Most journalists would agree that cyberspace is not everything it could be, but Andrew Keen, a veteran of Silicon Valley, goes further. He says it has become a dangerous place for everyone except power-hungry capitalists and snooping governments and the rest of us are its victims.
His book The Internet Is Not the Answer with its comprehensive and forensic examination of how the Internet is doing bad things to our lives, is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of communications and journalism.
In an interview with The Guardian Keen underscores how the net’s free for all culture, including news, has caused havoc in the creative industries. There were promises that the Internet would come up with solutions for the crisis that has overtaken people in publishing, music and entertainment, but 25 years on nothing has emerged.
Not surprisingly the book is causing a stir. In the spirit of Monty Python, someone might be tempted to ask What has the Internet Ever Done for Us? And the answer is a lot. It has revolutionised the way we communicate, it has brought the world closer together, it has given us easy access to a multitude of sources of information and transformed our approach to health care, education, politics and shopping. What more could we ask for?
But although the Internet, together with the World Wide Web, personal computers, tablets, and smartphones, has ushered in a mighty communications revolution, and one of the greatest shifts in society since the dawn of the industrial age, as Keen points out it also has had deeply negative effects.
Anyone close to the journalism business knows what he’s talking about. Newspapers and traditional quality media increasingly rely on philanthropy, public funding or supportive foundations to maintain quality content and investigative journalism.
Working conditions in newsrooms – online and offline – are equally poor. A generation of young people in the journalism schools in Europe and the US have few quality jobs to look forward to. Some will survive as freelancers, but many, if not most, are destined for advertising, corporate communications or public and political information jobs.
Keen’s book will infuriate some. His hard-hitting analysis of the overweening power of Google, for instance, is unlikely to impress Jeff Jarvis at the City University of New York. In his 2009 book What Would Google Do? Jarvis, a passionate supporter of market solutions to journalism and its crisis, argued that companies and individuals should study and perhaps copy Google’s methods for succeeding at internet entrepreneurship.
But it’s precisely that form of entrepreneurship which Keen, a serial Internet entrepreneur himself, has in his sights. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content. He then asked how quality content can be created in an online environment (including journalism) that demands everything for free.
And he is not alone in his concerns. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Civic Media and cofounder of the international bloggers’ website Global Voices, is another contrarian raising the alarm.
In his 2013 book Rewire: Digital Cospompolitans in the Age of Connection Zuckerman explains how the Internet has made everyone less dependent on professional journalists and editors for information about the wider world.
People can and do seek out information directly via social media or by searching online, but he spells out that this, as Keen repeats, comes at a price – that we will be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know.
The one thing that made traditional forms of journalism useful for people was that it exposed us to information that was new, out of our comfort zone and about which we knew nothing.
Sometimes these unknown areas of our lives – foreign affairs, political and religious conflict, the experience of other communities and cultures – have serious implications for all of us, but in a world dominated by do-it-yourself information structures in which the public interest is defined as what the public is interested in, there is a danger that for all its multitude of opportunities, the web will lead to increased ignorance and self-interest at the expense of pluralism and other-regarding principles of democracy.
Altogether this is bleak picture. The Internet with its fabulously rich pickings for youthful tech millionaires and an abundance of opportunities for users everywhere is tempered by a suffocating wave of global online surveillance by governments and corporations on the other is full of challenges. Keen’s lament about how it has become a tool for diminishing the social and economic livelihoods of millions adds to mix. But looking for rational solutions to this crisis is not his strong point and, to be fair, it is not his objective to provide them.
For people in journalism the story is complex and challenging and there are few options to choose from, but one compelling message does come through – if we want to maintain the flow of ethical, comprehensive and stylish journalism to keep democracy informed then people will have to pay for it.