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The Internet: a Giant Job-Killing Machine?

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Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer is the most frightening book I have read in years (perhaps in my lifetime), as frightful as the conservative Supreme Court justices and the deniers of climate change. The damage of these three is certain to do us all in, probably much more quickly than the most astute analysts are willing to admit, but even one by itself will result in a bigger train wreck than anyone can imagine. And like the climate change deniers and the conservative Supremes, the Internet billionaires are not people we can count on to suddenly make an about face—certainly not if it might alter their elaborate lifestyles and their convoluted misconceptions of equality.

Let’s not begin with Keen’s book but a response he makes about the causes of today’s income gap and unemployment crisis in “A Conversation with Andrew Keen”: “The Internet is compounding many of the most disturbing economic trends of the early twenty-first century. It has created a winner-take-all economy in which a tiny proportion of astonishingly successful companies like Google and Amazon have accumulated huge power and wealth for a tiny group of technologists and entrepreneurs—the new elite of our digital age. Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg are each now worth around $30 billion—but little of this wealth has trickled down to the rest of us. Amazon, for example, is not only decimating the traditional retail industry by creating low-wage nonunionized jobs in their notorious distribution centers but is also pioneering the use of artificial intelligence devices in the workplace that will eliminate even low-paying jobs.”

This is not the way it was supposed to be, certainly at the beginning. We deluded ourselves with early expectations: “global village,” unlimited access to free information, democratization of our lives—i.e., equality of everyone and everything. But roughly twenty-five years after the birth of the Internet, here we are: “The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing us. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is the central reason for the growing gulf between the rich and the poor and the hollowing out of the middle class.” Most of us are poorer than we were before; the Internet didn’t create more jobs, it eliminated them. We’ve evolved to a one-percent economy or, as Keen refers to it, “the winner-take-all network.”

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has had “a disturbingly negative impact on the broader economy.” Half the bookstores in the United States have disappeared. And it’s not just books Amazon sells but products in virtually every retail sector. The US Institute of Local Self-Reliance refers to Amazon as “a job killer rather than a job creator,” eliminating 27,000 jobs in “the American economy in 2012” alone. Replicate that for other years and other Internet businesses and the result is totally depressing. Bezos has been called “the prophet of no profit.” Amazon is only one of several companies Keen cites as the Internet’s biggest destroyers.

Google and Facebook have hollowed us all out. “We are all working for [them] for free, manufacturing the very personal data that makes their companies so valuable.” The comparison that Keen makes between Google and a traditional bricks-and-mortar company is one of several such examples in The Internet Is Not the Answer. “Google, with its mid-2014 market cap of over $400 billion, needs to employ only 46,000 people. An industrial giant like General Motors…with its market cap hovering Keen-Internet book jacketaround $55 billion, employs just over 200,000 people to manufacture cars in factories. Google is around seven times larger than GM, but employs less than a quarter of the number of workers.” Worse, because the new technological companies do everything they can to keep their profits offshore—in order to avoid paying US taxes—these companies (Apple, Google and Facebook) are latter-day scrooges. That term is not Keen’s but a writer he quotes from the Financial Times.

No surprise that the Internet “has triggered one of the greatest accumulations of wealth in human history” but only for an elite few and their stockholders. And we all work for them because of the harvesting of the data we leave for them every time we go on to one of their sites. Facebook, especially, has discovered a way to successfully monetize “the data exhaust from our friendships, family relations, and love affairs.” As it became more popular, Facebook helped destroy Kodak. We used to get our photographs printed and sent to us as physical property. But, today, Facebook has 500 billion photographs it can use freely in its advertising or for anything else without your consent or—horror—paying you for your work. In 2012, when Kodak collapsed (for multiple reasons including a failure to innovate), it had to eliminate its remaining 47,000 jobs (from a high of 145,000 people in 1989), Instagram was purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars (also in 2012), at which time Instagram had only thirteen full-time employees. That’s a staggering contrast of numbers—and jobs lost.

These are only two of the many examples that Keen uses to demonstrate the Internet as killer monster. Previous technological changes typically created jobs, many jobs. Not so the Internet. Amazon has already begun relying on robots in its fulfillment centers. How long before all human workers are gone? And we all know what is next, very soon in fact: drones for delivery of merchandise because of our need for instant gratification. We have convinced ourselves that we need what we order immediately. Google—also investing in drones—“could in the not too distant future, take on UPS, FedEx, DHL and the postal services and replace the jobs of hundreds of thousands of delivery drivers and mail carriers around the world with networked drones.”

It’s bad enough that traditional middle-class jobs are being gobbled up by the most successful companies on the Internet, but online piracy is slowly eliminating creativity in virtually every form. We’re familiar with the sites (like Napster) which let Internet browsers download copyrighted songs. But “the carnage of job losses has been particularly bloody in the news industry.” Reporters and photographers have fallen by the wayside as newspapers and magazines have evaporated because of the misperception of free news on the Internet. Or a variation on all this: Arianna Huffington makes millions by selling the Huffington Post, while most of her writers are paid zilch. One of my favorite sentences is Keen’s observation that “On the Internet, most of us are perpetual interns,” unpaid interns.

