Surveillance Capitalism Is Dead

A Talk with Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen speaking at TEDxBerlin in 2015. Photo credit: redonion_TEDx / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Andrew Keen is the Anthony Bourdain of technology. The author, entrepreneur and futurist has traveled the far corners of the world to see what works and what doesn’t. He has seen the internet reflecting both the best and the worst of us, and concluded that we and our technology need to grow up.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Keen talks to Jeff Schechtman about the next chapters in the digital revolution.

Keen reminds us that we’ve been here before. The digital revolution is not that dissimilar from revolutions and changes that preceded it. But “history is not an algorithm.”

To shape technology — before it shapes us — will take human agency to make the kind of changes that will allow us to define ourselves in contrast to our machines.

Keen outlines five tools to fix our digital future. Among them, we need to address inequality, jobs and education, he says, and we need to bring humanity back into the sciences. He admonishes us that, while our technological future may be global, Silicon Valley is not the center of the world. Important trends are happening elsewhere.

He also talks extensively about how consumers have been turned into a digital product, in what he calls “Surveillance Capitalism.” He argues that this business model cannot continue to work: we need to stop thinking of the digital world as free, and start paying for everything from the internet itself — just as we pay for food, clothing and cars. We need to take responsibility for our digital future and not leave it to others. Finally, we’re left with the reminder that, as far as technology goes, the really important stuff is yet to come.

Andrew Keen is the author of How To Fix the Future (Atlantic Monthly Press, February 2018), The Internet Is Not the Answer (Grove Press, January 2016), and The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values (Doubleday, August 2008).


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Jeff Schechtman:Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Back at the invention of writing, Socrates worried that it would destroy memory and undermine the oral tradition. The pushback to the printing press worried many. For those old enough to remember, the fear of television was once pervasive. It was the boob tube, the vast wasteland, and of course we fragmented over other great changes, including the great migration and the move from a rural, agrarian culture to an urban, industrial revolution.
All of these changes came with great promise and predicted, as well as unintended, consequences. Why should we think, then, that the internet, that the digital revolution would be any different? As someone once said, “History may not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.”
My guest Andrew Keen has, with an objective eye, been following this history since the dawn of the information age. He wrote about the democratization of information in his book The Cult of the Amateur. In other books, he warned us how social media, rather than bringing us together, would fragment us and feed into narcissism. Now, in his new book How to Fix the Future, he pulls together all the consequences of technology. He shows us what Joan Didion once said of Southern California, that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.
It is my pleasure to welcome Andrew Keen to talk about his new book How to Fix the Future. Andrew, thanks so much for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Andrew Keen:Thank you, Jeff, that was such an amazing introduction I think you probably wrote my book for me.
Jeff Schechtman:Thank you for that. I appreciate it. One of the key points that you make, and really, what I was trying to get at, is this sense that in so many ways we’ve been here before, that what we don’t bring to this and what you certainly do in How to Fix the Future, is a sense of historical understanding. Talk about that first.
Andrew Keen:Yeah, I think, and maybe this is a criticism of our schools or our culture, is that we forget that much of history is, as you say, it may not exactly repeat itself but it chimes, it rhymes. The digital revolution, in many ways, is a kind of repeat or another chapter in the disruptive industrial revolution of the 19th century in the way it’s undermining our jobs, changing the way we work, creating more and more inequality between the very rich and the very poor, and many other things. That’s one of the things I point out in this book, is that to figure out our digital future we need to understand not only our industrial past, but how we’ve coped with other profound changes throughout history.
The great issue in my book, I argue, or the great issue for us today, is human agency, is shaping technology before it shapes us.
Jeff Schechtman:There’s also kind of a catch 22 in that as we try to shape it, as we try to understand it, the landscape is changing around us. The technology continues to change, so that we’re dealing with it … It’s almost like building the parachute on the way down.
Andrew Keen:Yeah, but that’s true always, is that history is not a straight road, it’s not a line of code, it’s not an algorithm, it’s not a machine. History is made up of many different stories about human beings. I quote Emmanuel Kant, the Prussian philosopher, 18th century Prussian philosopher at the beginning of the book, who spoke about humanity being crooked. We are, by definition, crooked, and history is also therefore crooked. What I’m trying to figure out is the crookedness of history. I think we like it, particularly in America, to be simpler, more straightforward, more, if you like, algorithmic, and that’s a fundamental error.
