Friday, 11 May 2018

Is the internet good or bad? "Yes"

Is there a Moore’s Law for human progress?

Not according to the writer Andrew Keen and his new book How to Fix the Future. The power of computing doubles every few years, but according to Keen – or the daily news – human ethics don’t seem to show similar progress.

But what does that mean for the rest of society struggling to play “moral catch-up” with the tech giants? Today’s digitally mediated landscape often feels barren and toxic, plagued by fake news, social media turf wars and polarized communities. What’s the answer?

That’s the question that How to Fix the Future attempts to answer. Instead of doom mongering from an armchair, Keen talks to various people throughout this book who have a role to play in offering a future that’s different from the one Trump, Putin and Big Tech have dreamed of.

Keen, who I interviewed for VICE a few years ago, is the enfant terrible of the world of Silicon Valley – someone who became a tech-entrepreneur himself before turning to punditry and regularly turning the guns on the industry that cultivated him. Since his bestselling polemic The Cult of the Amateur in 2007 he’s been a kind of embedded reporter in the tech industry, offering gloomy prophecies about the threats to our privacy, creativity, finances and even our souls from the digital revolution.

How to Fix the Future asks big questions. How can we avoid the “surveillance capitalism” of Facebook? What about jobs, copyright, privacy? How will the flexible workers of the twenty first century form a union?

The book forms a series of interviews interlaced with reflections, and Keen hopes some of them will shed new light on complex topics.

He talks to movie/music producer Jonathan Taplin about ways to combat the “sharecrop”  profiteering of the streaming sites, such as a “creative strike” among artists, or the rise of sites like Patreon, Flattr and Blendle which allow artists to develop (remunerative) relationships with their consumers. All this is part of a wider picture of the rise of “platform co-operativism”, such as Uber drivers unionizing, in one of the first examples of a digital precariat learning from the lessons of the first industrial age.

In the same spirit Keen talks to former deputy Danish prime minister Margrethe Vestager about “productive regulation”, which sees the state as an important mediator between government and people in the digital economy. The aim isn’t to stifle the market: it’s actually to increase the chances for innovators to reach an audience in a less monopolized landscape.

This raises an interesting point. We all know the unregulated Wild West of the first tech boom was hardly great news for most of those outside Wall Street. But currently, attempts to oppose regulation of tech (and enforce taxation) meet a knee-jerk reaction: such proponents are branded as dreamy socialists and quickly dismissed.

Keen refutes this. In his opinion, as well as that of many of his interviewees, more regulation and decency in big tech would promote rather than stifle business – just as in the financial world minimum standards help to build the trust.

The overriding theme is a need for citizen agency in the digital economy a new kind of social contract between the private, public sector and the individual. An emerging “ethical tech” movement is currently floating start-ups focused on the creation of jobs for the underprivileged. These include apps to help ex-cons get work after their release, or to remove bias from hiring decisions or offer workers legal advice.

And why not? We hear endlessly about the gig economy threatening jobs, but why don’t we talk more about how the same tech might also empower people?

It’s easy to sneer at these initiatives. Perhaps they are just first steps – first drafts for an unknowable future, building blocks to a better way of doing things. But why should we always assume that life online should always revolve around brutal profit-hunting and corporate behemoths? Why should the future belong to Silicon Valley at all, when so many people around the world – governments, entrepreneurs, artists – are now attempting to redeploy digital tools to meet communitarian, local and non-profit needs?

Optimistic lines of thought tend to plough into a big wall, however – the fact of automation. Are there any solutions? In his final chapters Keen talks to speakers advocating a “universal basic income” – like social security but without the stigma, for an age when more and more jobs will be performed by machines. He also talks of the need for moving beyond the “industrial age school” to a more person-centred education, training creative thinkers for a “freelance society”.

Personally I have to say that sounds like hipster Hell, but I see the rationale. How to Fix the Future might not have firm answers but it does ask important questions. Human progress might not keep pace with the iPhone. But it’s still due the occasional upgrade.