Andrew Keen is a bitter man. He longs for the time when his family ran a tailor business in London and middle class people could afford to buy clothes from their store. He resents the fact that his own music Internet site failed, while seemingly similar sites like MySpace, Spotify came to be valued in billions. For some reason he mourns the demise of Kodak and its film roll processing centre in Rochester, NY. And most of all, he despises rich folk, but not any billionaire, just those who happen to have made their money through the Internet. Keen’s book “The Internet Is Not the Answer” reads a bit like a rant towards all these things, while blaming it all on Silicon Valley and The Internet. The solutions he favour are mostly based on government regulation: six strikes laws for copyright infringement; antitrust and monopoly busting; mixed with labor unions.
Even though Keen’s book has a bitter tone throughout, he does touch on important points regarding increasing wealth disparity, middle class jobs being replaced by automation and far fewer specialized jobs, monopolistic mega-cooperations, centralized services. He takes on Amazon, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp. He has done thorough research, and his book includes a substantial reference section. It is just that his conclusions doesn’t always align with actual causes and effects: Take the downfall of Kodak, where he spends a full chapter lamenting Instagram for the killing of film processing. Companies like Canon and Nikon which developed and sell high quality DSLR cameras and thus more directly caused the replacement of film are not mentioned.
Similarly, Keen reviews the history of the early days of the Internet, and its inventors and pioneers like Paul Baran, Bob Taylor, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and points out how altruistic and anti-commercial they were. He contrasts this to “winner-take-all” companies in today’s economy. However, he does not discuss the seemingly obvious conclusion that what we’re lacking from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are common open standards and protocols, which is what made early technology successful and long-lasting. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) does not enter Keen’s field of view at all.
Maybe not worth it
If you already work in tech, and have good insight into these topics, Keen does not bring much new to the table. In fact, he disappoints in that regard. However, if you are interested in gentrification in San Francisco, Kodak in Rochester, or just want to hear a different point of view, give the book a try.
What Keen does have going for him, is that he is a very good writer. He writes almost poetically, albeit with great sarcasm, about topics like Internet economy, government regulation, and pretentious billionaires. Sound bites like the one below at least make the book entertaining.
While talking about the cult and praise of “failure” in tech-companies:
“Instagram actually represents the reverse side of Silicon Valley’s cult of failure. In the Valley, the rich and famous claim to be failures; on social networks like Instagram, millions of failures claim to be rich and famous”.
Finally, although it’s no way to be sure, it sometimes feels like the writes of Silicon Valley, the TV comedy series, have studied the book thoroughly and lifted several ideas from Keen onto the screen. What Keen scorns, like the double-speak; the feel-good big-company efforts and speeches; and the general Valley culture has made the TV series a hit. Keen’s book makes the series even more fun to watch.