Keen for controversy

Polemicist Andrew Keen skewers the Internet

"The Internet Is Not the Answer" by Andrew Keen; Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2015; 274 pages; $25

Author and entrepreneur Andrew Keen is more than comfortable with controversy. The author of "The Internet Is Not the Answer" seems to relish any opportunity to puncture the pretensions of the digital elite. He's been known to refer to himself as "The Antichrist of Silicon Valley."

Executive director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast and a senior fellow at CALinnovates, Keen is the host of the Techonomy web series "Keen On" and has been a columnist for a variety of outlets, including CNN. He founded Audiocafe.com, one of the earliest -- though ill-fated -- digital music sites. GQ recently included him on their list of 2015's "100 Most Connected Men in Britain."

Keen's new book looks back at the idealistic pioneers who built the Internet during the Cold War and went on to develop the World Wide Web, people such as cybernetics innovator Norbert Wiener, United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) leader J.C.R. Licklider and Tim Berners-Lee, designer of the Web as we've come to know it. Keen argues, however, that the Internet has ultimately done more harm than good, concentrating vast wealth among a small number of "monopolistic" companies, eroding privacy, contributing to rising unemployment and rendering its users increasingly more narcissistic and -- ironically -- less aware of the wider world.

Keen will discuss and sign copies of "The Internet Is Not the Answer" at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Wednesday, May 20.

Reached by cell phone while on the road, Keen gleefully recalled the critical reception of his first book, 2007's "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture."

"'Cult' was just trashed mercilessly," Keen said. "It was fantastic for me. I was an entirely unknown author, and I suddenly became world famous from the attacks on it."

Written in "about three months," at a time when companies like Facebook, YouTube and Google first began to offer more opportunities for users to create and share their own content, "The Cult of the Amateur" evoked the "infinite monkey theorem" to characterize Internet users in what was then called Web 2.0.

Keen wrote in the book's introduction, "And instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys -- many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins -- are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity." The book inveighed against everything from music piracy and homemade pornography to copyright infringement and unreliable blog posts.

"It was an outrageous book," Keen admitted. "I actually can't believe that I had the nerve to write it at the time that I did. It was an extremely naughty book."

Keen's next full-length work, "Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us " arrived in 2012. It used Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller as a metaphor for the destructive allure of social media. Its reception with critics and readers was more muted.

"It's kind of like a middle child that I have a particular affection for," Keen said of "Digital Vertigo." It took me the longest time -- two or three years -- to write. It's a very subtle book. Some people really got it, but most didn't."

According to Keen, his latest book took him about a year to complete, and he said he sees "The Internet Is Not the Answer" as a compromise between the two earlier books.

"It has more structure than 'Cult.' It's slightly less polemical and much less outrageous, but it's more accessible and less intricate than 'Vertigo.'"

He continued, "While it may not be making any point that other people haven't made, it puts everything together in a coherent, readable and entertaining package."

All of those adjectives are apt. "The Internet Is Not the Answer" is easily digestible, usually well reasoned, frequently amusing and voluminously sourced. As Keen pointed out, the book also possesses a much more substantial economic analysis of its subject than the other books.

In particular, Keen addresses the danger of an economy where, instead of fostering competition, a handful of "immensely powerful new monopolists" -- such as Google, Amazon, Spotify and Instagram -- rule virtually unchecked.

"The nature of the digital market lends itself to a winner-take-all economy," he said, "and I fear this is only going to get worse. We have it with a company, for example, like Uber. The reason Uber has such an absurdly high valuation -- $40 billion dollars -- is because its investors all believe that Uber can become a kind of transportation monopoly, a winner-take-all player in global terms across the transportation platform."

What happens to the losers in a winner-take-all economy? To get a first-hand look at the aftermath of digital disruption, Keen traveled to Rochester, New York, a city where Kodak a mere 25 years ago employed 145,000 people. He notes that, between 2003 and 2012, the company cut 47,000 jobs and by October 2013 employed only 8,500, leaving the city only a shell of its former self.

Keen places the blame on online photo sharing and the ability of anyone with a smartphone to take a decent snapshot that never needs to be printed. Digitization doesn't require very many workers, he argues. When Instagram was sold to Facebook in 2012 for one billion dollars, it had only 13 employees.

Keen writes, "Much of Rochester's industrial economy had itself been smashed into smithereens over the last twenty-five years by a ... hurricane of creative destruction."

Asked which other cities might be vulnerable to such destructive disruption, Keen answered, "Every city, I would say, including, ironically, Palo Alto. We live in an age of permanent disruption. What seems to be secure now, I'm not sure is.

"I'm not saying Palo Alto is on the verge of a Rochester-style meltdown," Keen clarified. "That would be an exaggeration. But Palo Alto, with its emphasis on the university, intellectual achievement and medicine, I think in the long run those industries will be really challenged by artificial intelligence."

One week prior to his Kepler's appearance, Keen joined Nicholas Carr, author of "The Glass Cage: Where Automation Is Taking Us," in an Intelligence Squared Debate in New York with Genevieve Bell of Intel and David Weinberger of the Berkman Center, debating the proposition: "Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb."

Asked in advance for a bit of preview of his position, Keen said, "This issue of 'dumb' is obviously provocative, but I'd rather think about the Internet as closing our minds, making us more parochial, more insular, more in touch with ourselves and our narrow interests and views. Whenever the question comes up of whether the Internet is making us more dumb, to me it means that it's making us more like villagers in a medieval world."

Some of his critics call Keen an elitist, and it is a label he's willing to accept.

"I think we should reward excellence," he said, "and one of the things that the Internet is really doing is disrupting what it means to be excellent and how we reward it, whether it be for doctors or lawyers or journalists. I remain a worried elitist, in the sense that I'm not quite sure who the elite will be in our networked age. They'll just be people who know how to interface with computers."

Keen said, however, that readers and critics seem more open to his ideas these days.

"The zeitgeist has shifted; it really has. Google and Facebook are not popular companies anymore. They're not heroic. When I wrote 'Cult' in 2007, these start-ups were viewed in heroic terms. (Mark) Zuckerberg was viewed as a hero and a liberator of social [media and the rest of it. Google was seen as a company that would benefit mankind. Today, Facebook has a terrible reputation, people are much more ambivalent about Google, and the latest Internet sensations like Uber have terrible reputations. Things have changed dramatically."

Despite his reputation as "The Antichrist of Silicon Valley," Keen is not all doom and gloom in his assessment of the South Bay.

"I see a lot of hope in Silicon Valley," he said. "It attracts the smartest people, the most ambitious people, in every sense -- financially, morally. There are a lot of people who I would like to see use their new cash to improve the world, change politics and solve some of these struggles of the early 21st century."

What: Journalist and entrepreneur Andrew Keen signs and discusses "The Internet Is Not the Answer"

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Wednesday, May 20, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $20 general seating; $40 priority seating and a copy of the book

Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321

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