Jeff Schechtman:As we examine the changes that are going on, a couple of the bigger problems that you identify and you’ve mentioned a couple. One is the economic inequality that has grown as a result of this digital framework. The questions about the role of government to some of these companies get bigger and bigger, and also what it means for jobs going forward.
Andrew Keen:Jobs is enormous. Jobs is perhaps the greatest issue facing if not humanity, certainly advanced societies today. We have invented smart machines that replicate us in many ways. These smart machines are going to get smarter and more powerful. It’s a great invention, perhaps human beings’ greatest invention. Some people argue it’s our last invention because once these machines acquire a consciousness of their own, we’ll become their slaves. That’s another book, another issue. I’m not sure that’s quite true at the moment, but certainly these machines are smart enough to drive cars, to serve hamburgers, to figure out when we’re sick, to read law books, maybe even to teach. Perhaps, even, to write books and do radio interviews.
The great question is, in this world of increasingly smart machines, what are we going to do? What are you and I going to do that allows us to actually work and have a wage and support our family and feed and clothe ourselves? This is a fundamental issue. In some ways, it’s the same issue we went through in the industrial revolution. Everyone worked on the land. Everyone grew food. Then, we invented technology which meant that machines could do most of that, what did we all do? We ended up in factories which was pretty brutal, but then there were lots of reforms, lots of changes and industrial work became better and more sanitized. The same may be true of the digital age.
It’s going to take a long time to work this thing out. There is no algorithm to fix the future. There is no app that can say, “Okay, all this stuff’s fixed.” It’s long, complicated and dirty.
Jeff Schechtman:Some of it goes to the heart of what we are. As you talk about, there’s really a fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Andrew Keen:Absolutely, and as I argue in the book, there is no universal explanation for this. Every generation thinks of what it means to be human differently. I argue in the book that, given that we’ve invented these smart machines, these thinking machines that replicate much of what we do, being human these days means defining ourselves in contrast to these smart machines. Being human means having agency. Being human means having empathy, being creative, and doing stuff that computers can’t do.
Computers can program. They have a huge amount of information. They can crunch numbers and information. They can learn the law books and the medicine books. They can drive cars and they can flip hamburgers, but they may struggle to have this kind of spontaneous conversation. Computers don’t know how to look after old people. They don’t know how to love. They don’t know how to have sympathy. These may be some of the things that we need to concentrate on in our digital age.
Jeff Schechtman:One of the places that we need to be looking at that is in the area of education. You look at some education models with an eye towards how that might be a window into this.
Andrew Keen:Yeah. I argue in the book that we’ve always had five tools for fixing the future, five broad tools: regulation, innovation, consumer activism, civic engagement and education. Education is, of course, the biggest. It’s also the most amorphous. Our culture tends to dump everything on teachers, and when we can’t figure out how to fix something we say, “Well, the teacher should be fixing that.”
That’s a problem. We need to invest, and I’m certainly not the first or the last person to argue this. We need to invest a lot more resources and time and thought into our schools, but I do look at the education system and suggest that some of the more innovative school systems, the Montessori or the Waldorf school systems are the ones that are working now. It’s no coincidence that the Waldorf school system, which discourages, even bans the use of screens in preschool and in first grade, these are very fashionable in Silicon Valley.
The titans of Silicon Valley are not encouraging their kids to use iPads or iPhones. In fact, Steve Jobs wouldn’t allow them to have them in the house. I also look at some interesting education experiments in Singapore, merging the humanities and engineering. What we need to do is bring the humanities back into the sciences, bring the two together.
I have a long education chapter where I spend time not only in some schools in California, but universities in Singapore and other schools around the world. It’s a fundamentally important issue for us to resolve.
Jeff Schechtman:The interesting question is that this is a global problem in so many respects, but as we look at the way it’s being addressed and dealt with throughout the globe, there are really different approaches taking shape, and the hope, I suppose, is that we’ll begin to find or to see glimmers of some best practices along the way.
Andrew Keen:Yeah, I think that’s a very fair point, Jeff, and I went into this book understanding that. Silicon Valley, of course, is revolutionizing the world with its disruptive technology, amazing technology but also in some ways problematic. But not all the solutions, not all the fixes to this new world are coming out of Silicon Valley. In fact, in some ways very few are coming out of Silicon Valley.
I did a year’s worth of research. I traveled around the world to write this book. I went to Estonia, I went to Singapore, I went to Germany, I went to India. I talked to over a hundred venture capitalists and activists and entrepreneurs and regulators, and I think that the solution to the future, the way to fix the future is now something that’s taking place on the global canvas. Americans and particularly people in Silicon Valley tend to be a little bit parochial. They tend to not be very good at looking outside. They just assume they’re the center of the world.
