Occupy Silicon Valley: Unwiring the Internet

Since users are inadvertently working for Facebook and Google for free by giving up the personal data that makes their companies profitable, the companies do not have to employ numbers proportionate with their vast share of the market, argues Andrew Keen Caption

Since users are inadvertently working for Facebook and Google for free by giving up the personal data that makes their companies profitable, the companies do not have to employ numbers proportionate with their vast share of the market, argues Andrew Keen
Caption

Stanely Mushava Literature Today

Contrary to promoting economic fairness, digital technology is faulted as the central reason for the growing gulf between haves and the have-nots and the hollowing out of the middle class.

Book: The Internet Is Not the Answer

Author: Andrew Keen

Publisher: Atlantic (2015)

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2313-8

If the history of modern societies was to be simplified into one thread, it would be most likely the story of people in the service of profit and power.

As a virus will go through serial mutations just to evade detection, replicate itself and debilitate its host, capitalism has thrown on many forms but the organising principle remains suspiciously similar.

Creative destruction, the disruptive cycle of reinvention observed by economist Joseph Schumpeter, remains the summative profile of capitalism.

From institutions which license the rich to hunt poor people’s herds, to decoy narratives and stratagems of co-optation, volumes come new but seldom different in the lapse of history.

With the viral mode of capitalism in mind, sceptics are asking whether the universal conquest of digital technology is not the latest mutation of global capitalism.

Such a possibility can never be an easy sell considering the earth-size halo currently surrounding information and communication technologies (ICTs) because of the connectivity, convenience and reliability it has ushered in.

All the same, a tide of discontent is swelling around Silicon Valley, calling out its architects for championing profit over people like the industrialists and oil companies before them.

If that sounds like an unsustainable claim, then “The Internet Is Not the Answer,” a 2015 critique of the digital world order by Andrew Keen, may be the argument to grapple with.

Keen puts down the characterisation of the Internet as an essentially benign, progressive and open society in tech-themed eulogies to a figment of fantasy.

The main premise of the book is that the digitally driven economics of the day are tending towards inequality rather than correcting it.

The selfie-centred network is faulted as a socially corrosive, economically debilitating and politically creepy underworld of surveillance, deception, narcissism and consumerism.

Keen has levelled sustained assaults against the Internet, beginning with “The Cult of the Amateur” in 2007.

But like many in the trenches with him, it seems the harder he tries, the more he looks like a Lilliputian at the base of the ever-swelling, cosmic bubble of digitisation.

When I read Keen’s debut two years ago, it came across as refreshing dissent to the technological determinism which seems to be washing away human agency from every sector, but I could not help noticing that most of his moments of vision had been overtaken by game-changing innovations.

In 2007, he could afford to ignore a three-year-old Facebook, rather directing his more urgent polemics at YouTube and Wikipedia, but now the dorm-room application is not only out of its swaddling bands: it is one of the elephants in the digital room.

The changes speak to Robert McChesney’s admission that unwiring the Internet is like trying to shoot a moving target in the fog. There is not just the hustle and clutter of the Internet, but also disruptive innovation to deal with.

Keen debuted as an eccentric writer given to hubris and prejudice but one could still marvel at his articulate and incisive missiles against what seems to be a universal contract.

“The Internet Is Not the Answer”, his third consecutive assault on the universal Minotaur, brings back the eccentricity but less immodesty and there finally seems to be more data than prejudice to the new debate.

The downside of the book is that Keen can go on a riff about an anecdote, dropping down unconvincing new words like “unstore”, “uncompany”, “unclub” and a lot more. The method in the madness does not seem to hold.

Far too intimate claims about individuals like Mark Zuckerberg also betray prejudice and do not seem to help the argument.

However, there are many credible nuggets in the tome. Keen argues that as the world gets increasingly connected on the digital network, the less economic value it holds for the majority.

Contrary to promoting economic fairness, digital technology is faulted as the central reason for the growing gulf between haves and the have-nots and the hollowing out of the middle class.

“Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer,” Keen points out. The pauperisation of artistes in Zimbabwe is a solid case in point.

“Rather than generating more jobs, this digital disruption is a principal cause of our structural unemployment crisis. Rather than creating more competition, it has created immensely powerful new monopolists like Google and Amazon,” Keen protests.

Keen’s case dovetails with the global technopolies’ ongoing tax avoidance storm, despite insistence by critics that such tactics are not without victims in the host countries.

In addition to long-term implications of technologies such as self-driving cars on jobs, Keen takes on the not so flattering employment records of the technopolies.

He points out that since users are inadvertently working for Facebook and Google for free by giving up the personal data that makes their companies profitable, the companies do not have to employ numbers proportionate with their vast share of the market.

Amazon’s disdain of people for profit is particularly legendary. Keen observes that the firm’s hyperefficient work culture has created serious problems of permanently injured workers.

In 2013, 1 300 Amazon workers organised a series of strikes over pay, working conditions and a Big Brother firm hired to police the company’s distribution centres.

BBC’s undercover investigation into an Amazon warehouse during the same year revealed harsh working conditions that an expert warned could lead to mental and physical illness for workers.

Keen suggests that libertarian venture capitalists do not care about worker receiving no compensation for stress fractures or veteran employees being summarily fired on returning medical leave but only the phenomenally swelling value of their investments.

Google was around seven times bigger than General Motors as at 2014, but employs less than a quarter of the number of workers employed by the latter.

Keen notes that the global economy’s top five companies – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Samsung – grossed $387 billion early 2014, which equalled the 2013 GDP of the United Arab Emirates.

Yet the companies are blasted as latter-day Scrooges, with wealth being concentrated into the hands of an extreme minority at the expense of jobs.

Bloomberg’s “Tech Hubris” issue reported top technology firms sending their differences to the devil just to be united against their workers.

The implications are equally unsettling for several industries. The digital holocaust has significantly disrupted newspaper, music, telecommunications, movie, publishing and retail industries and is poised to move into education, finance, transportation, health care, politics and manufacturing.

It seems that only one course has been defined for mankind, that of a progressively digital future, but besides the convenience it promises, it has the mind but not the soul.

When robots and computers line up to kick people out of their jobs, it means the digital future is not a human future.

“Its cultural ramifications are equally chilling. Rather than creating transparency and openness, the Internet is creating a panopticon of information-gathering and surveillance services in which we, the users of big data networks like Facebook, have been packaged as their all-too-transparent product,” Keen protests.

He refutes the idea that the social network is renaissance’s new frontier and puts it down to a site of selfie-centred voyeurism and narcissism. He faults the assumption that digital technology has established diversity and points out that that the real winners are few young white men in black limousines.

What does this mean for Zimbabwe as we anticipate our STEMised future? Chiefly, that technological advancement must be human-centred instead of being profit-driven whatever the values at stake.

Our only advantage for being in laggard mode at this point is that we have options until we choose. The West got lost when national interest initiatives were weaned into a winner-take-all combat zone.

STEM must not be only for the digital future but also the human future.

 Stanely Mushava blogs at upstreamafrica.blogspot.com

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