We’re living in a surveillance economy, Google knows everything about us – web culture guru

Freedom of expression, creativity, the world’s knowledge available to everyone – all happening thanks to the internet. But there’s a dark side to the web. Uncontrolled data flow creates opportunities for criminals and terrorists; real information drowns in the waves of fake news and entertainment, while the web market is controlled by monopolies, making use of private data for profits. So what can we expect as internet-based technologies develop further? Are concerns over privacy going to spark a backlash against internet giants like Google or YouTube? And is it still possible to go analog in a tech-based world? We ask author of The Internet is not the Answer, entrepreneur – Andrew Keen.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Let’s start with Twitter. Everyone’s on Twitter these days from schoolkids to Donald Trump - he even shares some of his foreign policy decisions, some of his internal policies on Twitter. Someone from his staff said that the White House would be better off, if he laid off Twitter - how is an addiction like that gets in the way of ruling a country? Isn’t it good thing that he reaches out to his people?

Andrew Keen: That’s a rhetorical question.

SS: It’s just a question. Do you think that can get in the way of ruling a country? I mean, he did get elected through Twitter after all.

AK: It’s a good question. It’s hard to take Donald Trump’s Twitter obsession seriously. It’s certainly… when you say ‘getting in the way’ - getting in the way of what? It’s not as if there’s a serious man behind the Trump who uses Twitter. So the Trump who uses Twitter is the sort-of banal, egocentric narcissistic Trump. So whether or not he uses Twitter I don’t think it makes any difference, he’s still the same Trump.

SS:So you’re just thinking his staff members are worried because it would be better for the White House image, that he laid off Twitter, so he would write less things that are harmful to the image of the American President? Is that what you mean?

AK: Yea, you here a lot of stories about the White House, staff, and how they’re trying to control him. I think he’s the type of person who if he wants to do something, he will. Irrespective of the White House staff. And the White House staff anyway is very much divided in terms of personalities and in ideologies, so my guess that there’s probably as much dispute amongst the White House staff on Trump’s use of Twitter as they’re divided on policy issues. If Twitter was Trump’s biggest problem, I wouldn’t be particularly worried. It reflects the dysfunctionality of this Administration - that the President should be using Twitter to undermine members of his own Cabinet, to mislead the country, to put out different messages from his Administration, kind of exemplifies, captures the profound dysfunctionality of this regime.

SS: We're not going to talk about Trump's decisions and policy, I just want to talk about Twitter and social media because it came into light with the election of Donald Trump and it showed how much power it has.

AK: Well I don't think that's true, I think every election people say for the last two or three elections people said it's a Twitter election. When Obama was elected, especially the kind of liberal intelligentsia, the elites on the West and East coast, they all : well finally Twitter is able or social media is able to generate a candidate of the people and finally social media is able disintermediate all the institutions of politics and produce a high quality leader. And I think in some senses that was true. Certainly Obama's smart use of social media broke through a lot of the clutter and then four years later or eight years after Obama was initially elected we have Trump, who shows the really dark side of social media. I think what Obama and Trump show is that social media itself, like all these internet technologies are just technologies, there's no reason to suppose that they produce either good or bad leaders. I think social media produced, in my opinion anyway, a very good leader in Obama and then a very bad one and Trump. So to blame social media on the one hand or to demonise it or to idealise it, I think is the wrong way of doing it.

SS: It's just that to the people outside the United States it does seem like parties on Facebook posts, for instance, are more seeked after than news on the established media. The question is why do you think people turn to these posts on Facebook as opposed to the mainstream media? Does Facebook tell them what they want to hear?

AK: That's another question that reflects the echo chamber nature of social media which is a huge problem, but it's not just a huge problem in America, it's a huge problem worldwide, where people are retreating into their tribes and they use particularly Facebook, but also Twitter. They use the services to confirm what they already think, but it's also true with television. In America you have an echo chamber television culture, where the left watch MSNBC, the right watch Fox, and it doesn't really give them any news, it just simply lectures them and confirms what they already think. Social media is part of that, but to pick out social media and say that the other parts of media are innocent, I think would be a mistake.

SS: The question is do you feel like the social media gives them what they want to hear even more than the mainstream media?

