Since its creation during the Cold War, the Internet, together with the Web, personal computers, tablets and smartphones, has ushered in one of the greatest shifts in society since the Industrial Revolution. The Digital Revolution has contributed to the world in many positive ways, but we are less aware of the Internet’s deeply negative effects.
The Internet Is Not the Answer , by longtime Internet skeptic Andrew Keen, offers a comprehensive look at what the Internet is doing to our lives. The book traces the technological and economic history of the Internet, from its founding in the 1960s through the rise of big data companies to the increasing attempts to monetize almost every human activity. In this sharp, witty narrative, informed by the work of other writers, reporters, and academics, as well as his own research and interviews, Keen shows us the tech world, warts and all.
Startling and important, The Internet Is Not the Answer is a big-picture look at what the Internet is doing to our society and an investigation of what we can do to try to make sure the decisions we are making about the reconfiguring of our world do not lead to unpleasant, unforeseen aftershocks.
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About the Author
Andrew Keen is the executive director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast, a columnist for CNN, and a regular commentator on all things digital. He is the author of Digital Vertigo and the international sensation The Cult of the Amateur.
Read an Excerpt
The wall was dotted with a constellation of flashing lights linked together by a looping maze of blue, pink, and purple lines. The picture could have been a snapshot of the universe with its kaleidoscope of shining stars joined into a swirl of interlinking galaxies. It was, indeed, a kind of universe. But rather than the celestial firmament, it was a graphical image of our twenty-first-century networked world.
I was in Stockholm, at the global headquarters of Ericsson, the world's largest provider of mobile networks to Internet service providers (ISPs) and telecoms like AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, and Telefonica. Founded in 1876 when a Swedish engineer named Lars Magnus Ericsson opened a telegraph repair workshop in Stockholm, Ericsson had grown by the end of 2013 to employ 114,340 people, with global revenue of over $35 billion from 180 countries. I'd come to meet with Patrik Cerwall, an Ericsson executive in charge of a research group within the company that analyzes trends of what it calls "networked society." A team of his researchers had just authored the company's annual Mobility Report, their overview of the state of the global mobile industry. But as I waited in the lobby of the Ericsson office to talk with Cerwall, it was the chaos of connected nodes on the company's wall that caught my eye.
The map, created by the Swedish graphic artist Jonas Lindvist, showed Ericsson's local networks and offices around the world. Lindvist had designed the swirling lines connecting cities to represent what he called a feeling of perpetual movement. "Communication is not linear," he said in explaining his work to me; "it is coincidental and chaotic." Every place, it seemed, no matter how remote or distant, was connected. With the exception of a symbolic spot for Stockholm in its center, the map was all edge. It had no heart, no organizing principle, no hierarchy. Towns in countries as geographically disconnected as Panama, Guinea Bissau, Peru, Serbia, Zambia, Estonia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bahrain, Bulgaria, and Ghana were linked on a map that recognized neither time nor space. Every place, it seemed, was connected to everywhere else. The world had been redrawn as a distributed network.
My meeting with Patrik Cerwall confirmed the astonishing ubiquity of today's mobile Internet. Each year, his Ericsson team publishes a comprehensive report on the state of mobile networks. In 2013, Cerwall told me, there were 1.7 billion mobile broadband subscriptions sold, with 50% of mobile phones acquired that year being smartphones offering Internet access. By 2018, the Ericsson Mobility Report forecasted, mobile broadband subscriptions are expected to increase to 4.5 billion, with the majority of the two and a half billion new subscribers being from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Over 60% of the world's more than 7 billion people will, therefore, be online by 2018. And given the dramatic drop in the cost of smartphones, with prices expected to fall to under fifty dollars for high-quality connected devices, and the astonishing statistic from a United Nations report that more people had cell phones (6 billion) than had access to a flushing toilet (4.5 billion), it's not unreasonable to assume that, by the mid-2020s, the vast majority of adults on the planet will have their own powerful pocket computer with access to the network.
And not just everyone, but everything. An Ericsson white paper predicts that, by 2020, there will be 50 billion intelligent devices on the network. Homes, cars, roads, offices, consumer products, clothing, health-care devices, electric grids, even those industrial cutting tools once manufactured in the Musto Steam Marble Mill company, will all be connected on what now is beingcalled the Internet of Things. The number of active cellular machine-to-machine devices will grow 3 to 4 times between 2014 and 2019. "The physical world," a McKinsey report confirms, "is becoming a type of information system."
The economics of this networked society are already staggering. Another McKinsey report studying thirteen of the most advanced industrial economies found that $8 trillion is already being spent through e-commerce. If the Internet were an economic sector, this 2011 report notes, it would have contributed to an average of 3.4% of the world's gross domestic product in 2009, higher than education (3%), agriculture (2.2%), or utilities (2.1%). And in Jonas Lindvist's Sweden, that number is almost double, with the Internet making up 6.3% of the country's 2009 GDP.
