data. It may not have been quite a Chernobyl or Exxon Valdez moment for social media, but it has certainly made people wake up.

As Silicon Valley booms and we move seemingly relentlessly towards a fully-connected 'Industry-Standard-4.0' home, aren't you preaching into the wind? Regardless of what you may say or write, won't we all be living in a brave new digital world in 30 years’ time?

We are still in the relatively early stages of the digital revolution. Clearly, when millions of devices are connected within the Internet of Things, we could well be at the sticking point. If, for instance, Google with its investment in Nest and the self-driving car etc. joins up all the dots, then it really could become a dystopian corporation.

At the end of the day, however, I refuse to believe the horror scenario you describe. Had I thought any form of protest futile, I wouldn’t have written my books, but some dystopian novel like Dave Eggers' "The Circle".

I think that we are in the early stages of a social and economic technological revolution that is as profound in Hegelian historical terms as the Industrial Revolution.

So your question to me is like someone asking in 1820, whether it makes any sense fighting the factory owners. Even then, technology seemed all-powerful, many were obliged to work endless hours in factories, and the world was increasingly polluted.

But the Industrial Revolution spawned an economic struggle, there was union agitation, and eventually the "robber barons" were forced to accept social legislation.

Isn't Silicon Valley the root cause of today's social problems?

No, I think there are a lot of smart and good people in Silicon Valley. I disagree with some, but I acknowledge their output. So the more books there are like mine and the more conversations people like you and I have, the more people will understand that we can control this thing.

Tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly, whose work I admire, says technology has a mind of its own, but he's turned technology into God, which I don't believe. I think we are the ones who control our future, our society, and our world, but we urgently need to shape it to our interests.

Presumably you would propose more government regulation to reform the Internet?

I don't think it is just government regulation, although I do think regulation plays a role. I think self-regulation and corporate regulation are equally important. We can’t just stand by and let everything happen. You can't say, what will be, will be. That is absurd. We don’t do that with any other issue, and this is perhaps the most important issue of our time.

Eventually, I believe that we will be saved from this by the young. I think that in a generation or two there will be a huge reaction against all this technology.

So, at the end of the day, you are an optimist?

I'm cautiously optimistic. When I wrote as late as in 2007, I was pretty much on my own and subjected to a huge amount of criticism. People said I was an elitist, a reactionary, some kind of nut. We must recognise that where we are going is not ideal and that we have to change course.

But wouldn't your message be more credible, if you didn’t live and work as an internet entrepreneur in Silicon Valley? Doesn't this make you an Old Testament prophet who moralises in Sodom and Gomorrah?

No, although it is very kind of you to describe me as an Old Testament prophet. I'm just a man who is interested in this world and one who has been lucky enough to make a living and a career here.

I think I am often portrayed as being more critical than I actually am. The problem in America sometimes is that, if anyone is critical of technology, they are immediately accused of being a reactionary.

Clearly there are many other critics of the digital revolution, including academics and people on the East Coast, but I think I am well-positioned to criticise because I'm involved to a fair degree in the tech community here.

I believe that criticism comes best from insiders because they have a better understanding of the culture concerned. So in my opinion I am not living any kind of contradiction at all.

Lebensmittel Zeitung with digital sister (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: 'Das macht uns provinziell' by international editor Mike Dawson on page 38 of Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 12, 20.03.2015

German Retail Blog

Sign up for your FREE newsletter now!

Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Tim Harrap
    Created 20 March, 2015 09:34 | Permanent link

    The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

    Worth reading is David Graeber's new book "The Utopia of Rules":

    He describes the emergence of the Postal Service in Germany and how its military antecedents set the tone of its operations. How something similar is at the route of the Internet and yet from top-down we now have the situation of bottom-up -- a participatory nature.

    Andrew Keen and other writers in this genre are basically asking people to think.

This is an English-language blog, please write all comments in English!
Thank you.