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The steep cost of the digital age

Cepeda
EstherCepeda-GDT

CHICAGO — Andrew Keen’s “The Internet Is Not the Answer” is the most devastating book I’ve read in a long while. Keen describes an Internet that’s not as virtuous, open and egalitarian as was promised by those who developed it.

“The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing to us. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is a central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class,” Keen writes.

“Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer. Rather than generating more jobs, this digital disruption is a principal cause of our unemployment crisis. Rather than creating more competition, it has created immensely powerful new monopolists like Google and Amazon.”

Keen also rails about how social media have become self-opt-in surveillance networks, helped create angry mobs and aided a cyber-war on women — all of which contribute a compounding of rage rather than empowerment. And this is from someone who embraces the digital age and still sees its potential.

The heart of his argument, though, is that if the new titans of the digital age succeed in digitalizing, automating and robotizing everything, what in the world are all the people going to do?

Keen provides numerous chilling examples, including many about how Amazon, the “Everything Store,” ruthlessly undercuts competitors in the name of serving the customer in the cheapest, fastest way.

But I have my own favorite example.

I was at Goodwill committing my weekly act of reusing and recycling when I came upon a replica of a Sears Roebuck and Co. consumer guide for fall 1909.

A marvel of exotic selection —everything from mandolins and cameras to paint, horse saddles, china, handguns and salves for every ailment imaginable — this catalog describes this erstwhile lion of commerce as the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.”

The tight cover script assures consumers, “This book tells just what your storekeeper at home pays for everything he buys and will prevent him from overcharging you on anything you buy from him.”

Isn’t this Amazon’s current-day value proposition?

The difference is that Sears ran a company that created jobs by the millions. Their catalog triumphantly spotlights all 16 “factories that we own or control in addition to our 40 acre plant,” plus other manufacturing properties that printed materials, cobbled shoes, cast iron and milled wallpaper.

Today, Sears’ catalogs have been gone for over 20 years and its brick-and-mortar stores are facing extinction as well. And so, one day, might Amazon.

Keen tells us that in our real-time, now-now-now digital era, most people don’t recognize how similar this turbulent moment is to the second Industrial Revolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Yes, today’s data factory economy is, in many ways, different from the factories of the Industrial Age … but while all this technology may be novel, it hasn’t transformed the role of either power or wealth in the world,” Keen writes. “Indeed, when it comes to importance of money and influence, Silicon Valley is about as traditional as” hand crafted bottles of vintage wine.

Citing MIT futurists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Keen notes that “Badass entrepreneurs like [Uber co-founder] Travis Kalanick and [PayPal co-founder] Peter Thiel have much in common with the capitalist robber barons of the first Industrial Revolution. Internet monopolists like Google and Amazon increasingly resemble the bloated multinationals of the industrial epoch; the struggle of 18th-century Yorkshire cloth workers is little different from today’s resistance of organized labor to Amazon, Uber and Airbnb.”

Keen quotes Internet historian John Naughton, who suggests that Google, Apple and Microsoft “are as hostile to trade unions, taxation and regulation as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie ever were in their day. The only difference is that the new titans employ far fewer people, enjoy higher margins and are less harassed by governments than their predecessors.”

Keen has answers for how to give people a fighting chance, including shaping the Internet’s quasi-monopolies “before they shape us,” electing bold politicians to stand up to the Googles and Microsofts of the world, and “an accountable, strong government willing to stand up to the money and power of Silicon Valley and big data companies.”

It’s possible. But first we must all stop misguidedly believing these companies benevolently give us something for nothing.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.


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