If Lindvist's graphical map had been a truly literal representation of our networked society, it might have resembled a pointillist painting. The image would have been made up of so many billions of dots that, to the naked eye, they would have merged into a single collective whole. Everything that can be connected is being connected and the amount of data being produced online is mind-boggling. Every minute of every day in 2014, for example, the 3 billion Internet users in the world sent 204 million emails, uploaded 72 hours of new YouTube videos, made over 4 million Google searches, shared 2,460,000 pieces of Facebook content, downloaded 48,000 Apple apps, spent $83,000 on Amazon, tweeted 277,000 messages, and posted 216,000 new Instagram photos. We used to talk about a "New York minute," but today's "Internet minute" in Marshall McLuhan's global village makes New York City seem like a sleepy village in which barely anything ever happens.
It may be hard to imagine, especially for those so-called digital natives who have grown up taking the Internet's networking tools for granted, but the world hasn't always been a data-rich information system. Indeed, three-quarters of a century ago, back in May 1941, when those German bombers blew the British House of Commons to smithereens, nobody and nothing was connected on the network. There weren't any digital devices able to communicate with one another at all, let alone real-time Twitter or Instagram feeds keeping us in the electronic information loop.
So how did we get from zero to those billions and billions of connected people and things? Where do the origins of the Internet lie?
They lie with those Luftwaffe bombers flying at up to 250 miles an hour and at altitudes of over 30,000 feet above London at the beginning of World War II. In 1940, an eccentric Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor of mathematics named Norbert Wiener, "the original computer geek," according to the New York Times, began working on a system to track the German aircraft that controlled the skies above London. The son of a Jewish immigrant from Bialystok in Poland, Wiener had become so obsessed with lending his scientific knowledge to the war against Germany that he'd been forced to seek psychoanalytical help to control his anti-Nazi fixation. Technology could do good, he was convinced. It might even help defeat Hitler.
A math prodigy who graduated from Tufts University at the age of fourteen, received a Harvard doctorate at seventeen, and later studied with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, Wiener was part of a pioneering group of technologists at MIT that included the electrical engineer and science mandarin Vannevar Bush and the psychologist J. C. R. Licklider. Without quite knowing what they were doing, these men invented many of the key principles of our networked society. What distinguished them, particularly Wiener, was a daring intellectual eclecticism. By defiantly crossing traditional academic disciplines, they were able to imagine and, in some ways, create our connected future.
"From the 1920's onwards, MIT increasingly attracted the brightest and best of America's scientists and engineers. In the middle decades of this century, the Institute became a seething cauldron of ideas about information, computing, communications and control," explains the Internet historian John Naughton. "And when we dip into it seeking the origins of the Net, three names always come up. They are Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener and J. C. R. Licklider."
In the 1930s, Wiener had been part of the team that worked on Vannevar Bush's "differential analyser," a 100-ton electromagnetic analog computer cobbled together out of pulleys, shafts, wheels, and gears and which was designed to solve differential equations. And in 1941 Wiener had even pitched a prototype of a digital computer to Bush, more than five years before the world's first working digital device, the 1,800-square-foot, $500,000 Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), funded by the US Army and described by the press as a "giant brain," was unveiled in 1946.
But it was the issue of German bombers that obsessed Wiener after the German air force's massive bombing of London in the fall of 1940. He wasn't alone in his preoccupation with German aircraft. The US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, believed that it had been the overwhelming threat of German airpower that had led to the British appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938. So not only did Roosevelt commit the US military to producing ten thousand aircraft per year, but he also set up the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), directed by Vannevar Bush, who by then had become the president's chief scientific advisor, to invest in more cooperation between the US government and six thousand of the country's leading research scientists.
While dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, Bush had set up the Radiation Lab, a group dedicated to figuring out how to enable antiaircraft guns to track and destroy those German bombers in the London sky. Recognizing that computers were potentially more than simply calculating machines, Wiener saw it as an information system challenge and invented a flight path predictor device that relied on a continuous stream of information that flowed back and forth between the gun and its operator. The polymath, with his interest in biology, philosophy, and mathematics, had serendipitously stumbled onto a new science of connectivity. In his eponymous bestselling 1948 book, Wiener called it "Cybernetics," and this new communications theory had a profound influence on everything from Marshall McLuhan's idea of information loops and J. C. R. Licklider's work on the symbiosis between man and computer to the mechanics of the Google search engine and the development of artificial intelligence. There may not have been an electronic communications network yet, but the idea of a self-correcting information system between man and machine, "a thing of almost natural beauty that constantly righted its errors through feedback from its environment," in the words of the technology writer James Harkin, was born with Wiener's revolutionary flight path predictor machine.
