Review of Keen’s “How to Fix the Future”

  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date: February 6, 2018
  • To order, visit Amazon: Kindle: $14.99, Hard Cover: $16.66

This is an important “idea” book, a blueprint, really, vast in its visions as a “fix” for the future should be, and an incubator for Andrew Keen’s future works.

Keen, a British-American entrepreneur and author, and I have been on the same critical path for more than a decade in our skepticism about Internet hoopla. That era began with MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 work, being digital,  and reached its peak with founding WIRED executive editor Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book, What Technology Wants. Negroponte’s brave new digital world correctly prophesied our current state, with time and place dissolving into “mediumlessness,” or seamless platforms guiding our thoughts, words and deeds. Negroponte’s big mistake was a failure to see how connectedness would erode the fabled Knowledge Economy into a Consumer one. As I state in my own books, we were promised a global village, but Silicon Valley delivered a global mall.

Kelly’s book over-reaches on so many levels, lapsing into tech spiritualism at times, as in this passage:

“Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through a million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?” (p. 358).

In between those 15 years of tech hope and hyperbole, a few writers–including me, Keen, Christine Rosen, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Thomas de Zengotita and others–were predicting that technology would change us as people as much as our world. Whereas McLuhan’s mantra was the medium is the message; mine was the medium is the moral.

Andrew Keen and I began documenting that when doing so meant being stereotyped as Luddites, often with our truths dismissed. Keen discusses that in the intro of his book:

Having spent the last decade writing critically about the digital revolution, I’ve been called everything from  a Luddite and a curmudgeon to the ‘Antichrist of Silicon Valley.’ At first I was part of a small group of dissenting authors who challenged the conventional wisdom about the internet’s beneficial impact on society. But over the last few years, as the zeitgeist has zigged from optimism to pessimism about our technological future, more and more pundits have joined our ranks.

When Keen’s first book was published in 2007, titled The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, my 2005 book–Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age–had made many of the same arguments. I have followed Keen’s work with admiration ever since, even more so than Sherry Turkle, the best known technology critic. In a review of her widely praised 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Otherthe Huffington Post noted that its theme was expressed seven years earlier in Interpersonal Divide.

In other words, Keen and I have been around for awhile with books, lectures and predictions about the promise and limitations of technology.

Keen’s first-person style in How to Fix the Future is more journalistic than competing books, halfway between Turkle’s New Yorkerish introspective narrator and my third-person historian persona. In this new work, we accompany Keen to interviews as if on a quest, finding the solutions to what awaits us in the age of the machine.

It’s his first real optimistic tome as the book’s thesis forecasts a better virtually augmented world than I envision, although we both agree that education is key in fixing the future. We agree on so much that his book could have been called Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine and mine How to Fix the Future. But we reach the same destination by very different paths.

As a journalistic work, the theme of Keen’s work is “discovery.” We accompany him not only in his travels but also in his imagination. When he thinks critically, as he does throughout the book, we share the same thoughts, often inspired by interviews laced with insight.

He begins the book with the statement of the problem:

The future, it seems, is broken. We are caught between the operating systems of two quite different civilizations. Our old twentieth-century system doesn’t work anymore, but its replacement, a supposedly upgraded twenty-first-century version, isn’t functioning properly either.

Keen believes society and, more to the point, each of us, is losing touch with “what it means to be human in an age of bewildering fast change.” The future isn’t working, he states, noting the absent revitalizing component deleted from operating systems: “Ourselves. We are forgetting about our place, the human place. … That’s where the hole is. And the future, our future, won’t be fixed until we fill it.”

In the second chapter, Keen takes us to an interview with John Borthwick, the founder and CEO of New York Cirt’s Betaworks, a tech start-up incubator. This is where Keen discovers Borthwick’s take on the future. He challenges Borthwick. “Five fixes, John. Give me five bullet points on how we can fall back in love with the future.”

After more discussion and discovery, Keen riffs on that inspiration and outlines five tools for fixing the future:

  • Regulation
  • Competitive Innovation
  • Social Responsibility
  • Worker and Consumer Choice
  • Education

Those become chapters in the book, preceded by two case studies. The first concerns how Estonia built a country without borders, offering “e-residency–an electronic passport that offers any small businessperson the right to use legitimate Estonian legal or accounting online services and digital technologies.” The other is Singapore, which bears striking digital similarities to Estonia, especially when it comes to trust in its systems and quality of education.

In essence, Keen uses these two case studies to show that each of his five aforementioned bullet points to fix the future already are in play.

The next five chapters are about each point, told with rich description, documentation, fact, interviews, and elegant writing stitching so much information in so little space. That astounds. For example, Keen notes how Europe is successfully regulating social media. Then he tackles technological automation replacing jobs. There is a fascinating interview with Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Shallows, in which we discover a truth that really can fix the future: “The challenge (and opportunity) for educators, then, is to teach everything that can’t be replicated buy a robot or an algorithm.”

These stylistic attributes–first-hand discovery via interviews accompanied by fact, textured description, history, philosophy, critical thinking and current events–are among the best attributes of this book and why it belongs on every tech writer’s and educator’s book shelf. What’s more, we now have an outline for Keen’s future books and a real possibility for positive change on a global scale, which distinguishes his work from others late to the determinism party.

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