In business and technological terms, they are, but when it comes to regulation, for example, the Europeans are leading. When it comes to civic activism, there’s all sorts of things going on around the world. When it comes to governments employing strategies to figure out new social contracts on data and privacy and the leading countries are Singapore and Estonia. This is an aggressively global book. Every chapter features examples from my travels. There’s no theory here in terms of fixing the future, it’s all practice.
I didn’t just sit in a room and say, “Oh, now we need block chain or now we need this app or that app.” I went out in the world and I talked to real people who were coming up with real fixes to all these issues.
Jeff Schechtman:In looking at that global view, one of the things that becomes abundantly clear, I think, is that America is no longer the leader, that we’re kind of stuck in terms of how to address all this.
Andrew Keen:Yeah. We have to be a little careful. Americans tend to either enjoy thinking America is the greatest country in the world, or the worst country in the world, and I don’t think either of those are true. Certainly, in terms of this, there is interesting stuff going on in America. I have a chapter where I talk about some of the innovation going on in Oakland, California, around the progressive venture capital firm run by a woman called Freada Kapor Klein, who are doing really interesting work.
I quote a very prominent venture capitalist in New York, John Borthwick who runs Betaworks who’s trying to innovate here, as well, so there is a lot of stuff, we’re already seeing it. I didn’t include it so much in the book but now we’re getting a kind of resistance movement in Silicon Valley to what’s going on. Whether it’s Roger McNamee, original investor in Facebook, or a guy called Tristan Harris who used to work for Google, who has now become one of Google’s biggest critics. Stuff is going on in America, but it’s not just in America.
You’re absolutely right. The internet has become global and I think, whereas somebody like Mark Zuckerberg likes to imagine the internet as one global community because it benefits him, actually the splintering of the internet, what some people call the Splinternet, in my view isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a European tradition, there’s a Singapore tradition, an Estonian tradition and they’re all different in the same way as all these cultures are different. That doesn’t mean that I celebrate some of the darker corners of digital society.
I’m very critical in the book of what’s happening in Russia, and Putin’s attempt to kind of use the internet to undermine our cultural and political institutions. I’m also very critical of what’s happening in China. I admire much of the economic innovation in China but China is now experimenting with a kind of digital totalitarian system where its citizens will be watched and valued in everything they do. That’s certainly nothing to be celebrated, but in overall terms, the internet reflects us as human beings.
We’re diverse, we’re crooked, so it should be, too. Globalism has often, unfortunately, particularly in Silicon Valley, been a smoke screen for world domination by a Facebook or a Google or an Amazon or an Apple.
Jeff Schechtman:Which brings us to another part of the problem that you identify, and I want to talk a little bit about the nexus between all the things that we’ve been discussing and the business models, which you call, kind of, “surveillance capitalism” that has really been at the core of Silicon Valley.
Andrew Keen:Yeah, I think this is a huge problem. I use the example of the car industry. In the ’50s, some of your listeners will remember, the American car industry dominated the world. There was barely a German car industry or a Japanese car industry and American cars dominated not just the roads here but everywhere. Now, of course, we know that’s no longer the case. What’s happened? American car manufacturers increasingly design products that looked great, that were very sexy, but were essentially death traps.
Ralph Nader famously exposed this in his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. They were designing products that weren’t friendly to consumers, that ultimately consumers didn’t want. Not only American consumers, but consumers around the world turned against American cars and enabled the rise of dominance today of the German and the Japanese automotive industry.
I fear the same with the Silicon Valley business model, which is giving these amazing products like Google or Facebook for free, and they are amazing. We all love them. We all use them all the time, but essentially turning us into the product, because the reason these companies are so wealthy, they’re two of the five most powerful and most highly valued companies in the world, is they essentially collect our data and sell our data, maybe not individually … It’s not all [well? 00:15:54], but it’s also very disturbing. They essentially, by knowing us better and better, they’re able to pinpoint advertising, and both these companies are advertising companies.
Google is, for example, I think 96, 97 percent of its revenue is still from advertising. Ultimately, that business model is what people call surveillance capitalism. It doesn’t work in the long term, because eventually consumers are going to wake up and turn against it, in the same way as consumers woke up and turned against the American car industry.
