How internet is destroying us: Its pioneers hoped the web would transform society. Now a devastating new book says it has - in a way that diminishes humanity
The internet, its many evangelists tell us, is the answer to all our problems. It gives power to the people.
It’s a platform for equality that allows everyone an equal share in life’s riches. For the first time in history, anyone can produce, say or buy anything.
But today, as the internet heads towards putting more than half the world’s population online, all this promise has evaporated.
As the internet heads towards putting more than half the world’s population online, all its early promise has evaporated
The dream has become a nightmare, in which I fear we billions of network users are victims, not beneficiaries.
In our super-connected 21st-century world, rather than promoting economic fairness, the net is a central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle classes.
Rather than generating more jobs, it is - as I will explain - a cause of unemployment. Rather than creating more competition, it has created immensely powerful new monopolists such as Google and Amazon in a winner-takes-all economy.
Its cultural ramifications are equally chilling. Rather than creating transparency and openness, it secretly gathers information and keeps a watch on each and every one of us.
You need only have read the stories this month about how smart TVs can spy on us in our living rooms to realise that Orwell’s vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a Big Brother society, is becoming a reality.
Because such TVs are connected to the internet, they can watch us and listen to us, then beam that information around the world for companies to use for commercial gain.
And thanks to the explosion in social media, rather than creating more democracy, the internet is empowering mob rule.
This month, after years of social networks being scarred by appalling personal abuse and bullying - leading to several suicides - Twitter, which has 288 million users a month, finally admitted there was ‘no excuse’ for its failure to stop its users sending vile messages to the targets of their hatred.
The company’s boss, Dick Costolo, admitted: ‘I’m frankly ashamed at how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue. It’s absurd.’
Britain’s most senior judge warned recently that online pornography is a serious danger, fuelling rape and murder (file picture)
An increasingly common kind of online attack involves the threat of rape against women.
For, rather than encouraging tolerance, the internet has unleashed such a distasteful war on women that many no longer feel welcome online.
Amanda Hess, for example, a feminist writer and journalist in the U.S., has received threats ‘to rape you and remove your head’ from men who have disagreed with her writing.
Her feeling as a result — that the internet is no place for women — is confirmed by the many thousands of women who are staying out of online chat-rooms because of misogynistic abuse.
The internet has also unleashed a seemingly unstoppable flow of increasingly hardcore sexual materials. Only this week it emerged that half a million pornographic images are posted on Twitter every day.
Britain’s most senior judge warned recently that online pornography is a serious danger, fuelling rape and murder. Where will it stop?
Pornography is so ubiquitous on the internet, and controls denying access so inadequate, that many parents rightly feel their children are at serious risk.
And when people are not looking online at other people with no clothes on, they are looking at themselves.
Rather than fostering an intellectual renaissance, the internet has created a selfie-centred culture of voyeurism and narcissism.
Far from making us happy, it is provoking and channelling an outpouring of anger at the world around us.
Of course, the internet is not all bad. It has done tremendous good in connecting families, friends and work colleagues around the world.
The personal lives of three billion internet users have been transformed by the incredible convenience of email, social media, e-commerce and mobile apps.
Yes, we all rely on and even love our ever-shrinking and increasingly powerful mobile devices. Yes, the internet can, if used critically, be a source of great enlightenment in terms of the global sharing of ideas and information.
The app economy is already beginning to generate innovative solutions to some of the most pervasive problems on the planet, such as mapping clean water stations in Africa and providing access to credit for entrepreneurs in India.
An increasingly common kind of online attack involves the threat of rape against women (file picture)
But the hidden negatives outweigh the positives. Under our noses, one of the biggest ever shifts in power between people and big institutions is taking place, disguised in the language of inclusion and transparency.
Rather than providing a public service, the architects of our digital future are building a society that is a disservice to almost everyone except a few powerful, wealthy owners.
It’s easy to forget the crusading intentions with which the internet revolution began. But then the mantle passed from the techno wizards and visionaries to businessmen.
The internet lost a sense of common purpose, a general decency, perhaps even its soul. Money replaced all these things.
Amazon reflects much of what has gone wrong. Now by far the dominant internet retailer, it has achieved this position by crushing or acquiring its competitors and selling everything it can lay its hands on.
It has felt the need to expand so ruthlessly because in its type of e-commerce, margins are extremely tight and economies of scale vital.
In 2013, Amazon made sales of $75 billion (£49 billion) but returned a profit of just $274 million (£178 million).
To succeed, it has to make itself a virtual monopoly, stifling rivals along the way. Inside the company this is known as the Gazelle Project, after founder Jeff Bezos instructed one of his staff that ‘Amazon should approach small book publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle’.
Amazon has felt the need to expand so ruthlessly because in its type of e-commerce, margins are extremely tight and economies of scale vital (file picture)
The book trade - which is where Amazon began - was initially quite enthusiastic about the new arrival but now sees it as a predator as shops close down, unable to compete.
In Britain there are fewer than 1,000 bookshops left, down a third in a decade.
As Amazon expands into more retail sectors - from clothing, electronics and toys to garden furniture and jewellery - it is having the same effect there.
The impact on jobs is huge. While bricks-and-mortar retailers employ 47 people for every £65 million in sales, Amazon employs just 14, making it a job-killer rather than a job-creator.
