Tribune Print Share Text

The Internet

Is it really the answer?

Created date

February 25th, 2015
UPS delivery man
UPS delivery man

Society has undergone a profound metamorphosis in the last 25 years. In a quarter of a century, a mere blink in the scheme of things, our material world has evaporated into the digital ether.

Because of the Internet, paper, books, magazines, music, photography, money, face-to-face mercantilism, dating, even the most basic of human needs like friendship, have been reduced to an intangible system of 0s and 1s. 

And so often, we hear about how great it is. 

Imagine not having to leave the house to go shopping, or logging onto your computer to instantly sift through a pool of single men and women in search of your soul mate. Imagine being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, about anything, at anytime. 

There’s no need to imagine. We’re already doing it, a fact that one tech expert finds troubling. 

In his new book The Internet Is Not the Answer (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Andrew Keen reconsiders the digital revolution, unmasking some of the more unsettling facets of the World Wide Web.

“My main concern is that many of us use the Internet without fully understanding how it works or what its consequences might be,” says Keen, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and tech columnist. “I’m not hostile to technology—I’m just as wired as the next person—but I am critical of the twenty-first century networked society that has replaced our traditional industrial order.”

Impact on the economy

A case in point is the commercial shift from brick and mortar to click and order. 

Online sales continue to climb every year. According to IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark, in 2014, Internet spending on Cyber Monday (the digital equivalent of Black Friday) jumped 8.5% from the previous year’s figures. 

But as Keen explains it, the problem is that the full economic impact of digital shopping isn’t nearly comparable to that of stores with physical locations and an on-site sales staff. Consequently, the residual fruits of increased economic activity, like jobs creation, factor minimally into the e-commerce equation.

As an example, he refers to the Internet-based rideshare taxi service Uber, which has an estimated value of $18 billion—roughly the equivalent of Hertz and Avis put together. Yet, despite Uber’s incredible success, it’s only responsible for a paltry 1,000 jobs, as opposed to the 60,000 paychecks provided by Hertz and Avis. 

“The Internet is compounding some disturbing economic trends,” states Keen, “in that it has created a ‘winner take all’ economy in which highly lucrative companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook have accumulated tremendous wealth for a small group of people. Tech tycoons like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg are making fortunes for themselves without creating much for anyone else.”

In fact, this observation cuts to the core of what Keen argues has happened. 

“In an age of MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, we seem to think we’re the center of the universe, and, therefore, we fail to look beyond our own experiences,” he adds. “We mistake the medium for the message.”

Original intent

So, the question remains, if the Internet is not the answer, what is? Keen says we have to turn to the Net’s original purpose to find out. 

When visionary Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago, he did so with the aim of fostering creativity, the free flow of information, and an entrepreneurial spirit of innovation—in essence, the antithesis of the corporate-run, advertisement-laden, surveillance-prone behemoth we surf today.

Berners-Lee envisioned a tool, a vehicle for the mind. What we have is a product wherein companies like Google and Facebook offer ostensibly free services, then track our usage to compile sellable advertising and marketing data.

As far as Keen is concerned, people have to get back to basics to reverse this. The problem is not the Internet; it’s how we use it.

And the solution is as variable as the Web itself. 

Some believe the answer is to put a stop to online tracking and other less-than-transparent data collection methods used by Facebook, Google, and countless others. Some think we should jettison the crippling and, more importantly, blinding narcissism that the Web tends to evoke in all of us.

“When you consider what the Internet was meant to be in its purist form, you can see it for its immense value and potential,” insists Keen. “But without knowing what it was and what it was meant to be, you can’t possibly imagine where it might go in the future.”