Other areas of increased exploitation of the many for the profit of the few include a number of streaming services, which pay little or nothing in the way of royalties. “In November 2012, the Grammy-nominated hit songwriter Ellen Shipley reported that one of her most popular tracks got played 3,112,300 times on Pandora and she got a measly $39.61.” In education, MOOCS have rewarded a few professors with millions of dollars, others with nothing. Citing William Deresiewicz, Keen reports, “The kids at Harvard get to interact with their professors. The kids at San Jose State get to watch the kids at Harvard interact with their professors. San Jose looks worse than before; Harvard looks even better.” Existing educational hierarchies are reinforced instead of leveling the elitist gap.

Besides the enormous economic inequality brought by the Internet, Keen (and others) is legitimately concerned about the increase of personality disorders. “Online narcissism” and “Internet voyeurism” steal hours away from our lives and destroy social connections, let alone frittering our lives away. He cites the one-sided aspect of some of the personality cults that have developed in recent years. Early last year, Justin Bieber “had almost 11 million Instagram followers and followed nobody at all.” Well, Bieber has had his downfall, but another hot personality will quickly grab our attention.

There are numerous other social maladies that the Internet enables. It provides instant gratification for anger and rage; a nasty email is never more than a few seconds away. Keen quotes Ryan Martin’s observation that “the reason anger is so viral online is that we are more prone to share our rage with strangers than our happiness.” That statement by itself is troublesome as hell. Women, particularly, come under attack in numbers never seen before. There are Nazi groups and racist forums. Bullying has never been easier. Consider ISIS’s easy recruiting on-line. Keen calls it the encouragement of “global tribes” but tribes that no rational person would want to join. “Trust is the greatest casualty” on the Internet. Even something regarded as benign as Wikipedia (especially its medical sites) is riddled with incorrect information. Viewer beware.

That brings Keen to surveillance, perhaps the greatest concern for most of us. Thanks to Edward Snowden, there is little reason to cite the many examples you are already familiar with. Keen states that “surveillance remains the Internet’s main business model,” citing numerous examples, even down to what I previously regarded as my most benign piece of electronic equipment: the Fitbit. The Fitbit provides an exact map of where its user has walked, and someone, I’m certain, will soon be able to monetize that information. Nothing is private about our lives; we leave electronic trails everywhere. I was particularly impressed by Keen’s observation: “In an electronic panopticon of 50 billion intelligent devices, a networked world where privacy has become a privilege of the wealthy [in their safe rooms and walled-off elitist communities], it won’t just be our televisions, our smartphones, or our cars that will be watching us.”

“We will be observed by every unloving institution of the new digital surveillance state—from Silicon Valley’s big data companies and the government to insurance companies, health-care providers, the police, and ruthlessly…employers like Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, with its scientifically managed fulfillment centers where the company watches over its nonunionized workforce. Big data companies will know what we did yesterday, today, and with the help of increasingly accurate predictive technology, what we will do tomorrow. And…the goal of these big data companies will be strictly to make money from our personal data rather than use it as a public service.”

Public service, the public good, that’s a forgotten concept. Keen is unsparing of what he calls “the libertarian elites” who want to eliminate all oversight, all regulations, all concern for the safety of others. He cites Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, as living in a “feudal landscape” where the old rules no longer apply. It’s an Ayn Rand dream come true. Uber—and others of its ilk—“have detached themselves from reality of the increasingly impoverished communities around them.” Quoting Charlotte Allen, Keen cites the “‘Silicon chasm’ in the Bay Area, between digital billionaires and analog beggars.” And the villains are not only the CEOs (Larry Page, and Sergy Brin, Jeff Bezos, Travis Kalanick, and Mark Zuckerberg) but also all their original angel investors and enablers: Peter Thiel, Shervin Pishevar, Michael Birch, Balaji Srinivasan—white males only.

Some reviewers of Keen’s book have called him a Luddite, but that is far from accurate. I’d call him a prophet, though I confess that when I first heard of The Internet Is Not the Answer, as a former academic, I conjured up something entirely different from what he has written about: plagiarism. The Internet has spurred plagiarism to new heights. Many students (especially international ones) believe that writing a paper is simply a matter of patching things together from articles from the Internet. I said “many students” but most of us who consider ourselves practicing journalists know that such stealing from previously printed work is not limited to students. Worse, the Internet hasn’t helped writing in general—it’s basically ruined it.

Is it too late to change all this? Can anything be done to cut down the new masters of the universe? Well, here’s where I think Keen lets us down, though the task may be impossible. Sheltering profits overseas ought to be considered  un-American (my comment, not Keen’s). Apple “has been cleverly avoiding paying the American government a million dollars of tax revenue per hour.” The largest companies need to be broken up. (Keen cites the ludicrous example of companies having apps instead of actual addresses). Keen echoes Thomas Piketty’s “call for a global tax on plutocrats like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.” But all this is going to require citizen movements for change, since with Republican enablers, very little government action will ever take place.

The Internet elite need to grow up, no longer stay locked in a state of retarded adolescence. The rest of us need to stop sitting passively and refusing to get actively involved—in something, in anything.

Andrew Keen: The Internet Is Not the Answer

Atlantic Monthly Press: 273 pp., $25

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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