Andrew Keen on How to Fix the Problems Technology has Created

Think:Act Magazine "Own the Future"
Andrew Keen on How to Fix the Problems Technology has Created

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine
Think:Act Magazine
Warschau Office, Central Europe
16 augustus 2019

Tech critic Andrew Keen believes that the digital revolution has created unprecedented problems, but if we act carefully we can tackle them to create a more humane future.

Interview

by Neelima Mahajan

Read more about the topic "Own the future"

A serial internet entrepreneur based out of Silicon Valley, Andrew Keen hardly seems like the kind of guy who would be skeptical of the digital revolution. Yet he was one of the first people to call attention to the dangers of technology. As a result he has often been called the Antichrist of Silicon Valley.

The author of several books such as "Digital Vertigo", "The Internet Is Not the Answer" and the more recent "How to Fix the Future", Keen wouldn't call himself a Luddite – even though he has often been described as one. "I am actually both for and against technology," he says. "We have got to get beyond these childish bifurcations of being a Luddite or a techno-utopian."

He likens our current Digital Age to the Industrial Age where some of the things about industrialization were good and some weren't. Technology, for one, is racing ahead, and humans aren't able to keep up – and control their destiny. There are other problems too. The business models of tech companies are based on data appropriation, which is not necessarily a good thing for consumers. A handful of technology companies have become way too powerful for anyone's good.

Is there a way out of this mess? Can we fix the future? Keen sat down with Think:Act to offer some pointers.

Andrew Keen, the Antichrist of Silicon Valley.
Andrew Keen, the Antichrist of Silicon Valley.
"Our history as a species [shows] that we always break the future and then we fix it, but it takes a generation or two."
Author

Think:Act: One of the things you wrote about in your latest book is how machines are progressing faster than humans, leading to this gap between the two. Will we be able to control our fate? What can we do now so that things don't get out of hand?

Andrew Keen: Well, we can speed up ourselves and we can slow down the machines a little bit. So we need regulations in terms of machines, but we need to speed ourselves up. We need to be much smarter. The purpose of my work is to make people think about these issues.

We need a new kind of humanism that will speed us up. That is humanism focusing on agency (controlling our fate). In my book I call it More's Law after Thomas More, the author of "Utopia", and we have a kind of responsibility to shape our world to take responsibility for the future. So I developed a kind of civic humanism from More's "Utopia", which I contrast with Luther's predestination 500 years ago. And we have a similar sort of debate now emerging between digital determinists like Kevin Kelly and his understanding of inevitability of this technology versus humanists like myself who don't deny that the change and the disruption is real but to save time we will just lie back and accept it.

There's a growing movement that's urging tech companies to be more responsible. Will it be able to actually change how tech companies operate? It does look like the idea of responsible tech is not in sync with current business models that are based on data appropriation.

There are two kinds of people in companies. The first are the money guys who understand that the company's remarkable prosperity, its profitability depends on this exchange with its users in terms of data. And the second are people like Mark Zuckerberg in some ways, maybe Larry Page, they drank the Kool-Aid so deeply that they can't imagine they are wrong. So it's the believers and the book-keepers. But there are many people within these companies. Women who are deeply troubled by the discriminatory practices both at the companies and in the technology, and the implications of being a woman on social media. People who got into this business for idealistic reasons wanting to change the world, who are now just disturbed and disappointed. There are enough people within these companies to make a difference.

It is taking a positive turn in some ways. You have someone like Marc Benioff at Salesforce and more and more prominent venture capitalists are speaking out. So it's not ideal, but I am not one of these people who just believe that all private companies and all for-profit companies are evil. I think we have to get beyond that.

Do your ideas resonate well with Silicon Valley companies?