‘Robotisation’ in its warehouses may reduce job numbers even further, until eventually Amazon eliminates the human factor from shopping completely. The ‘Everything Store’ is becoming the ‘Nobody store’.
Then there is Google, which discovered the holy grail of the information economy with its search engine sifting and indexing the mass of digital material on the worldwide web.
Last year Google processed 40,000 search queries a second, equal to 1.2 trillion searches a year. It controls around two-thirds of searches globally, with 90 per cent dominance in markets such as Italy and Spain.
The service is free to use. Advertising pays the bills and makes the profits.
The irony is that Google was invented by a couple of idealistic computer science graduate students who so mistrusted advertisements that they banned them on their homepage. Now it is by far the largest and most powerful advertising company in history, valued at over £260 billion.
Unlike Amazon, its profits are mind-bogglingly high. In 2013, it returned nearly £10billion for its investors, from revenues of nearly £39billion.
And Google’s power increases every time we access it. Its search engine becomes more knowledgeable and useful the more it is used. Every time we make a Google search, we are helping it to grow the product.
Last year Google processed 40,000 search queries a second, equal to 1.2 trillion searches a year
Even more valuable, from Google’s point of view, is what it learns about us. And Google, for better or worse, never forgets. All our digital trails are crunched to provide Google and its corporate clients with our so-called ‘data exhaust’.
From this concept other internet services have developed, including Facebook, Wikipedia, the business networking site LinkedIn, and self-publishing platforms such as Twitter and YouTube.
Most pursue a Google-style strategy of giving away their tools and services free, relying on advertising sales for revenue. In the process, they have created significant wealth for their founders and investors.
On the surface, this seems like a win for everyone. We all get free internet tools and the entrepreneurs become super-rich.
But there is a catch. All of us are, in fact, working for Facebook and Google for nothing, manufacturing the very personal data that makes these companies so valuable.
The result is another massive loss of jobs. Google needs to employ only 46,000 people, compared with an industrial giant like General Motors, which is worth just a seventh of Google’s £260 billion but employs just over 200,000 people in its factories.
For all the claims that the internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a doughnut — with a gaping hole in the middle where millions of workers were once paid to manufacture products.
Take the photo app Instagram, which allows anyone to share their own snaps online for others to see. When it was sold to Facebook for £651 million in 2012, it had just 13 full-time employees. Meanwhile, Kodak was closing 13 factories and 130 photo labs and laying off 47,000 workers.
Or WhatsApp, the instant messaging platform for which Facebook paid £12.4 billion. In one month it handled 54 billion messages from its 450 million users, yet it employs only 55 people to manage its service.
That’s because we are the ones doing most of the work. In this e-world, the quality of the technology is secondary.
What’s important — and what is actually being traded when these companies change hands — is you and me: our labour, our productivity, our network, our supposed creativty.
Yet for our input in adding intelligence to Google, or content to Facebook, we are paid nothing, merely being granted the right to use the software free. And that’s what is driving the new ‘data factory’ economy.
The whole point of the free Instagram app is to mine its users’ data. Our photos reveal to Instagram more and more about our tastes, our movements, our friends. The app in effect reverses the camera lens.
We think we are using Instagram to look at the world, but actually we are the ones being watched. And the more we reveal about ourselves, the more valuable we become to advertisers.
From social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook to Google, the world’s second most valuable company, the exploitation of our personal information is what counts. These companies want to know us so intimately so they can package us up and, without our consent, sell us back to advertisers.
Another great irony in all this is that the internet was created by public-minded technologists such as the English academic Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who were all indifferent to money, sometimes even hostile to it.
Yet the internet they produced with such high humanitarian hopes has triggered one of the greatest accumulations of wealth in human history.
Jeff Bezos has made £19.5 billion from his Amazon Everything Store that offers cheaper prices than its rivals. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has accumulated his £19.5 billion by making money out of friendship.
In 25 years, the internet has gone from the initial idealistic banning of all forms of commerce to transforming absolutely everything into profitable activity. Especially our privacy.
Tim Berners-Lee never imagined that his ‘social’ creation to help people to work together more easily could be used so cynically, both by private companies and by governments. Yet that’s what is happening.
Jeff Bezos has made £19.5 billion from his Amazon Everything Store that offers cheaper prices than its rivals
As the internet transforms every electronic object into a connected device, we are drifting into a world where everything — our fitness, what we eat, our driving habits, how hard we work — can be profitably quantified by companies such as Google.
Faceless data-gatherers wearing all-seeing electronic glasses watch our every move. Our networked society is like a claustrophobic village pub, a frighteningly transparent community in which there are no longer any secrets or any anonymity.
We are observed by every unloving institution of the new digital surveillance state, from big data companies and the Government to insurance companies, healthcare providers and the police.
Google and Facebook boast that they know us more intimately than we know ourselves. They know what we did yesterday, today and, with the help of predictive technology, what we will do tomorrow.
And it is, frankly, our fault for choosing to live in a crystal republic where cars, mobile phones and televisions — hooked up to the internet — watch us.
Far from being the answer to our problems, the internet, whose pioneers believed it would save humanity, is diminishing our lives.
Instead of creating more transparency, we have devices that make the invisible visible. The sharing economy is really the selfish economy. Social media is, in fact, anti-social. And the success of the internet is a huge failure.
Adapted from The Internet Is Not The Answer, by Andrew Keen, published by Atlantic at £16.99. © Andrew Keen 2015