AK: Well, there's two kinds of people when it comes to understanding the world: either you want to understand the world in its complexity, and then you read the Washington Post and the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or listen to the BBC, which I think reflects the world in that complexity - they all have political biases but not so dramatic that they shape their content, or you want the world to conform to what you already think - and then you use Facebook or Twitter or you watch Fox or NBC, and everything you think is automatically confirmed. The problem I think with digital media is that it seems to be enabling that second category, that second community, but there are many other forces which are pushing that and it's very disturbing, because what you see is the disappearance of the middle and the creation of these partisan camps. And fewer and fewer people are actually open to listen to other people's arguments.

SS: I want to talk a bit about the addiction it causes? I mean, you're on Twitter yourself, but you say you're a writer, so you need to be on Twitter. And there are so many people who are freelancers and they also have to be on Twitter. How do you get rid if the addiction, if it's a must for your work? I mean, are we going to get to a point where it's going to be mandatory to have an account?

AK: Well, what do you mean 'mandatory'? You mean under law?

SS: No, not under law, but if you don't have a Twitter... for instance - I am a media person, right, and I'm not technology friendly and I've been accused many times of not being active on Facebook - because that's the thing to do. Do you think we're going to get to a point when you can't be successful unless you are in that?

AK: I'm not sure. I think there's two responses to that. I think that we live increasingly in a freelance economy where media becomes our platform to build our brands. Maybe you have a full-time job at RT so you don't need to be continually trying to get work, but for many people using Twitter or Facebook enables them to get work, whether it's in the media or many other things. But I also think there's - it's beginning on the West Coast and things always begin on the West Coast - there's a growing a backlash against social media and actually the smartest, most independent, the most interesting people, particularly young people, are actually  giving up social media and I think over the next few years, what we are going to see is that only losers will be left on social media.

SS: Really?

AK: Yes. You're surprised by that?

SS: That's a debatable statement, I'd say. Can you elaborate on that?

AK: I'm predicting in the sense that these things always work cyclically, and I know I've got kids who are bored with social media and most of their friends are bored with social media. Certainly Facebook has gone out of fashion - the only people on Facebook are old people, parents and grandparents, young people wouldn't be caught dead on Facebook. The question is maybe they'll go from Facebook to Instagram or Snapchat, but at some point I think this generation of the so-called ‘digital natives’ is just going to get a bored of all these things. And I've been saying this for years is that the real reaction to social media and technology is going to come from the digital natives, the people who have grown up with this stuff - they're just bored and disgusted with it.

SS: So are we just going to go back to the basics or are they going to come up with something like artificial intelligence and connect their brains to computers?

AK: I think what you're going to see is ... there's an interesting new book out called 'The Revenge of the Analog’. You see it in the way this young generation has embraced vinyl records, you see it in the way in which they now by Moleskin notepads, you see it in the way they're starting to write letters again, you're seeing it in the way the physical book survived against the digital book - now the digital book did well for a few years and now no one is reading on their Kindle, they're all buying books again. So I think this new generation will rediscover analog and I think you'll see analog becoming increasingly fashionable in the same way, for example, is when you have more and more self driving cars, you'll find manual cars will become more and more fashionable. Young people think for themselves they're not stupid and there's always been this idea that somehow young people are all going to just immerse themselves in digital and do nothing else and I think that's a fundamental misreading of how innovative and independent-thinking young people are.

SS: So let's talk a bit about jobs -  for instance corporations like Google and Amazon are killing off smaller businesses, people are losing their jobs to services like Uber - is this because the Internet is a bad thing or is this because it's inevitable and it's a natural progression of technology?

AK: Well I wouldn't say either of those things. The idea that the Internet is a bad thing is a reactionary statement. The idea that technology is bad is I think an unwise position to take, but there's nothing inevitable about it either. What's happened with the Internet is that you had the so-called network effect, which lends  itself to a very small handful of companies dominating the economy. One of the mistakes people made about the Internet was thinking that this supposed democratisation would create lots of companies, lots of different innovators, lots of different successful entrepreneurs. The reality is you only have one winner in each sector - Facebook in social media, Google in search, Uber in car sharing, Amazon in e-commerce.  So what do you have is a very typical development,  but exaggerated in economics. We had it in the industrial revolution with the emergence of monopolies, and the way to respond to that is in the way we've always done historically - with legislation, antitrust legislation. The idea that technology is to blame for this is a mistake.

