Having spent the last decade writing critically about the digital revolution before everyone else, author, serial entrepreneur and keynote speaker at IWDK2019 Andrew Keen, offers constructive answers to the myriad of questions on the digital horizon in his newest book, How to Fix the Internet.
In 2016, I participated in a two-day World Economic Forum (WEF) workshop in New York City about the “digital transformation” of the world. The event’s focus was on what it called the “combinatorial effects” of all these new internet-based technologies – including mobile, cloud, artificial intelligence, sensors, and big data analytics. “Just as the steam engine and electrification revolutionized entire sectors of the economy from the eighteenth century onward,” the seminar concluded, “modern technologies are beginning to dramatically alter today’s industries.” The economic stakes in this great transformation are dizzying. Up to $100 trillion can be realized in the global economy by 2025 if we get the digital revolution right, the WEF workshop promised.
The digital revolution is transforming our societies
And it’s not only industry that is being dramatically changed by these digital technologies. Just as the industrial revolution transformed society, culture, politics, and individual consciousness, so the digital revolution is changing much about twenty-first-century life. What’s at stake here is worth considerably more than just $100 trillion. Today’s structural unemployment, inequality, anomie, mistrust, and the populist rage of our anxious times are all, in one way or another, a consequence of this increasingly frenetic upheaval.
Networked technology, enabled in part by Steve Jobs’s greatest invention, the iPhone – in combination with other digital technologies and devices, is radically disrupting our political, economic, and social lives. Entire industries – education, transportation, media, finance, health care, and hospitality – are being turned upside down by this digital revolution. Much of what we took for granted about industrial civilization – the nature of work, our individual rights, the legitimacy of our elites, even what it means to be human – is being questioned in this new age of disruption.
Humans have agency. That’s what makes us human.
We’ve been here before, of course. As the “digital transformation” WEF workshop reminds us, a couple of hundred years ago the similarly disruptive technology of the industrial revolution turned the world upside down, radically reinventing societies, cultures, economies, and political systems. The nineteenth-century response to this great transformation was either a yes, a no, or a maybe to all this bewildering change.
Reactionaries, mostly Luddites and romantic conservatives, wanted to destroy this new technological world and return to what appeared to them, at least, to be a more halcyon era. Idealists – including, ironically enough, both uncompromisingly free market capitalists and revolutionary communists – believed that the industrial technology would, if left to unfold according to its own logic, eventually create a utopian economy of infinite abundancy. And then there were the reformers and the realists – a broad combination of society, including responsible politicians on both the left and the right, businesspeople, workers, philanthropists, civil servants, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens – who focused on using human agency to fix the many problems created by this new technology.
Today we can see similar responses of yes, no, or maybe to the question of whether the dramatic change swirling all around us is to our benefit. Romantics and xenophobes reject this globalizing technology as somehow offending the laws of nature, even of “humanity” itself (an overused and under-defined word in our digital age). Both Silicon Valley techno-utopians and some critics of neoliberalism insist that the digital revolution will, once and for all, solve all of society’s perennial problems and create a cornucopian postcapitalist future. For them, much of this change is inevitable – “The Inevitable” according to one particularly evangelical determinist. And then there are the maybes, like myself – realists and reformers rather than utopians or dystopians – who recognize that today’s great challenge is to try to fix the problems of our great transformation without either demonizing or lionizing technology.
Can we create a better world? We can try.
I believe that the digital revolution can, like the industrial revolution, be mostly successfully tamed, managed, and reformed. I hope that the best features of this transformation – increased innovation, transparency, creativity, even a dose of healthy disruption – might make the world a better place. And it outlines a series of legislative, economic, regulatory, educational, and ethical reforms that can, if implemented correctly, help fix our common future.
What’s needed is a strategy combining regulation, civic responsibility, worker and consumer choice, competitive innovation, and educational solutions. It was this multifaceted approach that eventually fixed many of the most salient problems of the industrial revolution. And today we need an equally combinatorial strategy if we are to confront the many social, economic, political, and existential challenges triggered by the digital revolution.
Not even the smartest technology can solve technological problems. Only people can.
This text is an excerpt from the book ‘How to Fix the Future’ by Andrew Keen and we have kindly been allowed to use it.