In the lead up to the 2018 Cyber Summit, we interviewed keynote speaker Andrew Keen to get a sneak peak of his talk.
Keen is a well-known provocateur when it comes to discussing the digital revolution. He has worked in Silicon Valley since 1995, and in recent years, has focused more and more on social commentary based on his experiences in tech. He is the author of four books: Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo, The Internet Is Not The Answer, and his latest book How To Fix The Future.
We talked to Keen about the social issues of new “transformational” technologies, and why we shouldn’t dismiss him as a “luddite”.
When did you become interested in the ramifications of digital technology?
My background is in journalism, history and politics — I’ve always been interested in how the world charges. I was originally intrigued by the potential of digital technology, not only for how it could change businesses and media, but also how it would change society and how we relate to one another.
However, I had my “Road to Damascus” moment at the O’Reilly Media Foo Camp in 2004. This was at the height of excitement about the potential of the digital economy. The conference was full of rich young men who were talking about how the internet was going to democratize everything. I couldn’t escape the irony of these wealthy white men talking about how “ordinary” people would benefit from the tools that they just so happened to be making millions off of.
So what’s your biggest concern for the digital future?
The way I see it, there are four buckets that are broken right now:
- Increasing inequality between the rich and poor, both economically and culturally. Digital technologies just seem to be compounding this issue.
- The implications of technologies, particularly AI, on jobs.
- The cultural decay caused by social media, including increased narcissism, the corruption of truth, and the “echo chamber” culture.
- Surveillance capitalism — and by that I mean the acquisition of our data for monetary gain.
The biggest question is what we’re going to do with human beings as this technology continues to evolve.
Just to be clear: I’m not anti-technology. I’m as wired as anyone, I went out and bought the latest iPhone. We have to get past the idea that I’m a luddite.
I think my past critics are now starting to arrive at a similar way of thinking as the realities of the digital economy sink in. There aren’t any digital utopians left — they’ve all been proved wrong, or have moved on.
What role do you think government should play in tackling the issues of technology disruption?
I don’t believe any solution can come exclusively from the government. In fact, if you just rely on government, you’ll fail. But I do think government has an important role to play in regulating the out-of-control tech companies — the ones who aren’t paying taxes, who exploit their users, and who lie about their products and services.
I admire what the Europeans are doing, particularly in their anti-trust investigations of Google and Apple, and forcing companies like Facebook to be held accountable.
The only way we’ll have protection from companies like these is through government regulations, such as the GDPR. And we’re seeing more calls for this in the US, where there are growing demands for anti-trust legislation and data protection.
Government plays an important role. But that role needs to be intelligent. We need quality representatives who can understand how technology works.
How do you see role of traditional education changing?
We need to re-think education, similar to the way the Waldorf schools did after the first world war. Schools need to think about what it will mean to be human in the age of the smart algorithm. What can we teach kids that will have value for them as they grow older?
Before, we taught kids how to do math and science equations. We basically taught them to be computers. But now, they are having to compete with actual computers. We need to focus on the the things that humans can do that algorithms can’t — like creativity and empathy.
But this is really the hardest area to implement. We say education has to change without a clear idea of how, and then load all these expectations on teachers, who are already over-worked. It will take the larger community to get these changes in place.
What do you hope the audience will take away from your talk at the Cyber Summit?
Technology is not the problem, but it’s also not the solution. We can’t look to things like blockchain or AI or the “new internet” to make everything better. The real answer is human beings working together.
Only by working with the memory of how we dealt with these issues in the past can we really try and fix the future.