If the Internet is not the answer, what is?

Book: The Internet is Not the Answer

Author: Andrew Keen

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, New York City

277 pages, $25

Communication scholars over the last decade have been unabashed in their claims of the Internet’s potential to transform society through its unique capacity to digitize, store and transmit mass amounts of information as well as its potential for the creation of user-generated content. And although both scholars and the public at large generally agree the Internet has been a good thing for the progression of the human race, Andrew Keen, an entrepreneur and columnist for CNN, vehemently disagrees.

In The Internet Is Not the Answer he argues that the Internet is creating a two-tier caste system, eroding middle-class jobs for the sake of profit. Or, as he writes in the preface, “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. Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer.”

While Keen’s argument is brazen, it nevertheless deserves consideration. After all, if the Internet is responsible for causing more societal harm than good, the public should stand up and take note. The keyword though is “if,” considering Keen has the daunting task of backing up his controversial stance with sound evidence and reasoning. Recognizing the scope of this challenge, Atlantic Monthly Press, the publisher, provided Keen with 277 pages to defend his position.

Keen’s writing style is frantic and the logic of the book follows suit. Relying on broad strokes to paint reality and combine distinct concepts, Keen covers an astonishing amount of ground including everything from Amazon’s and Google’s destructive tendencies on society to the demise of the music industry and Kodak. Keen’s fondness for brevity leaves little time for a thorough exploration between the ideas being presented and often forces him to rely too much on anecdotal evidence to support his claims. This can be problematic when discussing complex and abstract issues such as the economy.

The larger the claim being made by the author, logically it follows then, the greater the expectation by the audience for sound reasoning and evidence to support it. Unfortunately, this is where Keen ultimately fails, as he simply cannot meet the claim that the book’s title suggests. Keen’s penchant for brevity leaves too many factors completely unaccounted for in his frantic race to tie every economic problem to the Internet. Any fair and impartial assessment should also consider factors such as globalization, capital flight, tax havens, regional and international trade agreements, tariffs, and trade imbalances, as well as numerous financial considerations such as currency devaluation or U.S. foreign debt. Unfortunately, Keen does not address such factors.

While the book does not live up to its lofty goals of proving the Internet is responsible for most of society’s economic problems, it nevertheless should not be automatically dismissed. For example, Keen’s account of Amazon’s business practices is thought-provoking and should cause readers to question their loyalty to the company. In that regard, readers more interested in gaining an overall better picture of how many of today’s top Internet companies operate will likely enjoy this book. Those more interested in its economic considerations should take a pass. In the end, The Internet Is Not the Answer demonstrates that while Keen is a talented writer and is asking many of the right questions, he is not an economist, nor does he have the necessary answers.