Monday, January 12, 2015

Andrew Keen: "The Internet Is NOT the Answer": is amatuerism deceptive?

Author:  Andrew Keen

Title: “The Internet Is NOT the Answer
Publication: 2015, Atlantic Monthly Business, ISBN 978-0-8021-2313-8, 270 pages, hardcover (also ebook), Preface (“The Question”), Introduction (“The Building Is the Message” --  insert the adverb “not”), Conclusion” (“The Answer”), and eight chapters

The author had authored “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing our Culture” (Jue 26, 2007 here), which gives a pretty good clue as to where he is coming from.

I could start like a literature professor making up a final exam, by citing a few delicious quotes from the book, that could stimulate some student essays:

On p. 95 he writes “Peter Thiel has everything: brains, charm, prescience, intellect, charisma; everything, that is, except compassion for those less successful than him.”  Note: “charm” is also a property of a sub-atomic particle or quark.

On. P. 105 he writes, “The truth is that networks like Instagram, Twitter or Facebook is that their easy-to-use, free tools delude us into thinking we are celebrities. Tet, in the Internet’s winner-take-all economy, attention remains a monopoly of superstars.  Average is over, particularly for celebrities.” He then names Justin Bieber as an example. I just laughed.  Bieber has covered his boyish body, even forearms, with ugly tattoos because he has almost no expected Caucasian male body hair (as my buddies at Fort Eustis would have said ungrammatically in 1969, “he’th’mooth”).  Neither did Ronald Reagan.  And article in Christopher Street back in in 1985, in those grand old days of print journalism that Keen says is dying, there was indeed an article that proposed “better men” as role models for the public, gay or not.  In fact, I’m reminded of a June 1999 piece in the Weekly Standard (when conservative print commentary was still somewhat in flower) by David Skinner, “Notes on the Hairless Man”, where he talks about “men without chests” and describes our fascination with the immature – which indeed the Internet has fed. 

On p. 200 Keen writes “The libertarian fantasy of private companies usurping government is, I’m afraid, becoming a reality”.

The opening “Question” is more a statement, a gripe, that the Internet has promoted the new instantiation (java-style) of monopolists, and exacerbate economic inequality.  The “answer” is rather like that from George Soros, commenting on how to prevent another 2008 financial crisis in banking and securities, “better regulation”.  Not more, but “better”.  It sounds rather innocuous.  Keen also says younger adults need to learn from history.  I’ll echo that.  Most well-educated gay men now in their 20s have no real concept of what I lived through.
For much of his book, Keen is simply reiterating what has happened repeatedly from times before the industrial revolution.  Technology, all the way back to the printing press, destroys jobs, and also shakes up an existing political power structure (often religious in the past), in order to displace it with a new one that will create its own problems.  In the 19th century, passenger railroads destroyed the stagecoach.  Then the private auto destroyed most passenger railroads in the US, but not in Europe and Japan, which provides another lesson (hint: population density matters).  He gives many examples, such as the decimation of the city of Rochester NY, home of Kodak, which lost out to the digital revolution in photography. 
In my own career field, mainframe computing, it would seem that “client server” and Internet technology “destroyed” it, but the picture is complicated, in large part by the waves of business mergers and consolidations that started under Reagan that started well before the Internet revolution, and more so by short-sighted personnel practices that became common after Y2K 
In fact, the new wave of big successful Internet companies that “run our lives” followed the “dot com bubble bust” where the Web 1.0 world simply didn’t deliver to consumers what they wanted or had expected.  Keen talks about how an “autistic” (or is he an “extraterrestrial” alien from panspermia) Mark Zuckerberg conquered the world peacefully by writing computer code, because he seemed to give young adults what they thought they wanted – more sharing.  And it turned out to have a dark side. 
Indeed, we could credit Facebook (in combination with what I did first, by setting up a free “do ask do tell” compendium that simply would not go away because, to quote one of Reid Ewing’s lost videos – “it’s free”) with the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays in the military, because, in large part, Zuckerberg made double lives impossible, almost by intergalactic regal pronouncement.  (Jupiter is indeed rising, or is it Saturn’s moon, Titan?)  I think he probably knew about my work when he was a freshman at Harvard and the military policy garnered constant attention by the ban of recruiters on campus.
Facebook also ended the “conflict of interest” concern that I had about search-engine accessible amateur content written by people in positions of authority – simply because everybody had to use it.  But the presence of Facebook (almost parallel to the old arguments about the “presence” of gay men  in military barracks) in the world meant that no one could have a sales career (like that of a life insurance agent) without  dedicating their online presence to the benefit of their employer – to hock someone else’s wares.  So Keen is right – the monopolization of the Internet (financially) really turned it into a new instrument of social conformity.  But perhaps the Internet has even destroyed the old idea of making a living in sales (the way my parents’ generation could) forever.
Keen brings up many real specific problems.  It seems wrong that Uber drivers shouldn’t obey the same rules as licensed taxi drivers.  When I see these new services about sharing one’s car for rental or home as a hotel, I am of course reluctant to do this, because of the work required and concern over security, but does that mean I am spoiled and unsociable?  Right there, a moral paradox emerges. 
He is right that piracy as problem, and as with many Internet problems (preventing cyberbullying and keeping porn away from kids – related to the COPA case to which I was a party) attempts of “better regulation” tend to lead to overbroad laws that get struck down.  Remember the SOPA bill in 2011, and the Wikipedia black out in 2012?  Remember the overzealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz? 
So how displaced people are seems to be a matter of where you look.  Most younger adults in my orbit are finding jobs OK – in IT, in film, in new journalism (Vox media keeps hiring).  But most people in my orbit competed better than average.  So, I think we get back to looking at the morality of some of this in terms of personal compassion, not just policy.
Indeed, the “destruction” of unions and of the stable manufacturing workplace was going on long before the Internet “gilded age”  Remember the NYC crisis of 1975?  (“Ford to City: drop dead!)  I lived through this.  We need to know our history.

