How Do We Ever Escape Surveillance Capitalism?
Andrew Keen and Noam Cohen Talk About How to Fix the Future
The titles of Andrew Keen’s books haven’t pulled any punches. Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us. The Internet Is Not the Answer. Full stop. That first book, Cult of the Amateur, published in 2007, exposed what has become a painfully obvious flaw in opening up the news media to any and all. “The ultimate victim of this supposed ‘democratization,’ of media,” Keen writes today, “is the idea of truth itself. Without gatekeepers, fact-checkers, or editors able to verify the truth of a newspaper article or television news report, your fake news is as ‘truthful’ as mine.” Supposedly neutral social-networking platforms that promote news based on how popular it is have surely amplified the problem.
With the tide turning against Silicon Valley, Keen in his new book, How to Fix the Future, has shifted from etiology to treatment. All is not lost for our sick, increasingly interconnected world, he writes. Humanity has been down before! The spread of the Internet is neither inevitably liberating, nor inevitably oppressive. History can be a guide, Keen argues, as well as small countries like Estonia and Singapore, which are freer to experiment with digital tools: “There are the maybes, like myself—realists and reformers rather than utopians or dystopians—who recognize that today’s great challenge is to try to fix the problems of our great transformation without either demonizing or lionizing technology.”
Noam Cohen: How to Fix the Future represents what you cheekily call a “pivot” in your writing about how digital culture is endangering our lives. When Silicon Valley companies pivot, they are looking to find the biggest audience. What was your goal?
Andrew Keen: Touché on cheekiness. But it’s a fair question. The New Releases section of bookstores are now groaning with critiques of Big Tech and I suspect the market for these kinds of polemics is now close to saturation. As a longtime tech entrepreneur myself, I know that the nonfiction business is all about timing. So, yes, my “pivot,” in good (or bad) Silicon Valley fashion, is partially driven by economics. But there’s more to my shift than just wanting to sell books. The problems of our digital age—from gaping economic inequality to fake news to the imminent employment crisis of AI to the surveillance capitalism of the Silicon Valley economy—are profound. It’s obvious that the future is broken. The question now is how to fix it.
NC: In keeping with your pivot, your intention seems to be to reclaim the tarnished tools of Silicon Valley to save Silicon Valley. Most notably to me was your effort to salvage the idea of utopia, which conjures the image of cyberlibertarians floating on an island in the sea without taxes or regulations. Explain how the idea of utopia can be helpful to fixing the future?
AK: Let me clarify my interest in utopia. Digital technology, driven by Moore’s Law, the scientific “law” predicting the doubling of microprocessing power every 18 months, is dramatically changing the world. The original ideals of tech visionaries like the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, was to harness this digital technology in order to deepen democracy and foster more economic and cultural opportunities for everyone. This radically disruptive technology was supposed to empower humanity, to grant us agency, to spark a new Renaissance. The tragedy of the digital revolution, however, is that it has actually compounded economic inequality and created massively powerful Silicon Valley corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple. Rather than enabling human agency, Moore’s Law is creating a world that seems to be disempowering humanity, thereby undermining our ability to make our own histories. Rather than a renaissance of humanism, therefore, the digital revolution has actually sparked its crisis.
I argue that this has happened many times before in history—during the 19th-century industrial revolution, for example, or during the 16th-century Reformation. To make my point, the first chapter in How To Fix The Future focuses on Thomas More’s great 16th-century political fantasy, Utopia. I argue that More wrote his Renaissance text in response to events in 16th-century northern Europe which seemed to be disempowering us, thereby triggering a crisis of humanism. Thomas More’s goal in writing Utopia, I argue, was to stress the importance of human agency, to remind us that we have a civic responsibility to design our own histories, to make the world a better place. I dub this “More’s Law” (also the title of my first chapter) and contrast it with the Moore’s Law of Silicon Valley’s digital revolution, which is disempowering humanity. Rather than a fantasy, therefore, the utopia at the heart of my new book is our age-old quest to reclaim agency. So to stay human in our digital age requires the triumph of More’s Law over Moore’s Law. Utopian? Perhaps. But, as I show in the book, this quest for agency is actually taking place in today’s networked age. It’s no fantasy. From Singapore to India to Estonia to Germany to even pockets of Silicon Valley, we are, indeed, reasserting our humanity and shaping the digital revolution to our own interests and needs.
