There is something deeply wrong with this book. The problem is not the subject matter. The Internet Is Not the Answer is an attack on the way a crude ideology of “winner-takes-all” capitalism is shaping the Internet today through companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, and, more revealingly, through newer companies like Instagram, Uber and the shadowy data intelligence endeavour Palantir. In picking these targets, Andrew Keen is justified and his chosen subject matter is interesting and timely. Instead, the problem with The Internet Is Not the Answer has to do with the form of the argument, because Keen deploys some really bad modes of persuasion that undermine much that is good about this book.
That might read like snobbery. If so, I should clarify what type of snobbery. I am not promoting a technophobia that wants to ignore the Internet and longs for “quieter” media. Nor am I promoting an academic snobbery that thinks “popular” writing like Keen’s is generally just bad. Instead, I am committing to the view that arguments are better without fallacies, that reflective writing is better than hasty writing when it comes to matters of socio-economic criticism, and that better popular books are available on the issues covered by this one.
My real bugbear is the way these weaknesses undermine some strong content. Chapter six of this book, for example, is a solid account of how free content threatens sustainability and diversity in journalism, academia, and the music industry; while I disagree with some of Keen’s conclusions here, I can at least admire his attempts at being thorough. Other highlights include a nicely ironic account of how digital surveillance might learn from the analogue methods of the Stasi (pp 162-168), a withering account of how Silicon Valley encourages a disingenuous “Epic Fail” ideology (pp 184-208), and a chapter on the fate of Kodak in the wake of platforms like Instagram that reads as high quality investigative journalism (pp 75-99).
Now for what tarnishes Keen’s case. First, The Internet Is Not the Answer is littered with fallacies: when Keen attacks Internet entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, Michael Birch and Jeff Bezos, his arguments are ad hominem, rather than directed at infrastructural problems in the companies in which these individuals invest (the worst example of this is the repeated use of “autistic” as a term of abuse for Mark Zuckerberg). Further, Keen repeatedly indulges crude appeals to authority when namedropping authors like Nicholas Carr and Dave Eggers as evidence for his own conclusions. Further still, it is arguable that his whole approach involves fallacies of equivocation and reification (i.e. he doesn’t specify what he means by “the Internet”, nor how it differs from the “Web”, “Web 2.0”, or “social media”; instead, he treats “the Internet” as a shadowy and technologically deterministic force).
There is also evidence that this book has been hastily written. Chapters one and two gloss heavily from Naughton’s Brief History of the Future and Stone’s Everything Store respectively and, more damningly, Keen repeatedly conflates author’s headlines with their arguments, as when writing:
On Amazon … top reviewers get sent a ton of free merchandise, which inevitably affects their reviews.
Lisa Chow, ‘Top Reviewers on Amazon Get Tons of Free Stuff’.
These might seem like pedantic or minor points, but, cumulatively, they exemplify what I think is “deeply wrong” with this book. Put simply, we need better popular books to argue for similar conclusions to those of The Internet Is Not the Answer, but according to better standards of persuasion. Happily, such books are readily available: Gleick’s The Information, Morozov’s To Save Everything, and Wu’s The Big Switch, for example. At best, The Internet Is Not the Answer is a good primer for these.