Six ways in which Andrew Keen is wrong about the internet

Andrew Keen, a man who has been called the “Antichrist of Silicon Valley” and a “digital Chicken Little” for his previous books about the downside of digital culture, has another book out called “The Internet Is Not The Answer, in which he continues many of the same themes he introduced in his earlier titles — such as the argument that rather than empowering individuals, the social web has given rise to a “cult of the amateur” and destroyed the livelihood of skilled professionals, and that the internet is hollowing out the middle class and ruining the economy.

Keen sums up much of his argument in the foreword to the book, saying that while its proponents present the Internet as “a magically virtuous circle, an infinitely positive loop, an economic and cultural win-win for its billions of users,” in reality it is actually “more akin to a negative feedback loop, in which we network users are its victims rather than beneficiaries. The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing us.” Instead of making things more democratic, he says the internet has created a “winner-take-all” economy made up of monopolies.

In preparation for a panel discussion this week that I moderated, in which Keen debated Canadian digital marketer and blogger Mitch Joel, I read “The Internet Is Not The Answer” and found — as with Keen’s two previous books — that I disagreed with almost everything in it. I’m not disputing the fact that the internet and the social web have exacerbated certain kinds of bad behavior, both personal and corporate, but I think Keen’s relentless negativity (while it may help to sell books) is misplaced. What follows are a few examples of his arguments about why the internet is bad for society and for the economy, and where I think those arguments go astray:

It has created giant monopolies: Do Google and Amazon and Facebook have large shares of their respective markets? Sure they do (depending on how you define those markets — is Amazon in the digital-book market, or print as well, or all of retail?). But monopolies are nothing new. And while it’s true that network effects can help entrench these monopolies, they can also help disrupt them, just as Facebook did with the dominant social network MySpace and Google did with the dominant search engine, AltaVista.

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In one of Keen’s favorite examples of the disruption of the internet, services like Instagram helped destroy Kodak (although of course the real story is much more complicated than that). But as the author himself notes, Kodak at one point accounted for 90 percent of the film sales in the U.S. and 80 percent of camera sales. So are monopolies only bad when they are internet monopolies? The internet destroys as many as it creates.

It’s free, but we are the product: This is a popular criticism of the internet and social media, that Google and Facebook and Instagram grow larger and more profitable by taking the fruits of our labor and profiting from the data related to it, usually by selling us to advertisers. But is this really that much worse than the world of mainstream entertainment, whether it’s cable television or Hollywood movies? TV networks have been luring us in with “free” content and then selling our eyeballs and behavior to advertisers for half a century. Is what Facebook is doing really that bad by comparison? At least platforms like Google and Facebook and Instagram give users the tools and the ability to create their own content and monetize it themselves.

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The jobs it creates are not real jobs: While it has helped to destroy thousands of secure and well-paying factory or middle-class jobs at places like IBM and Kodak, Keen says the internet has replaced these jobs with the “gig economy,” in which people sell things they have made on Etsy or rent their homes out on Airbnb and do odd jobs through TaskRabbit or other services.

Rather than being a positive thing, Keen says this is hollowing out the middle class and replacing it with a celebrity-style American Idol contest in which only a few people get the kind of attention that is required to make a living. But isn’t this better than nothing? The barriers to entry into the old factory-like markets of Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the publishing industry were much higher than they are now — was that really a better world? I would say no.

It hasn’t created enough value: This argument is related to the two previous ones. In a nutshell, Keen says we have traded real jobs making physical products for jobs in the “data factories” of companies like Google, where we work for nothing and are taken advantage of. But is it really fair to compare posting a photo on Instagram or a status update on Facebook to working on the line at General Motors, or to criticize Google because it isn’t creating as many jobs as GM? Not really.

Most of what Keen calls digital work is entertainment, something we choose to do because we enjoy it. Why should it be seen as a failure because it doesn’t create the same amount of economic value as an automotive assembly plant? On top of that, the economic value of millions of jobs through services like Etsy or Kickstarter may be difficult to quantify compared to looking at GM’s investment in plants, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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It promotes a narcissistic culture: Keen uses the rise of Instagram to buttress a lot of his arguments, and this is another example — a topic that he also attacked in his earlier book, Cult of the Amateur. This is a classic case of seeing the latest technology as the worst thing that has ever happened to society, and statements like Keen’s can be seen repeated throughout the past century or so — used to refer to paperback novels, radio programs, TV and video games.

Even the rise of consumer photography itself was at one time seen as a sign of the decline of polite society, and the company whose death Keen laments in his chapter on Kodak was seen as the harbinger of a cheap, celebrity-obsessed culture. The internet didn’t invent any of these patterns of behavior, it has just provided more outlets, and at the same time, it has allowed millions of people to exercise their passion for creativity, and to share that with others. The positive social value of that is incalculable.

It is a lawless free-for-all: Keen talks a lot about the rise of piracy and how that has destroyed billions of dollars in value created by the music industry, the publishing industry and commercial photography. The figures he uses, however — such as the **’s estimate that $240 billion in value was removed from the music industry between 2000 and 2012 — are notoriously unreliable. For one thing, they usually include theoretical sales of CDs or DVDs that might have been sold if everyone who downloaded music had bought it the legal way, ignoring the fact that most of these phantom sales would likely never have occurred even if the internet had never been invented.

Meanwhile, Keen’s argument that more government regulation of the internet would actually *encourage* innovation rather than smothering it is difficult to take with a straight face — and certainly isn’t borne out by the history of government regulation of almost any emerging market you can name. Are companies like Uber and Airbnb pushing the boundaries of existing regulations? Of course they are, just like every other innovative company in history. And they will eventually be regulated, whether they like it or not.

At this point, you may already have detected a theme running throughout my disagreements with Andrew — namely, that he is relentlessly pessimistic and I am much more optimistic about the effect that technology has had on society and the economy. I suppose that makes me a Pollyanna next to Keen’s Chicken Little. But I don’t really see most of the negatives he refers to in his book as being any worse than the new technologies that preceded them, and in many cases they are much better. It’s good to think critically about any new technology — but not if that blinds us to its benefits.