The Internet is not the answer, by Andrew Keen

The World Wide Web is doing more harm than good, according to this new book about the Internet.

Remember Marshall McLuhan’s global village, where interconnectivity would bring the peoples of the world together and create a sense of shared responsibility? The Canadian prophet certainly got the global part correct, but perhaps a village was not the right metaphor, suggests Andrew Keen, author of The Internet Is Not the Answer. He argues a better analogy for today’s electronically linked world would be the village pub, where secrets and privacy fall by the wayside. Indeed, as we hear more and more, giants of the brave new world such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are keeping tabs on us and have taken on the role of pub gossip, spreading details of our lives to anyone who will listen.

Of course, the Internet is not all bad, concedes Keen, a US-based commentator and entrepreneur. It has allowed people far and wide to connect, both personally and professionally, and has provided the masses with access to a vast amount of information. With that out of the way, he spends the rest of the book arguing that it has done more harm than good, eliminating jobs, decimating entire industries and fostering income inequality.

Some well-chosen facts and figures make the point: Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made successful bets on Netscape, Amazon and Google, has commissioned some of the most expensive yachts in the world. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has amassed a personal fortune of about US$30 billion. By "monetizing friendship," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has surpassed the US$30-billion mark.

Meanwhile, half the bookstores that existed in the US in the mid-1990s have closed their doors. While brick and mortar retailers traditionally employ 47 people for every US$10 million in sales, Amazon employs only 14 — and those employees (who reportedly are neither treated nor paid very well) are in danger of being replaced by robots.

The Internet has, in today’s parlance, "disrupted" the music, news and travel industries, among many others.

Adding insult to injury, as far as Keen is concerned, is that the new lords of Silicon Valley have gotten ridiculously rich on the backs of publicly funded research programs, such as those conducted in government labs and universities, that got the whole thing going in the first place. The true pioneers of the digital age were trying to create a more democratic, nonhierarchical world that would provide opportunities for more people to succeed, rather than create the "new feudalism" emerging around us.

It’s a bleak assessment. But Keen shares a ray of hope. His answer is more government regulation, higher taxes on the very rich and more oblige practised by the new nobility.

Unfortunately, he’s not particularly convincing that these oft-mentioned solutions, even if they did come to pass, could put the horse back in the barn.