Book Review: The Internet is Not the Answer

If you’re looking for a no holds barred critique of everything that is wrong with our exuberant embrace of the internet, Andrew Keen’s The Internet is Not the Answer might, in fact, be the answer to your quest. The theme of this book can be summed up with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s thinly veiled admonition to Facebook and Google users that they are not the customer – they are the product. As aptly observed by the author, “we are all working for Facebook and Google for free, manufacturing the very personal data that makes their companies so valuable.”

Mr. Keen begins his fascinating story with a look at the elite titans of the internet age, individuals like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and the lesser known Travis Kalanick of Uber. He brings us into the inner sanctum of San Francisco’s glitzy Commonwealth Club, an exclusive place of recluse for the new internet billionaires (and mere millionaires) so they can hobnob with like minded self-made men – unsurprisingly, the internet aristocracy is largely comprised of young white males. With a pervasive right-leaning libertarian political outlook, the leaders of our new gilded age see no contradiction between the near monopolization of their markets and the diminished power of ordinary individuals who hope to earn profits from creative endeavors on the internet, whether they be writers seeking to sell their books on Amazon or musicians looking to break into iTunes.

The author offers some particularly telling statistics on the decline of the music industry, placing much of the blame on giants from Apple to Spotify, as well as on early pioneers like Napster. Since the late 1990s, total global revenue for the music industry, including online sales, has declined from 38 billion to only 15 billion today. The mantra has always been that the democratization of the internet will allow many more people to partake in the industry and reap benefits, but this has not been the case. Not only are total revenues down, but the distribution of profits has become much more skewed to the already famous. Amazingly, 94% of the 8 million songs sold on iTunes in 2011 sold less than 100 copies for their composer. In fact, over 30% of songs sold only a single copy. The sad reality is that a great many jobs have been lost, depriving many aspiring musicians of their livelihood.

Raising the level of his cynicism, Mr. Keen then posits a more serious indictment of the corporations in charge, attributing more sinister motives to their seemingly innocuous gathering of internet user activity. Drawing parallels to the surveillance methods by the East German secret police, Facebook is noted as possibly the greatest spying machine the world has ever known, as it dutifully records the web of personal preferences that its users willingly supply. Likewise, Google has full access to personal details sent via their Gmail email application and makes use of this information without remorse. And unlike the menacing society of Orwell’s 1984, we fully acquiesce to this surveillance, choosing to live in a “crystal republic” where our phones and other devices keep a constant eye on our activities.

Although a little heavy on angst and short on substance, The Internet is Not the Answer is a rousing polemic that offers an entertaining read of the foibles of the internet age. Among its many virtues is an ability to turn the reader inward to question their own personal motives for engaging with the internet. For example, I’m right now writing a blog entry for anonymous consumption by unknown readers, an activity for which I receive no direct compensation. What motivates a person to do such a thing, and who really benefits?

The Internet is Not the Answer
by Andrew Keen
Atlantic Monthly Press, January 2016
273 pages, $25.00

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