I think they do. The reality of tech is it attracts the smartest and most able people partly because it's extremely well paid, partly because it's a lot of fun and partly because it's cool. Again, this comes back to the Luddite idea of tarring all technology companies and technology workers with the same brush – as all bad. I think that's very unproductive. You are seeing the beginnings of a real social conscience in Silicon Valley. You are seeing it in people like Marc Benioff, Tristan Harris and his development of an ethical programmer movement. So I see some really interesting things. It doesn't mean that there aren't lots of problems. You still have people like Travis Kalanick, you have the cults of charismatic individuals like Elon Musk that I don't think is very productive. You have companies like Amazon whose labor practices are deeply disturbing. You have the business models of companies like Facebook and Google, which are very problematic. But I do think change is coming to Silicon Valley, slowly but surely.

Is there anything we can learn from the Industrial Age and how humanity came to terms with the seismic changes that happened to their environments then? What kind of parallels does that have with what we are dealing with today?

What we can learn is two or three very big things. The first is that it is always darkest before dawn. And we are seeing the beginnings of change now in spite of all the various crises of digital. We saw this in the Industrial Age in the 1860s and 70s in the midst of all the labor disputes, and all those early implications of capitalism. You saw the beginnings in industrial capitalism with the union movement, with the laws that preserve the rights of workers, not allowing child workers. Much of the regulation, the legislation was made that has civilized industrial capitalism.

We are seeing the beginnings of that in the digital world today. The second thing we can learn is that it takes a great deal of time. Technologists always think that all the problems can be solved by technology. Now the big new thing is blockchain. Now blockchain can fix all this, blockchain is transparent, blockchain is the new internet, which of course it is, which means it's as much of a problem as a solution. The only way this stuff gets changed is through humans and it takes time.

Our history as a species [shows] that we always break the future and then we fix it, but it takes a generation or two. It took 50-100 years to confront many of the major problems of industrial capitalism and we still haven't confronted some of them, like pollution, like global warming.

Digital technology has made us incredibly impatient. We buy something, we comment, we broadcast, everything is a media. But these changes take time. And a single technology, a single company and a single solution is not going to fix everything. So we can learn a lot, but learning from history should make us humble. It should make us realize the complexity of time, and make us realize that these big problems can't be solved overnight. They take a generation. That should make us roll our sleeves up at least symbolically.

"A better digital world would be one in which we have some sort of cultural understanding when using technology to enlighten ourselves rather than narrow our visions of the world, the sort of echo chamber culture."
Author

Is regulation the answer? Do you think governments are prepared?

Yes, I think regulation is part of the answer. In my book I lay out five tools: regulation, innovation, consumer activism, citizen engagement and education. Regulation is part of the solution. It's an important piece but alone it won't work. It's not enough to regulate the economy. It's not enough to force these companies to be accountable, make them pay their taxes, to rethink anti-trust law, to build data protection regulations. That's a good beginning but you also need more innovation. In Europe in particular, you need an innovation economy producing companies that can compete with these large American companies. When I talked to Margrethe Vestager for this book she didn't idealize government or regulation. She said the whole purpose was to create a level playing field. Regulation works, but it only works in association and alliance with the other stuff. Just regulation on its own will fail.

I think European governments are much more prepared, they are leading the Americans, they are pioneering. Someone like Vestager is very sophisticated. The German government is quite ready in terms of forcing some of these companies to be accountable. The EU is quite sophisticated in terms of developing their General Data Protection Regulations. It's not ideal but it's a beginning. The Americans are lagging behind. They generally do, but they'll catch up.

Your latest book is titled "How to Fix the Future". If we were to fix the future, what would the world look like?

Well, the future can never be fixed completely because that sort of represents the end of history, which isn't going to happen. Every fix creates new problems. A better future would be one in which these companies are more regulated, where there's a level playing field, where there's more innovation, where you don't have a coterie of enormously powerful companies. A better digital world would be one in which we have some sort of cultural understanding when using technology to enlighten ourselves rather than narrow our visions of the world, the sort of echo chamber culture. So there's much that can be improved.

This article is an online exclusive.

About the author
Portrait of Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan is Editor-in-Chief of Think:Act magazine. She has been a business journalist for nearly two decades in various puplications in India and China, including a stint in the founding team of Forbes magazine in India.
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Warschau Office, Central Europe