Keen: HOW TO FIX THE FUTURE

Andrew Keen’s How to Fix the Future (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018) is a breezy book in the Thomas L. Friedman mode, as the author travels the world speaking to various experts, and describing his trips and circumstances as he goes. P109b: “I am having afternoon tea with the writer Parag Khanna in Singapore’s Goodwood Park Hotel. …” He even chats with Uber drivers, just as Friedman chats with taxi drivers. (Ch 9)

Keen has written several earlier books, including The Cult of the Amateur (which I read back in 2007) and The Internet is Not the Answer, and this new book is one of a genre by alarmists and futurists worrying about the impact of the latest technologies. There have always been books warning about the latest technologies – for centuries, since the first print books, since radio, since TV — so I came to this book a tad skeptical, needing to understand what he thinks the problems are, and his solutions would be.

And so, it’s a decent book. Obviously there are issues about how the Internet is affecting our world, our social interactions. (But these are changes; are they necessarily bad? Some people think any change is bad.) The book’s strengths are its appeal to historical examples and how they have been solved by the five tools he describes and explores at length; and his appeal to Thomas More’s Utopia, of 500 years ago, and how its ideals might be realized in the 21st century. The epigram is long quote from Thomas More’s Utopia (which becomes a running theme through the book).

So with a title like this, what does the book claim are the problems that need to be fixed?

The early chapters identify the problems — briefly, as if common knowledge. Industry withering, inequality, unemployment, cultural malaise, etc. By both elites and populists there is resentment. Reactionaries want to destroy the new order; idealists believe technology will fix everything on its own (cf. Kevin Kelly). Author sees the issues similar to those of the Industrial Revolution. He states that only people, not tech, can fix problems.

He contrasts Moore’s Law, from 1965, about the doubling of processing power in silicon chips every eighteen months, with [Thomas] More’s Law, the lesson of his Utopia: Our duty is to make the world a better place. (He mentions that 8 of the 10 goals of the Communist Manifesto have been reached, all by themselves.)

The answer to these problems is not free-market libertarianism — the attitude of Silicon Valley — but rather five tools:

• Regulation
• Competitive innovation
• Social responsibility
• Worker and consumer choice
• Education

These techniques have been applied before to solve problems, as in the meat-packing industry a century ago, and the food industry from the mid 19th century to the early 20th, p49.

His travels take him to Estonia, one of the most internet dependent countries in the world, with electronic ID cards and complete transparency so that people trust the government, because you always know who’s accessed your data. (In contrast to Putin’s post-truth philosophy, wherein Russia’s chief role is the manufacture of fake news.)

And to Singapore, whose goal is to create a ‘Smart Nation’ in which everything is connected. The focus is on intelligence; a post-privacy world. With a social credit system, where good behavior is rewarded and the untrustworthy are punished – very 1984.

(I especially appreciated these sections, because so much of the US media, and popular opinion in the US, treats the rest of the world as irrelevant, as if nothing important could be discovered or learned outside the most exceptional country on the planet, which of course is the USA.)

The balance of the book examines the five tools, in detail. About regulation, he visits Brussels. On innovation, he recalls Corvair and Ralph Nader and how regulations since then have reduced auto deaths by 80%. About social responsibility, he visits the ethics of Silicon Valley – ruthless businessmen, not unlike Carnegie and past business tycoons – and visits the Kapor Center, in Oakland (https://www.kaporcenter.org/). On worker and consumer choice, Century City and artist strikes, ad blockers, Uber drivers. And on Education: the idea of a Universal Basic Income, Rutger Bregman, and wondering, what are humans good for? Humans, unlike smart machines, can handle ambiguity, and have intuition. He visits Palo Alto High School, whose famous instructor Esther Wojcicki trains students to think, not follow instructions. Trust the kids.

And the book’s conclusion is about ‘our kids’. The left/right division has given way to nationalists vs. globalists, with the young disproportionately on the progressive side. And he anticipates how epochal changes happen: “nothing, nothing, nothing… and then something dramatic.”

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