SS: You've touched upon the monopolies in the Internet. What's wrong with these few giants if they're not going stale, if they're developing all the time?

AK: Look there's two positions: Peter Teal, a very well known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, investor, thinks monopolies are a good thing. They’re a good thing if you're a monopolist - then you're the winner. They’re a bad thing because they don't enable innovation. When you have a monopolist like Microsoft - they destroyed innovation, they destroyed small companies. Google and Amazon well they are innovators in their own way, are also against innovation because they’re trying to dominate their markets like any company would, so ultimately it’s not a good thing.

SS: Look at all the amazing things that they are working on, I mean - the drones, the driverless cars. Aren’t they innovators? Maybe they're doing it because nobody else can do that better?

AK: They're doing that, but in the context of their business. They're doing it to make sure that we use their drones, their driverless cars. The idea for example that Google who already owns essentially all of the big data business, owns search, ,owns many other categories of the digital market should also control the self driving car business is terrifying. Google already knows everything we do through our phones. Androids I think are 86% of all users use the android platform. If we all get in our self driving cars, they will know where we are all the time. They're not evil, they're not big brother. What what they'll do is continually serve up advertising. So the idea that Google should control that entire platform I think is not only dangerous, but also doesn't enable real innovation, because Google’s interest is benefiting their search engine, it’s not real innovation, so what we need is a new wave of innovators, new kinds of operating systems which are more open, which enable more entrepreneurs and more kinds of innovation.

SS: You’ve touched upon an interesting topic which is Google already knows everything, controls all the data. I know that the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered that Facebook and Twitter provided user data to police to create surveillance programs… and then social media giants are saying: no, no way. They’re banning developers from using the data for surveillance programmes, but I'm thinking, do you think governments are going to give up on opportunities like that?

AK: Well, let's be clear, it's not as if Twitter or Google is looking at your information or my information and saying you know: oh, their shopping today, or they're doing something they shouldn't be doing. The problem with Google in particular is not that they're evil, or even that they're snooping, the problem is they're giving away their search engine for free and this business model then requires them to essentially collect our data, which then they pass on to advertisers. So the big debate today is business models. I think I much prefer the business model of a company like Apple which sells products and doesn't collect our data, so it's not companies that are bad. What's bad are business models. And the business model which I think has been a profound mistake for the Internet and eventually will be recognized as a mistake, is the free model where we get services: Facebook, Google, Instagram for free and by using them they acquire our data and then sell the data to advertising. That's the core of this new, what people are calling the ‘surveillance economy’. And ultimately we’re going to wake up to it and we're going to choose to pay for our services once again and protect our privacy.

SS: There is the topic of terrorism which is very actual right now. When you see a terrorist tweeting and calling upon jihad, should we pass on information?

AK: I don't think anyone-  Twitter or anyone else would say that that should be - I don’t want to say allowed, the question is firstly whether or not you will allow it, there's not much you can do to stop it.

SS: Well it's pretty much allowed - they are tweeting and they’re recruiting...

AK: Well there certainly not allowed to...

SS: ISIS has one of the best social medias in the world - social media accounts.

AK: Well they can have one of the best social medias in the world, but it's not allowed to post the beheadings.

SS: You don't need to be allowed to post the headings to include fresh people to go and fight for ISIS, you don’t necessarily need to do...

AK: I think Twitter has made every effort to close down ISIS or accounts that are supposed to recruit ISIS terrorists. I think again the question is wrong. The issue again is business models and media, take YouTube for example - we know that there's a lot of dreadful content on YouTube, beheadings, which seems to get through the filter. The problem with YouTube is this business mode -l anyone is allowed to post anything and the business model of YouTube which makes it such a profitable company is not hiring a lot of editors, allowing everyone to post whatever they want and selling advertising around that. The traditional media model is to curate, to create gatekeepers, to have editors, professionals like you, who will determine what will appear on it. What we need is to convince and, perhaps, legally require companies like Twitter or Facebook, to hire editors to make sure that the content that is published on that network isn't offensive, particularly, when it comes to terrorism and in that sense you kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand you can guarantee that the content isn't offensive and on the other hand you create a lot of new jobs in media too.

