Shake, rattle & roll

by Peter Griffin / 29 January, 2015
If the internet’s the answer, what was the question?
hailing taxi, mobile phone

It’s funny to think the act of hailing a cab has come to symbolise the forces reshaping the global economy in the 21st century. But that’s exactly what’s represented by the growing backlash against private car-hire company Uber from the taxi industry.

Taxis have been disrupted by a fleet of iPhone-toting “transportation entrepreneurs”, who charge an average of $1.45 per kilometre travelled compared with $3 on the meter in a taxi.

As consumers, we’re willingly participating in the internet shake-up of bloated, inefficient industries. First it was the recording industry, then the media, then retailing and soon, maybe, with the rise of peer-to-peer lending, finance.

Drones, 3D-printing, Tinder dating, Bitcoin and missions to Mars: disruption is taking place everywhere at an accelerating pace. But it’s not without a cost, argues author Andrew Keen in The Internet Is Not the Answer.

The price is lost jobs and shrinking earning potential as industries are turned upside down. It is also the encroachment on privacy as data about us is fed into algorithms for marketing and other purposes. And it is the loss of control as a small number of extremely powerful internet companies take over our online existence.

Oxfam last month calculated that the world’s richest 1% now own nearly half of all global wealth. Keen’s thesis is that the network effect of the internet has accelerated inequality, a far cry from the democratising effect the web’s creators dreamt of.

“Silicon Valley’s guilded class,” writes Keen, “believe that the internet, as a hyper-efficient and so-called frictionless platform for buyers and sellers, is the solution to what they call the ‘inefficiencies’ of the 20th-century economy.” Billionaires such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg form a libertarian tech elite increasingly dictating the terms and reaping massive profits but in many cases delivering little economic value in the countries where they operate.

You could say that Keen, a failed tech entrepreneur who previously lamented the internet’s influence on the culture industry in The Cult of the Amateur, is just envious of the Valley’s success. Or perhaps he’s put his finger on something a growing number of us are feeling as the influence of the internet becomes more pronounced. Disruption, after all, is fine until it’s your livelihood that’s affected.

After taxis, what’s next? Keen reckons it’ll be the tertiary education sector, which is threatened by so-called massive open online courses (Moocs). It’s already possible to unofficially take courses at some of the world’s top universities, logging in from your laptop. What happens when employers start favouring candidates educated in the world of Moocs over those trained by our own universities?

What’s Keen’s answer? Look to history. Internet billionaires Sean Parker, Peter Thiel and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, he says, “have much in common with the capitalist robber barons of the first industrial revolution”. What happened to them? Like Standard Oil, many of them were legislated out of existence when they became too dominant, as many feel their digital-age equivalents – Google, Facebook and Apple – are getting.

Is it time to break up Google and rein in Apple – or at least make them pay appropriate taxes in the countries in which they make their money? Might Uber be forced to act more like a regular taxi company, and would that be a bad thing?

The Internet Is Not The AnswerBut Keen and a growing number of critics who profess to love the internet are asking for something deeper – for the Silicon Valley elites, the one-percenters who want to win at all costs, to take some responsibility for the jobs they eliminate, the industries they make obsolete and the lives they disrupt. Don’t hold your breath.

There’s one relatively simple – but surprisingly difficult – thing we can do to hold on to our identity in this hyper-connected world: say “no”. We can be brave and opt out, swipe left, reject the terms and conditions and set the permissions before they are permanently set for us.

THE INTERNET IS NOT THE ANSWER, by Andrew Keen (Atlantic Monthly Press, $34.95).

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