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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 9 page 19


It's true that, compared to the giants of the industrial era, internet companies generally don’t require much staff — just a handful of engineers to make the founder’s borrowed ideas work, plus a few sales and marketing people, someone to manage the emails, someone else to count the money, that’s about it. When Facebook ponied up a billion bucks to buy Instagram in 2012, the latter had only 13 full-time workers.

Facebook? Don’t get me started. They’re the ones who altered the news feeds to see how they could manipulate people’s moods. Oh, sorry, they were just experimenting. Personally, I figure they hoped to find an antidote against angst: studies have shown that the site leaves many members feeling lonely, jealous and angry. Still, you know, the thing is, facebookers keep on coming back. The site has 1.4 billion users, half of whom are on there at least six days a week. Facebook (2014 revenue $12.5 billion) clearly responds to some social need for self-inflicted misery.

The real kicker, according to Andrew Keen, is that we are the suckers who enable these social networks to grow huge and wealthy. They can do with minimal staff because the majority of the real work is accomplished by us and we do it for free. We provide the videos, photos, songs, tweets, comments, reviews, poems, and in short, all the content they need to fill the space between ads. The whole scam depends on you categorizing your time on their sites as fun instead of drudgery.

Another thing you supply them is your personal info, but let’s not dwell on that today.

Our participation is not quite unrewarded. We get access to the platform and to other people’s freely-provided content, and above all we get to imagine that we are celebrities, that the drama of our busy lives is playing out online, on Facebook and Twitter, on LinkedIn and Pinterest. “We work for free in the data factory,” says Keen, and the internet barons grow rich off our labor.

You get the impression that Keen bears an animus against the Valley “elite.” He tries to paint a picture of their decadence based on their possession of luxurious mansions and of yachts “long as a football field.” He especially resents the Valley’s “boy tycoons” and I have to sympathize with him on that score. I mean, look at someone like Zuckerberg — he’s “socially autistic,” which means he doesn’t give a fig about you. His Facebook idea, a student project, beat out such rivals as Friendster and MySpace to become the planet's go-to social network and he became disgustingly rich off it. He looks so ordinary, so undeserving, yet he won the lottery of life. Who wouldn’t be jealous?

Politically, Keen is repulsed by the libertarian streak he finds in the Valley. Internet moguls may deploy the rhetoric of democratic participation, but their agenda is that they are the Übermenschen and everyone should step aside while they move fast and break things. They are notoriously anti-tax and anti-union. They don’t trust government. Far from being an outlier, Kim Dotcom is the fullest expression of internet enterprise.

Internet libertarianism is ironic because the development of the internet is entirely due to publicly-funded research, specifically research on electronic communications networks from WW2 up thru the Cold War. You could say that kind of research is communistic in the sense that it is undertaken for the general good rather than for private profit. It was in the 1990s, once the whiz-kid entrepreneurs and venture capitalists got their hands on it, that evil crept onto the internet.