SS: But aren't you walking at that line a thin line there, because I know already that there’s legislative steps being taken to destroy this so-called dangerous content, for example, for Facebook in Israel - you don't see a potential abuse here: for example, the Israeli army deems my posts as dangerous, but isn't that just an opinion?

AK: But that's always true with free-speech. I mean, this has been an ongoing debate for hundreds of years. Who's to say what people can stay for free: should you be allowed to insult people, should you be allowed to say things that offend other people - that's an ongoing debate, so this isn't new. The problem, again, will social media is that a lot of content which everyone agrees shouldn't be allowed to be broadcast, like beheadings, for example, is slipping through the cracks because of the business model of this media that doesn't have curators. Facebook has responded somewhat admirably to this: there's been a huge debate about fake news, huge debate about unacceptable content and what Zuckerberg eventually did in response was higher 6000 more editors. That's the only way you solve this - only having human beings...

SS: So manually watching each account?

AK: Look, if I slapped you in this interview or I started taking off my clothes or if I started chanting jihadi slogans, this wouldn’t appear on your network because you would decide that it’s inappropriate. The only reason this will appear on the network is because it passes through the filters. You might have decided already that I am an interesting person to interview. The problem with the YouTube business model is anything can be put up by anybody and the more content that goes up, the more money YouTube makes, because the more advertising they sell around it, the less people they have to hire. They don't have to hire people like you, they don't have to hire editors. So what we need is more balance, what we need are more editors, human curators to say: look, this is terrible, there is no way that we are going to allow someone to put a live beheading up, there is no way we're going to allow our network to become a recruiting tool for ISIS, and it can only be done internally. I think creating these heavy top down laws won't work, it's got to come from within these companies.

SS: Exactly, because I read in the Guardian the internal Facebook rules that they published. I just want to read out а quote for my viewers - it actually will allow users to livestream attempt to harm themselves because it doesn't want to censor or punish people in distress who are attempting suicide.

AK: I mean why is that, it's because it's so creepy is because they make money the more outrageous content.. where millions of people watch live suicides. And at a certain point Zuckerberg has always been resistant to calling Facebook a media company,the reason for that is because when it becomes a media company then he has to hire curators, then he has to essentially undermine his remarkable business model of creating all this content without any professionals. That's why Facebook is worth so many hundreds of billions of dollars is because it reinvented media, it creates content without having to pay editors or curators, but ultimately that doesn't work because you get content which is profoundly offensive or evil or disturbing or corrupting, and we have to deal with that. And we are dealing - we are increasingly seeing more and more of a debate about fake news, we're seeing it in the EU with more and more the legislation, directed at punishing companies like Facebook for stuff that gets through the filters, so this stuff is being resolved.

SS: In your book “The Internet is not the Answer’, you're not only talking about the editors that should be hired by the big companies but you're also saying that the government should regulate these things more. Wouldn't that make things worse though -  if the government interfered into regulating all this media?

AK: Well, now you're sounding like a Silicon Valley libertarian. Governments always have to be involved, like it or no. Governments have always been involved in what you can say or you can't so I'm not saying that the government - I mean, Theresa May talked about shutting the Internet down, that's a catastrophe. I'm not in favor of the government heavy-handedly stepping into the digital arena and banning Facebook or banning Twitter or not allowing kids to go online - that's absurd, that's a reaction,  a Victorian reaction to a very exciting new technology, but I don't think it's unhealthy for governments to be concerned if this media is being used to recruit terrorists or this media is being used to celebrate pedophilia or celebrate live killings or suicides. Just as governments would need to respond to these problems if they were happening in analog media or in the real world - it's a perfectly normal way, it's essential for governments to become involved. Otherwise, why I have a government, if they're not going to be involved in such disturbing issues, then there's no reason to have governments in the first place. Then you start falling into this kind of libertarian utopianism which tends to be very strong on the west coast of America which says, well we can manage ourselves we can police ourselves, but clearly Facebook and Twitter cannot police themselves.That's why we're having this conversation, that's why this debate is becoming increasingly important in the world today.

SS:Andrew Keen, thank you very much for this interview