Andrew Keen: Tech Elites Cannot Ignore Inequality

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Dear Arianna, Travis, Reid, Ben, Max and every brilliant DLD’er,

First, I want to congratulate you for your remarkable achievements. I spent last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where the network revolution — your revolution — is now disrupting every traditional consumer industry from healthcare to education to automotive to fashion. Your digital revolution — the greatest technological transformation since the 19th-century industrial revolution — is now changing everything.

Andrew Keen is a commentator and author

And yet it’s still only just the beginning. By 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices and by 2025 almost everyone in the world will be connected. A universal Internet of Things and the Internet of People are now inevitable.

But there’s another beginning too. One with which we are all less comfortable. For all your sophisticated technologies, we don’t quite know where all this is going in social, economic or political terms. As 2015 DLD’er Andrew McAfee has warned in his prescient book The Second Machine Age, one of the most troubling consequences of the great digital disruption is on employment. Others have warned about its corrosive impact upon economic inequality, privacy and the fostering of dangerous new monopolists like Google and Amazon.

Some of you will say that this is none of your business — that your job is simply to innovate, to build the companies and technologies that are now transforming the world. Indeed, some of you — like the 2013 DLD’er Peter Thiel — actually welcomes monopolies; as Theil argued in his 2014 book Zero To One that they benefit society. Thiel presents tech entrepreneurs like his PayPal co-founder Elon Musk as Übermensch, above traditional laws or norms, driving society forward.

The Same Laws As Everyone Else

But, of course, none of you really are Übermensch. As has become increasingly obvious in 2014, you are subject to the same political and moral laws as everyone else. Zero to One is Thiel’s libertarian fantasy. But for the way in which the world is actually viewing all of you, Hero to Zero might be a better description.

In 2015, expect the public spotlight to shine even more relentlessly upon the impact of your companies on society. In 2015, expect more legal challenges to your power, more antitrust investigations, more books like mine arguing that the Internet is not the answer.

No, don’t hold up your hands and claim innocence. There’s this illusion among some of you that your revolution is eliminating power, that the old top-down hierarchies of the industrial age are being replaced by distributed peer-to-peer networks. But power hasn’t gone away. And now it increasingly resides with you. Google is now more powerful than Microsoft ever was. Rather than a democratizing peer-to-peer taxi cab service, Uber is a $40 billion gamble to monopolize the world’s transportation networks. If anything, the digital revolution has concentrated power into the hands of a tiny coterie of people like you, the owners and operators of today’s network platforms.

Like it or not, you are the new elite — the 21st-century versions of Leland Stanford, Dale Carnegie and George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. And with all your new power comes responsibility and accountability. Yes, the social, economic and political consequences — the dislocation, the unemployment, the inequality — of the digital revolution are your business. And rather than looking forward, your challenge is to look backwards, to learn from the past, particularly from the behavior of your most immediate ancestors — the barons of the industrial age.

2015: Eclipse of Today’s Digital Robber Baron Culture

Let me end with, to excuse the pun, a snapshot of your challenge. George Eastman, the Kodak founder, was the Mark Zuckerberg of the late 19th century and his company was the Instagram of the industrial age. Kodak created tens of thousands of jobs in Rochester, NY (140,000 at its peak) and Eastman invested massively in his city, financing the local university and even opening up his home to local people on Sundays for classical music concerts.

In contrast, rather than opening up his home to the local community in Palo Alto, Zuckerberg has bought the adjoining houses to protect his own privacy. Rather than creating jobs, he acquired WhatsApp for $20 billion, a software company that at the time only employed 55 people. And rather than integrating Facebook into the local community, he has invested in a multi-billion-dollar Frank Gehry-designed office complex disconnected from everything around it.

So let’s hope 2015 represents the beginning of the real revolution in accountability. Let’s hope that 2015 marks the eclipse of today’s digital robber baron culture and its replacement by more grown-up entrepreneurs who take responsibility for all the consequences of their disruption.

Happy New Year everyone! It’s only the beginning.


Andrew Keen’s latest book The Internet Is Not The Answer was published in January.




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