Is technology-based innovation, long seen as our best hope for improving quality of life, developing sustainable energy sources and equalising global economic opportunities, actually making things worse?
That, at least, has become an increasingly popular view in the past few years. It’s now fashionable to blame social ills old, new and still to come on the relentless spread of disruptive tech. Start-up culture, we are told, is misogynistic, ageist, amoral and deeply irresponsible. Social media is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” (a former Facebook executive says, as reported by the Verge) and “a direct threat” to democracy (eBay founder Pierre Omidyar wrote in The Washington Post). Smartphones are dangerously “addictive” (Paul Lewis, in the Guardian newspaper).
It’s not just anti-tech activists who are feeding flames of discontent. Many of Silicon Valley’s first-generation internet tycoons have now become some of its most vocal critics — especially for new products and services launched by a younger generation of start-ups.
Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff has denounced Facebook as carcinogenic and says its social media products should be regulated like tobacco. Tesla’s Elon Musk believes advances in artificial intelligence present a “fundamental risk to the existence of civilisation.” Billionaire George Soros recently called Google a “menace” to society.
But the new book How to Fix the Future, by longtime tech critic Andrew Keen, avoids simplistic condemnations, offering instead a progressive plan to ease the growing discomfort with emerging technologies that only a few years ago were being celebrated. The book provides compelling examples of ongoing experiments addressing new ways of developing and integrating socially responsible technology into our lives, especially in media, government and education.
I asked Keen, whose earlier books Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo and The internet is Not the Answer relentlessly mocked the digerati, if he’s feeling vindicated or usurped by the recent anti-tech backlash.
“Actually, I feel a little relieved,” he said. “People sometimes tell me, as a kind of backhanded compliment, that they agree with 60 per cent of what I write. To which I reply: ‘And so do I.’ My point is that nobody ever gets the future right. It’s a lot of good luck. My only trick is to think against the crowd. I’m not sure it’s a smart strategy, but it’s fun.”
Keen has an odd notion of fun. His previous work veered into the polemic, puncturing bloated tech utopianism that until recently filled the air in Silicon Valley. He revelled in exposing the platitudes and hyperbole of billionaire entrepreneurs and investors who believed their good fortune came with a licence to bore everyone with their vision of the future, often based on little more than an inflated sense of genius.
In The internet is Not the Answer, for example, Keen quoted one hapless chief executive who promised that his company’s new software app would soon “learn how to cure diseases, create cheap renewable energy, and perform the jobs that employ most human beings.”
A venture capitalist backed by tech luminary Peter Thiel likewise told Keen that his companies were becoming “the eminent vehicles for change and influence, and capital structures that matter.” If the government shuts down, he predicted confidently, “nothing happens, and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter.”’
But How to Fix the Future doesn’t just throw more cold water on tech’s juvenile excess. Keen earnestly proposes solutions. Through a combination of stricter regulation, socially responsible innovation, targeted philanthropy from tech investors, new social safety nets and educational systems reinvented for the 21st century, Keen genuinely believes that, yes, we can fix the future.
Surprisingly, his best evidence of progress comes from outside Northern California, where Keen has lived for more than two decades. Keen has spent the past few years travelling the globe, reporting on governments, business leaders and ordinary citizens outside the tech bubble as they adapt to an accelerating pace of change and embrace new disrupters without undermining basic social institutions.
Many of Keen’s examples will be unfamiliar to most readers, including innovations in joint public-private initiatives in Estonia, Switzerland, Singapore, India and other far-flung digital outposts.
In Estonia, for example, the government has reinvented itself as an efficient digital service, coordinating everything from electronic identification to citizen oversight in a fully transparent society. But can Estonia’s experiment scale in a fast-changing global economy? Well, maybe.
“What the Estonians are doing in reinventing a digital social contract between citizens and government isn’t necessarily replicable in large countries like the US,” Keen says. “But it can be replicated at the state level — particularly in small states. For example, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo recently told me that her digital reforms were inspired by the Estonian model.”
Whether pro or con, Keen is one of the most engaging storytellers in tech journalism. Still, some of his recommendations are a little thin on practicalities. Like many newly awoken tech policy advocates, he wildly oversimplifies the difficulties of designing and enforcing new regulations aimed at controlling rapidly evolving industries.
He praises efforts by the European Union, for example, to hobble companies — including Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix — with large fines and vague remedies. Yet Keen fails to note that these are all US-based companies, which may be the principal reason European regulators are attacking them. The EU’s highly regulated economies, after all, have yet to produce a single tech giant of their own.
While Keen lauds the trendy idea of a government-funded minimum income to offset job losses from robots and artificial intelligence, he acknowledges that in Switzerland, the only country so far to vote on the idea, nearly 80 per cent of voters rejected it outright. History, Keen says, is the best guide to overcoming technology’s discontents. The United States and Europe were “reasonably effective” in responding to an earlier tech crisis — the industrial revolution. With civilisation “on the edge of violence,” Keen says, even conservative governments passed laws protecting child labour, Social Security, national insurance and labour unions.
“Today, as we edge toward the kind of class divisions and inequalities of late-19th-century industrial society,” he says, “we would be wise to remind ourselves of those examples.”
Unlike many of the tech luminaries he once satirised, Keen has become hopeful about the future. He hasn’t exactly come to praise tech, but he’s no longer trying to bury it, either. And even if his fixes aren’t fully fleshed out, at least he’s pitching.
— Washington Post
Larry Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation (Portfolio 2014). He is a project director at the Georgetown Centre for Business and Public Policy.