“Only the public can empower the public. And there is no killer app to make this happen.”
NC: Isn’t one serious challenge to returning agency to the public the decades-long campaign by Silicon Valley companies to convince us that they are uniquely empowering the public? You use Apple’s famous “1984” ad during the Super Bowl—with the PC as a tool of liberation—to highlight this contradiction. Could these digital robber barons have tools at their disposal that make them even more powerful than the robber barons of yore with their Pinkerton cops?
AK: Yes, you are absolutely correct to compare today’s Big Tech leviathans with the industrial monoliths of the 19th century. I’m not sure if Silicon Valley’s private superpowers are any “more powerful” than these “robber barons of yore”—but they certainly possess equally intimidating financial and political muscle. We have much to learn from the 19th- and 20th-century struggles against industrial monopolists.
The truth is that we’ve always had five tools to reclaim human agency from the robber barons of any age: regulation, competitive innovation, education, worker and consumer choice, and social responsibility. These tools are as equally critical today as they were in the industrial age when deployed to confront the oil and the railway monopolies. The essential thing to remember is there is no single tool—certainly no new technology like AI or blockchain—that can magically solve all our the problems. So the only way to fix the future, to regain our agency, is by leveraging all these five tools in combination. Just regulating Big Tech isn’t enough, nor is relying solely on the market or on direct citizen engagement.
As I argue in the book—citing many historical examples from the food, labor and automotive industries—the struggle to fix the future is complex and can often take generations. So my message is very different from that Apple “1984” Super Bowl slot—with its seductively choreographed story of the victory of good over evil. Only the public can empower the public. And there is no killer app to make this happen.
NC: Indeed, you speak of a holistic solution to the problems caused by Silicon Valley, and caution that we are still quite early in the planet’s Internet experiment. But don’t you detect a fear today that time is somehow moving faster now? Not coincidentally, you spend some time in How to Fix the Future thinking about “time.” George Soros, in a recent scathing critique of Facebook and Google, said: “It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than three years.” I’m not sure what that means for three years from now, but Soros, at least, is predicting a crisis rather than a smooth transition, no?
AK: I didn’t use the word “holistic” which, to me, brings to mind a kind of northern California reading of history—smooth jazz, deep tissue massages and groovy endings for everyone. No, history isn’t a holistic process—certainly in terms of how economic and political power is distributed. Take, for example, the history of industrial revolution which, even in the best case scenarios of 19th-century Britain or America, resulted in violent labor unrest, political class conflict and cultural chaos. While in Germany and Russia, of course, it led to the totalitarian catastrophes of Fascism and Communism. So I think George Soros may, indeed, be correct. There will probably be some sort of major crisis—a Chernobyl-sized data hack, for example, or an online war between states that turns hot—that will symbolize the dawn of our digital century.
Soros is certainly correct to suggest that, in the long run at least, Facebook’s days are numbered. As I argue in the book, history teaches us that products that are profoundly exploitative of its users—whether they are rampantly addictive foods or unsafe cars—never last. And the kind of surveillance capitalism that is inherent in Facebook’s business model certainly isn’t viable in the long term. And that’s where your point about time is so interesting. As Alvin Toffler predicted in Future Shock, today’s electronic society is characterized by “too much change in too short a period of time.” I suspect we are on the brink of an even more violent change that shook Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—its tremors today manifested by the globalist/localist cleavages tearing apart every postindustrial society. These changes will be anything but smooth. But sometimes you need a good crisis to arrive at good solutions.
“The Facebook and Google ‘surveillance capitalist’ business model of transforming the consumer into the product isn’t viable in the long run.”
NC: So, the positive spin is that the debacle of surveillance capitalism may force Americans to appreciate their own privacy and need for collective action? As you note, Europe had to endure totalitarian horrors to appreciate the importance of privacy; Singapore had to endure prolonged poverty to see the importance of investing in their population.
AK: What you call a “positive spin” about America might, I’m afraid, be wishful thinking—perhaps even a kind of parochial utopianism. In writing HTFTF, I flew over 250,000 miles around the world, visiting countries as far apart as Estonia, India, Russia, Singapore and Germany. What I found is that the Internet is, in a mostly good way, becoming the “splinternet”—a series of networks conforming to local interests and cultures. That, of course, doesn’t justify what’s going on in Russia or China—but it does point to the vitality of the next wave of innovation in which local innovators and regulators are fighting back against Silicon Valley monopolists. So my goal was to write a genuinely global book—and not just Silicon Valley’s spin on globalism, with its convenient representation of the world as a uniform hinterland for American technologies and ideas.
