Or consider Silicon Valley’s fetishization of failure. “Idolizing failure is the hottest new meme for the alpha geeks of the Valley,” Keen writes. Internet entrepreneurs boast about their botched startups in interviews and attend events like FailCon, where the Silicon Valley elite humble-brag about their many “failures” to an adoring audience of would-be Mark Zuckerbergs. Keen is at his best in these settings, puncturing the vanities of the participants by contrasting them with real failures, like his poignant description of the decline of the Kodak Corporation and the insalubrious effects its demise had on the economy of Rochester, New York. Many people see the rise of the photo-sharing site Instagram as a vast improvement on old businesses like Kodak, but from a purely economic standpoint, as Keen observes, “In the Valley, the rich and famous claim to be failures; on social networks like Instagram, millions of failures claim to be rich and famous.” Then again, if real life were an iPad commercial, it would feature fewer gauzy images of beautiful people taking hot-air balloon rides and more of couples huddled around the kitchen table, trying to squeeze a bit more money out of the family budget so they can afford a summer vacation for their kids.
Keen’s book serves as a useful reminder that companies such as Google, with its playful-sounding “Don’t be evil” motto and whimsical home-page doodles, are businesses with their own agendas: Google, a $400 billion company (the world’s second most valuable corporation), has turned corporate tax dodging into an art form and the divination of our desires into a science. Technology companies are wont to boast about “transparency” and open-office plans and nonhierarchical corporate structures, while simultaneously shuttling their employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley in a fleet of private buses with tinted windows so that they won’t have to suffer the indignities of public mass transit. And they are fond of hierarchy when it involves wages and stock ownership, a system Keen likens, only a little hyperbolically, to feudalism. Google and other large companies thrive online by monetizing what Keen calls our “data exhaust”—the trails we all leave behind when we log in, browse, share and buy. The exhaust is us—our hopes, our fears, our fetishes, our vacation plans. But we are not the ones profiting from it.
Nor are we the ones challenging technology companies in their use of it. Keen is concerned with the predatory instincts of companies like Google and Amazon; he spends much less time on the responsibility we all have as consumers of their products. This poses a tougher challenge, because we really, really like the Web. Keen cites a 2014 Pew report that showed that 90 percent of Americans believe the Web has been “good for them personally.” Seventy-six percent of the people surveyed believe it has also been good for society.
And although Keen writes that “all these companies want to know us so intimately that they can package us up and then, without our consent, sell us back to advertisers,” this isn’t quite right either. We aren’t pawns. We decide to use these services—often thoughtlessly, but enthusiastically nonetheless. Keen mentions in passing that we need to “take responsibility for our online actions” and practice self-regulation, which is useful advice. But it is unlikely to lead to the kind of structural changes that would be needed to make the Web a less unequal and commercialized place.
In medicine, the term “iatrogenic” refers to cures that prove more damaging than the diseases they target—like the mercury and arsenic that in earlier eras slowly poisoned the people they were meant to heal. There is a great deal that is iatrogenic about our new technologies. The answers they supposedly provide are often false promises. Keen relentlessly challenges the assumption that what technology companies are doing for us, to us and with us necessarily benefits us. Already, Instagram owns your photos, Facebook owns your online memories and Google owns all of those embarrassing late-night searches you performed.
How much more of ourselves do we want to give away? “While all this technology might be novel,” Keen reminds us, “it hasn’t transformed the role of either power or wealth in the world.” That message about this new medium is one we can’t afford to ignore.
Christine Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.
Image: Flickr/tsevis/CC by-nc-nd 2.0