In the long run, I don’t believe that the business model at the heart of Silicon Valley, which, as I said, is a kind of surveillance capitalism, works. That doesn’t mean all Silicon Valley companies pursue this business model. Apple, for example, doesn’t. Apple is not really a big data company. Apple sells its products. We buy iPhones. We buy iMacs.
Amazon also has a different business model, but I think the business models driving many Silicon Valley companies, from Twitter to Facebook to Google, is, in the long run, unsustainable.
Jeff Schechtman:What’s interesting is that those companies have been sold to us always with this kind of highfalutin dream that it’s going to bring the world together, that it’s going to democratize information. It’s always with some grand sounding idea that they hope helps create buy-in.
Andrew Keen:Yeah, and I think, to be fair to Larry Page at Google or Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, I think they genuinely believe it. I don’t think these people are lying consciously, although I think their marketing departments have used this language to confuse and distract us. The original sort of myth, if you like, or certainly the dream of the internet was democratization, bringing everyone together, enabling free information, and look what we have today.
We have more and more discord. We have more closing of newspapers, the undermining of information. We have Donald Trump taking over Twitter and creating a world of such confusion that more and more people are unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy. I think they’re profoundly wrong, and I think, as I’ve argued for many years now, since 2007 when I wrote Cult of the Amateur, we need to pay for our information, for our content, and for our online products in the same way as we pay for our food or our rent or our cars or our transportation.
The problem is that we have been conveniently deceived, and most of us are not uncomfortable with that. Most of us think that we as consumers somehow deserve free products, and of course we don’t, and in that sense, we’re the mugs. We’ve got to grow up ourselves. We can’t just blame Facebook or Google. We’ve got to acknowledge, for example, that if we want an amazing search engine like Google, we’d be much better off just paying for it. Pay $10, $15 a month and then be guaranteed our privacy rather than having this thing for free and have a company like Google mining our data more and more intimately.
Jeff Schechtman:In many ways, it seems like that’s contributed to the lack of respect for facts and information because it’s a little bit of “you get what you pay for”. It’s only by paying for something that you begin to respect that information.
Andrew Keen:Yeah. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, I talk about this in the book. He’s unwilling to acknowledge that Facebook is a media company, which of course it is. We publish stuff on Facebook and Facebook, as a platform, distributes that information around the world. There’s more and more controversy about this because we know that Putin’s trolls, for example, have been taking advantage of this self-publishing platform to spread lies and disinformation. What Zuckerberg needs to do, and he’s tip-toeing towards this, to be fair to him, is he needs to acknowledge that, like a newspaper or a radio station or a publishing house, we need editors. We need curators. We need people to check that the people who are claiming to write something and put something on audio or video, that they’re actually who they say they are.
The same is true of YouTube. YouTube, it’s increasingly clear, has become an enormously powerful channel for disinformation, for people spreading lies, particularly from Moscow, but elsewhere. These lies tend to be often not only divisive but very unpleasant. Racist lies, sexist lies, anti-American lies, anti-European lies for that matter, anti-democracy lies.
We need editors. We need human beings, not machines, to figure out whether something can or can’t be published and whether the person actually claiming to be publishing it is who they say they are. That seems to be obvious, and I think that, ultimately, Facebook has to acknowledge it’s a media company and take responsibility. Be accountable. The way to fix the future is for these companies to grow up and be accountable. They’re beginning to recognize this. It’s still going to take some work, books like the one I’ve just written, these kinds of conversations, but I think they’re beginning to understand their responsibility.
Jeff Schechtman:Are there other grown-ups in the room, giving this sort of naïve sometimes and youthful nature of Silicon Valley, where do we look for the grown-ups?
Andrew Keen:I think there are more and more grown- ups, actually, in the room. There are even grown-ups, you may be surprised to hear this, in Silicon Valley. There are billionaire grown-ups even, I think. Reed Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn is someone I respect. I’ve known him a long time. I think he’s trying to do good. I think, as I said, Freada Kapor Klein over in Oakland, and the venture firm she’s founded with people like Ben Jealous who’s now running for governor of Maryland. Her husband, Mitch Kapor, who was the founder of Lotus Notes.
There are more and more of the ex-cheerleaders who are becoming grown- ups. Roger McNamee, for example, very prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was an early investor in Facebook, made a fortune through it, but now has turned against it. He’s been writing more and more op-eds telling Facebook that it has to become accountable, that the technology that the company has designed or the products designed around it being addictive, and they have to be responsible for how people use it and why they use it.