What I describe in my narrative are a series of innovative regulatory experiments about digital democracy and identity in these countries. I report, for example, on a new social contract between government and individuals in Estonia built around a two-way data transparency. In Singapore, I describe the thinking behind the government’s “smart nation” initiative. In the EU, I report on the efforts of regulators to protect individual privacy through innovative new legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In India, I report on the government’s efforts to create a digital national ID card that, for the first time in history, empowers its poorest citizens with verifiable identity. In Germany, I report on a series of digital startups explicitly designed to create Internet products that respect the users’ right to privacy. So from becoming a leader in digital innovation, America is increasingly becoming a follower, imitating—particularly at the local level—the pioneering reforms of true innovators like Estonia and Singapore.
NC: The car industry is really the analogy here: Once US dominated, but vastly improved by the US being brought down a peg and forced to learn from and copy Japanese and European manufactures. Funny, because Silicon Valley leaders hold Detroit in particular contempt and see themselves as the exact opposite: vigilant, smart, hyper-competitive. Reid Hoffman writes in The Startup of You: “The overriding problem was this: The auto industry got too comfortable. … Instead of rewarding the best people in the organization and firing the worst, they promoted on the basis of longevity and nepotism.”
AK: Yes, the history of car industry offers a stark warning to Silicon Valley. In the 1950s, the US car manufacturers dominated the global market, but today—with the possible exception of Tesla—it is lagging behind most European and Japanese car manufacturers. Reid Hoffman, though, is wrong in his critique of Detroit. Rather than being “too comfortable,” the US car industry declined because of its failure to design products that prioritized the safety and comfort of the consumer. So, by the 1960s, as Ralph Nader underlined in his 1965 bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, the American car industry had become infatuated with design and was producing cars which were, in fact, deathtraps. The same is true today in Silicon Valley. The Facebook and Google “surveillance capitalist” business model of transforming the consumer into the product isn’t viable in the long run. Just as we don’t want to drive cars that are unsafe, we don’t want to be watched in everything we do. In this lesson, Silicon Valley might learn from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon—with its unrelenting focus on customer satisfaction.
NC: In the time since you finished HTWTF, a powerful momentum has built behind critics of Silicon Valley. Of the five tools for society to wrestle this problem into submission, which seems to have already been deployed and which will require the most work to kick in? What gives you hope? Where should we be focusing our attention?
AK: Of my five tools, the one that has been most effectively deployed in the short term is regulation—particularly from Europe. So I have a section in the book featuring a conversation with Margrethe Vestager, the EU Commissioner of antitrust, who has most effectively taken on Silicon Valley’s monopolists. I’m also optimistic about the work being done now by technologists in trying to “re-decentralize” the network and create a more level playing field for startup entrepreneurs. What is particularly encouraging is that some pioneers of the first wave of internet disruption—like Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde, who I interview in the book—have learnt from their rather misguided past and now are trying to build internet businesses which genuinely reward the creative community. The tools of both social responsibility and worker and consumer choice will, I hope, become increasingly prominent over the medium term as people begin to recognize that the quality of life in the 21st century will depend on shaping the digital revolution to our interests rather than those of Big Tech.
I’m particularly encouraged by the growing conversation amongst many citizens around the world about the need for a minimum guaranteed income in the face of an increasingly automated economy that will replace many traditional jobs. I’m also optimistic about the way that the so-called “precariat” class of workers in the sharing economy—Uber drivers, for example, or TaskRabbit employees—are now demanding the protection of their rights through new laws. But the tool which ultimately might have the greatest long term impact is education. Today’s digital revolution is, like the industrial revolution of the 19th century, changing how we live, work and organize ourselves. It requires not only radically different kinds of schools and universities, but perhaps even a different way of thinking about the very idea of education. In my final chapter, I look at some alternative schools from the Waldorf and Montessori tradition that focus on nurturing human agency. That’s the only way we can stay human in the digital age. It’s the key to fixing the future.
Andrew Keen’s How to Fix the Future is available now from Grove Atlantic.