While Norbert Wiener's technical challenge was making sense of scarce information, Vannevar Bush was worried about its overabundance. In September 1945, Bush published an article titled "As We May Think," in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. The purpose of the essay was to answer the question "What are scientists to do next?" in the postwar age. Rather than making "strange destructive gadgets," Bush called on American scientists to build thinking machines that would enrich human knowledge.
A seminal essay that was covered as a major news story by both Time and Life magazines on its release and was compared by the Atlantic Monthly editor to Emerson's iconic 1837 "The American Scholar" address in its historical significance, "As We May Think" offers an introduction to an information network uncannily reminiscent of the World Wide Web. Bush argued that the greatest challenge for his country's scientists in 1945 was to build tools for the new information age. Modern media products like radio, books, newspapers, and cameras were creating a massively indigestible overload of content. There was too much data and not enough time, he believed, highlighting a problem associated with what contemporary Internet scholars like Michael Goldhaber now call the "attention economy."
"The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate," Bush explained, "and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."
At the heart of Bush's vision was a network of intelligent links. "The process of tying two items together is the important thing," he said in explaining his idea of organizing content together into what he called "trails," which, he stressed, would never "fade." Using new technologies like microphotography and cathode ray tubes, Bush believed that scientists could compress the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica to "the volume of a matchbox" or condense a million-book library into "one end of a desk." Imagining a machine "which types when talked to" and that acts as a "mechanized private file and library," Bush called his mechanized information storage device a "Memex." Describing it as "an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory" that would mimic the "intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain," Bush imagined it as a physical desktop product not unlike a personal computer, and which would have a keyboard, levers, a series of buttons, and a translucent screen.
Along with its remarkable prescience, what is so striking about "As We May Think" is its unadulterated technological optimism. In contrast with Norbert Wiener, who later became an outspoken critic of government investment in scientific and particularly military research and who worried about the impact of digital computers upon jobs, Vannevar Bush believed that government investment in science represented an unambiguously progressive force. In July 1945, Bush also wrote an influential paper for President Roosevelt entitled "Science, The Endless Frontier," in which he argued that what he called "the public welfare," particularly in the context of "full employment" and the role of science in generating jobs, would be improved by government investment in technological research. "One of our hopes is that after the war there will be full employment," Bush wrote to the president. "To reach that goal, the full creative and productive energies of the American people must be released."
"As We May Think" reflects this same rather naïve optimism about the economics of the information society. Vannevar Bush insists that everyone — particularly trained professionals like physicians, lawyers, historians, chemists, and a new blogger-style profession he dubbed "trail blazers" — would benefit from the Memex's automated organization of content. The particularly paradoxical thing about his essay is that while Bush prophesied a radically new technological future, he didn't imagine that the economics of this information society would be much different from his own. Yes, he acknowledged, compression would reduce the cost of the microfilm version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a nickel. But people would still pay for content, he assumed, and this would be beneficial to Britannica's publishers and writers.
The third member of the MIT trinity of Net forebears was J. C. R. Licklider. A generation younger than Bush and Wiener, Licklider came in 1950 to MIT, where he was heavily influenced by Norbert Wiener's work on cybernetics and by Wiener's legendary Tuesday night dinners at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, which brought together an eclectic group of scientists and technologists. Licklider fitted comfortably into this unconventional crowd. Trained as a psychologist, mathematician, and physicist, he had earned a doctorate in psychoacoustics and headed up the human engineering group at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, a facility that specialized in air defense research. He worked closely with the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) computer system, an Air Force–sponsored network of twenty-three control and radar stations designed to track Russian nuclear bombers. Weighing more than 250 tons and featuring 55,000 vacuum tubes, the SAGE system was the culmination of six years of development, 7,000 man-years of computer programming, and $61 billion in funding. It was, quite literally, a network of machines that one walked into.
Licklider had become obsessed with computers after a chance encounter at MIT in the mid-1950s with a young researcher named Wesley Clark, who was working on one of Lincoln Labs's new state-of-the-art TX-2 digital computers. While the TX-2 contained only 64,000 bytes of storage (that's over a million times smaller than my current 64-gigabyte iPhone 5S), it was nonetheless one of the very earliest computers that both featured a video screen and enabled interactive graphics work. Licklider's fascination with the TX-2 led him to an obsession with the potential of computing and, like Marshall McLuhan, the belief that electronic media "would save humanity."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Internet Is Not the Answer"
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Keen.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Preface: The Question,
Introduction: The Building Is the Message,
1 The Network,
2 The Money,
3 The Broken Center,
4 The Personal Revolution,
5 The Catastrophe of Abundance,
6 The One Percent Economy,
7 Crystal Man,
8 Epic Fail,
Conclusion: The Answer,