Andrew Keen: How to fix the future

Andrew Keen has a fix for digital's problems - and it starts 500 years ago. A liveblog of his talk at NEXT18.


Andrew Keen is one of the world’s best known and controversial commentators on the digital revolution. He is the author of four books: Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo, international hit The Internet Is Not The Answer, and his latest book How To Fix The Future.

NEXT is focusing on fixing digital. And it’s publishing a book about it. Too late, mine’s already out. Germans always come second – and sometimes it’s better to come second, and to re-engineer things.

Both NEXT and I are thinking alike – about fixing things. And that means something is broken. I’ve been writing about this for nearly 15 years.

You Germans know the unintended nature of history – there is no will at the heart of this. There is no evil person. Even Mark Zuckerberg isn’t evil; stupid or naive perhaps, but not evil. Digital is not intrinsically wrong.

Right at the beginning, when we were stumbling around San Francisco intoxicated with digital, we believed the internet would end history. It would be an utopian cornucopia, that would fix all ills. Like all utopians, we were wrong. It became clear to me that something was wrong with the beginning of the Web 2.0 era, and Google. It was all about doing away with curation, and bringing in everyone’s voice – but in the Cult of the Amateur I warned that this might do away with the idea of a fixed truth. In a way, it predicted fake news. Who are we going to rely on for an objective truth of the world?

Business model of surveillance capitalism

And there’s the business model, the model of free; aggregating our data, and then selling advertising against it. Google, Facebook, they’re all about advertising. We — you — are being turned into the product. In 2012 I critiqued social media, in Digital Vertigo. It’s not very social, it separates us, atomises us. It’s narcissistic. Trump is the real first digital president. His rise reflects all the characteristic of social media. The more we stare into this mirror the more addicted we became.

Despite the well-intentioned ideas of the internet’s entrepreneurs, the real economic result of the internet was a centralised, winner-takes-all economy. A few companies each dominate their own markets. It creates a monopolistic culture. And it doesn’t create jobs – it destroys them, and AI might start destroying even more of them. Most of us are going to experience a great deal of pain, much like the pain experienced in the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

Anyone who says that this “is the first time it has happened” should be struck down immediately. It shows a profound ignorance, a lack of knowledge of history. They’ve never read about the past.

The Digital Fixes

We all know Moore’s Law, that suggests that the processing power of computing chips will double every 18 months – that’s what drives disruption. I have an alternative More’s Law, borrowed from Utopia and Thomas More, its author. It was written 500 years ago, but it is still relevant today. It was a political tract in an era of great disruption. We were discovering that the universe does not revolve around us. The uncertainties of his age were captured in the great debate between Protestants and Catholics. The Lutherans believed in predestination, in a infinite God making us powerless. More reminded us that we have agency, and his tract was written against predestination.

That’s what we need to remember in today’s age of disruption. The 21st century can be a renaissance of humanity. Remember who we are. Remember our power. Remember our ability to determine our own destinies. If we lay back and think of England or Germany or Silicon Valley, we lose. If we fall to technological determinism, we lose. More’s law is the meta theme in the book.

Ada Lovelace, the business partner of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer, was the inventor of software and a remarkable businessperson. Software can’t think for itself, she suggested, it will always need to be told what to do. AI will never acquire its own consciousness. So, what can we do?

There is no simple fix, or app, or company that will fix it. Don Tapscott says it’s blockchain that will fix it – but he said that about the internet. In many ways blockchain is the internet compounded.

Here are my fixes:

1. Regulation

We cannot forget the value of regulation. Americans are wrong about most things, and they’re wrong about this: the Europeans are innovating in terms of regulation. Levelling the playing field is important to enable innovation. Today Europe is launching a monopoly investigation about Amazon. American has none of that. Obama was in thrall to Silicon Valley. There’s no American GDPR, to protect our data. The EU are treating these platforms as traditional media companies. The Safe Harbour clause in the USA’s Digital Millennium Act allowed the platforms to make money off user-generated content without any responsibility.

Without regulation in the Industrial Revolution, we’d be poisoned every time we went outside, and 11 year olds would still be working in factories.

2. Better innovation

Companies need to become respectful of their consumers, and their data. The food industry used to be exploitative, but has changed dramatically. Or the American car industry that used to produce death traps on wheels, and were out-competed by the Germans and Japanese, who put the consumer first. This is where German reengineering prowess can be valuable. Innovation is as important as regulation.

3. Consumer articulation

At the moment consumers are mute. But they’re starting to find their voice. It started with #deletefacebook. The younger people are fleeing Facebook, because they know how exploitative it is, because it’s distasteful, and it’s how Donald Trump won.

4. Citizen Power

Fight for the musician, for the cab drivers. Make sure they are paid properly. The responsibility of citizenship comes back to us. We have to architect a better digital age. We need to elect politicians who reflect our interests.

5. Education is key

All too often “it’s all down to education” means “we have no idea how to fix it”. Our education system in the Industrial Age was shaped around that age. It was about educating and disciplining a workforce for an orders-and-hierarchy society. The algorithm will replace much of what we do – but the computer can’t deliver creativity or provide empathy. They might be able to diagnose an illness, but they can’t sensitively deliver that news. They can’t do language that is meaningful without being mathematical. We don’t need rote learning, but learning about what it is to be human, to be creative, to be empathic.

We can’t fall back in cosmetic solutions, or on the solutions of the Industrial Age.

You know what you’ve got to do. Now, go and do it.