And true, you can’t legislate “noblesse oblige”.  But today’s “industrialists” are indeed giving back billions.  Look at the Gates foundation, aimed at wiping out AIDS. 

Keen’s comments do intersect my life.  I used to collect vinyl classical records and then CD’s, and I remember the days of the record store (like Tower Records, or even old Record Sales in downtown Washington DC in 1962, cheaper than the stuffy “Disc Shop” above Dupont Circle). My father complained that I was “married to my records”, and you get my point: excess (and resistance of socialization) happens in any level of technology (almost). Today, I think it’s fine to collect mp3 files – if you pay for them on Amazon, keep them in the Cloud (and back them up on just one optical CD) along with PDF program notes.  It’s a lot easier to keep a collection than a physical one every time you do a household move.  I also built a large library of chess opening books – that’s another discussion.

The book points out that "amateur" posters and even book authors often make little money from their work, because the host companies often keep most of the revenue (whether ads, for from book sales, as with supported self-publishing).  On the other hand, most "amateurs" would not be able to get conventional trade publishers or movie studios to "publish" their work at all. 
The Internet has worked out well for me, because I don’t need to make money from my content.  That’s partly because I did save some money when I was working  -- because I did save and was prudent in the stock market – enough indeed to ride out one bad real estate misadventure.  But it’s also because I did inherit from my parents – all of which makes my “paradigm” more morally problematic.  If I had to make a living today from the Internet – it my content had to pay it’s own way, and not depend on being subsidized by rentier wealth from earlier successes and even the family – it couldn’t stay up.  I would have to do “what other people want”.  And that would be morally problematic in its own way.  Again, hucksterism is no longer an option, because of the Internet. Spying and privacy has been less a problem for me than for others because I didn't have children -- but that raises its own flip side. 

If I had to "compete" in a normal way for "influence", by, say, running for office (which people have asked me why I don't do it) and asking people for campaign money, would that be morally better? 
I did benefit from a court bias that looks at amateur individual speech as “almost” as protected as the speech of establishment journalists.  In large part that is partly the result of the DMCA safe harbor, Section 230, and rulings on the CDA and COPA censorship attempts. It might not have gone that way.  I might have had to do something else and hold my nose.   

Wikipedia attribution link for Rochester NY aerial.  My last visit was in 1992, as I recall. Author is Chris Tomkins-Tinch, CC-SA 3.0 license, unported. 

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