Failed States of Conscience

Midway through The Internet Is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen sums up the Question his book presumes to address: ‘What can help us create a better world in the digital age?’ It is with an acerbic wit, perspective and profound dismay that Keen dismisses the Internet as the revolutionary vehicle for progressing human civilization that it started out to be. Instead, he argues, it has become a counter-revolutionary means for extending the age old venal sins of greed, excess, and unchecked profligacy.

Keen leads the reader through three stages in the journey toward his unsettling conclusions – Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, which roughly correspond to the past, present and future of the Internet’s development. He begins with Web 1.0, reminding us of the Internet’s paranoia-driven beginnings. There might not be the online environment we have all come to depend on if not for the US military panic over the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1959, which demonstrated an unimagined first-strike capability and made militarists aware of the catastrophic vulnerabilities of the national telecommunications system.

Keen details the discovery and implementation of two still-key electronic protocols – TCP/IP – that would allow any two computers anywhere in the world to speak and share with one another. It was rather like a Westphalian treaty for data, which provided standardization of rules – protocols – making communication uniform and universal, as the system reduced all human languages to logical data bits. Once generals were certain they’d developed a system of networked computers capable of reliably talking to one another even in the event of nuclear war – they called it ARPANET – they breathed a sigh of relief from within the padded walls of the Cold War policy known as Mutally Assured Destruction (MAD).

Out of this early Shakespearean web of paranoia emerged Web 2.0 and the equally Shakespearean (and middle class) conceit of human progress out of tragic consequences.  To wit, enter Tim Berners-Lee and his good-intentioned development toward a free worldwide open system of information sharing, known as the World Wide Web (WWW). Keen reminds us that some thirty years ago when scientist Berners-Lee premiered his idea of a World Wide Web of computers and their data stores, he was motivated by a scientist’s fear of forgetting amidst the constant storm of complex thoughts; but the Web would never forget and what’s more would open to the world the vast stores of information ‘out there’ and needing only the connective tissue of hypertext to become available online to all.

Says Keen, it was a rosy picture Berners-Lee and his legions of idealistic acolytes painted of the human-computer symbiosis to come – one that would lead to bounding human progress, great new economic opportunities, and the fine-tuning of a global system of informed participatory democracy. But then came the psychopaths, packs of salivating Macbeths, and opportunity, and the idealists were invited over for a sleepover.  We know the rest.

In his Web 3.0 scenario, Keen notes that the executives of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram came to town wearing white hats and broad smiles but riding black steeds.  Keen conjures up an almost-idyllic late Twentieth century American middle class town these riders enter, citing what New York Times columnist George Packer calls a period noted for state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organization, as well as publicly funded research; in short, a system that the Internet might have helped tweak and fine tune.  Instead, Keen now sees that all as an exploded dream, and calls out the four riders for special condemnation for giving us a world more and more controlled by algorithms, and for inspiring the dark spirits in the shadows of government to co-opt the predictive analyses of the riders in order to create a perhaps now-ungovernable global surveillance state.

Such institutionalized profligacy, excess and unaccountability has, in turn, led to the rise of a monster elite headquartered in Silicon Valley, who control the workings of the Internet and more and more control the workings of human life as it becomes ever more digitalized.  This elite, says Keen, is so dangerously dissociated from ordinary human endeavors that they hold FailCons, where they gather in Homeric fireside chats and tell war stories of “Epic. F*cking. Failure” that led to their ultimate success. Of course, the Trojan War has a whole new meaning amongst the geek fraternity.

The Internet has turned into a ‘winner-take-all’ Wild West, says Keen. “It creates a surreal economy in which we are not only the creator of the networked product, but also the product itself.”  We are all unwitting workers in “data factories” who work not for sweatshop wages but for nothing, he says, and when Google perfects its artificial intelligence plans, the human-computer symbiosis that began with so much optimism, will be more akin to the same old master-slave relationship that history is built upon, a “feudal system” of 1% Haves and a vast reservoir of succulent Have-Nots.  “By thinking like us,” writes Keen of the exploitative algorithms, “by being able to join the dots in our mind, Google will own us.” They will soon become the unregulated controllers of our collective destiny.

The principal picture of cultural and socio-economic erosion brought about by the Internet’s failure to live up to its early promise could not have been more graphically summed up than it is in his bleak section on what became of the city of Rochester, New York, once the home town of the sprawling and vibrant Kodak film industry, and now a ghost town of boarded up houses and stores, where the murder rate is 340% higher than the national average, where the marrow of the city has been sucked clean by the virtual vampires of Algorithmia.  It’s so bad there that when Keen went to snap a picture outside Kodak headquarters he was told by a guard, “No photos allowed.” As Keen sums up the situation in Rochester, “[W]hat happens if the devastation is not only permanent, but also the defining feature of our now twenty-five-year old digital economy? What happens if the tragedy in Rochester is actually a sneak preview of our collective future…?” It’s hard to see a silver nitrate lining in all this.

As the elite hold Caligula-esque parties on football field-sized yachts they name Dr. No and Maltese Falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”), where they are served food and beverages by squadrons of waitron naked but for their aprons, and tell their tall tales of Narcissistic genius, while the climate burns all around them and the populace sinks into deeper depravities, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Nero fiddling as it all falls down.  Or more aptly, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram in an echo chamber, playing a string quartet grosse fugue that somehow makes sense to them, even if its complexity eludes mere dilettantes and aficionados. Or maybe they are as they seem, to Keen and many others, akin to the Four Riders of the Apocalypse finally come to reclaim the “Epic. F*cking. Failure” of human civilization.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.