Mark Benioff, the CEO of salesforce.com, a multi-billionaire. I think he’s a grown-up. He made a speech at Davos recently, telling companies like Facebook and Google that they need to grow up. I think that the zeitgeist has changed. That was one of the reasons I wrote this book. I’ve been arguing for 10 years that something’s gone wrong in Silicon Valley. At first I was part of a very small minority of people. I was accused of being an elitist, out of touch, not getting stuff.
I think that was very unfair because I’m a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and I’m anything but a Luddite, but now everyone’s beginning to say the same thing that I’ve been arguing for 10 years. Now, the challenge is not pointing out the problems but getting down to the fixes, figuring out how to fix the future, which is why I’ve written this book. Rather than concentrating on the problems, we need to come up with the fixes, and I think we need to reward and acclaim people like Roger McNamee, who are coming out now and saying, “Look, I was wrong. I may have made a fortune, but now I’m going to try and make the world a better place.”
Jeff Schechtman:It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of whether people respond or push back as more and more of Silicon Valley becomes a kind of punching bag, as there’s more attacks on Silicon Valley in both the cultural and political realm right now.
Andrew Keen:I fear that Silicon Valley is … The problem is that it’s very easy in America in particular to go from being this, sort of, ideal place of innovation and wealth and happiness, to being the worst place. The same happened, I think, to Wall Street. Wall Street is an important generator of wealth in the US. It certainly has many problems, but it’s not something you would want to shut down. The same is true of Silicon Valley, so I think it’s particularly important for the grown-ups in Silicon Valley, the Roger McNamees, the Mark Benioffs, the Reed Hoffmans, to begin to take responsibility.
This is also particularly true, I think: we need more women leaders. One of the problems with Silicon Valley is it’s become one of the worst kind of boys’ clubs. That’s why we need more permanent women. Freada Kapor Klein is one example of women who now are arguing that the way for Silicon Valley to grow up is not only to take responsibility but to change their kind of HR architecture, so that women and minorities have power.
At the moment it’s a white boys club producing products for white boys. That’s one of the reasons why Uber went so wrong.
Jeff Schechtman:One of the other aspects of this is remembering, I suppose, that we’re really still just at the infancy of all of this, that there’s so much going on now in terms of AI, in terms of robotics, self-driving cars. There’s a lot more to come.
Andrew Keen:Oh my God, you’ve got the old baseball metaphor: what inning are we in? It always comes up in Silicon Valley interviews. I have a show and I often ask people, and it’s very rare for anyone to suggest we’re anything beyond the third or the fourth inning here. Smart machines are going to change everything. AI’s going to change everything, virtual reality, augmented reality. Increasingly, human beings are going to become indistinguishable from computers. We’ll ingest computers. We may augment our brains and our physical parts. We’re still in an early stage. I just did an interview with a prominent German executive. He’s the CEO of Burda Media, the third largest media group in Germany.
I said to him, “Where are we?” I tried to develop the baseball metaphor. He said, “Look, I don’t know baseball but I do know soccer” — which, in Germany, of course, is called football — and he said, “We’re in the 60th minute.”
As I’m sure you know, a soccer or football game lasts 90 minutes, but the Germans in particular who are masters at strategy, always know that things only really happen after the 60th minute. In other words, what he’s saying is, wherever we are, whether it’s the 50th minute or the 60th minute, the third or the fourth inning, the really important stuff is yet to come. The game is yet to be determined. Nothing has been decided.
Jeff Schechtman:It’s the Mark Zuckerberg line about moving fast and breaking things. We’re kind of at the point where we have to start to fix things.
Andrew Keen:Absolutely. That’s why we’re in the 60th minute. We need to fix things, but at the same time we have to keep moving. Moore’s Law, Gordon Moore’s Law still drives us forward. That’s why in the book I introduce another kind of Moore’s Law, Thomas Moore, who wrote Utopia, who spoke about … The 16th century English writer of Utopia, who wrote about the centrality of human agency in determining our fate socially. We need two kinds of Moore’s Law in the world: the Moore’s Law that is disrupting and changing everything, Gordon Moore’s Law, the law which means that computer chips double their power every 18 months which is driving everything forward.
A more human law is Moore’s Law which is the title of my first chapter in the book. The focus is on what it means to be human in the development of agency, of creating a world which we shape rather than that world shaping us.
Jeff Schechtman:Andrew Keen. His new book is How to Fix the Future. Andrew, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Andrew Keen:As always, Jeff, that was a fabulous interview. I really appreciate and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Jeff Schechtman:Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes.
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