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The Alien Spaceship (Book Excerpt)

Thoughts after lunch among the new digital elite: "We have a new nobility without any noblesse oblige."

I recently had lunch with a friend at The Battery, a private members club for the San Francisco tech elite. There was no Soylent on the menu. Instead, we dined on grilled octopus and shared a vintage bottle of Russian River Chardonnay. The service, the wine, and the organic food produced by local, sustainable farms were all impeccable. We were treated like lords by the club’s obsequious domestic staff — which wasn’t surprising, since The Battery had been designed by Ken Fulk, the high-society event planner who organized Sean Parker’s $10 million “Lord of the Rings” fantasy wedding and who is a big fan of television dramas like “Downton Abbey” that glorify two-tier societies.

After lunch, I took a tour of The Battery, which, with its not-so-secret poker room and its wood-paneled library lined with unread books, resembled a 19th century gentleman’s club as imagined by a 21st century fantasist. The Battery might have been a gigantic Instagram photo. Hello this is us, it was saying about a Silicon Valley that has seceded from time and space. Half a century ago, J. C. R. Licklider imagined a human-computer symbiosis that would “save humanity.” Little did Licklider imagine, however, that his intergalactic computer network would end up financing the building of an alien spaceship in downtown San Francisco.

 717B, the restaurant at The Battery
717B, the restaurant at The Battery

Chrystia Freeland, the author of “Plutocrats” and an authority on the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else, has a compelling explanation of why fantasists like Fulk find nostalgic dramas like “Downton Abbey” so seductive. It’s a contemporaneous show, she argues, because there is a “profound similarity between the vast economic, social, and political changes that drive the action in ‘Downton Abbey’ and our own time.” In our digital age of perpetual creative destruction, Freeland says, technology companies like Google, Uber, and Facebook are, on the one hand, enabling the vast personal fortunes of 21st century Internet plutocrats like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick; and, on the other, wrecking the lives of a woman like Pam Wetherington, the non-unionized worker at Amazon’s Kentucky warehouse who was fired after suffering stress fractures in both feet after walking for miles on the warehouse’s concrete floor.

But there is one important difference between “Downton Abbey” and Silicon Valley, Freeland reminds us. “With their lavish lifestyles, the aristocrats of ‘Downton Abbey’ may seem like a 20th-century version of our own plutocrats, but they are not,” she says, because today’s “aristocracy of talent” have “all the perks and few of the traditional values” of the old Downton Abbey aristocracy.”

And so, in the Silicon Valley of 2014, there are all the social and economic hierarchies of 1914 without any of what Freeland calls “the social constraints” of the old aristocracy. We have Downton Abbey reinvented as The Battery. We have secession fantasies and $130 million yachts as long as football fields and billionaire uberlibertarians with staffs of black-clad blondes and white-coated butlers. We have massively meretricious wealth with minimal social responsibility. We have a new nobility without any noblesse oblige. What we have is certainly not the answer to the deepening economic and social inequalities and injustices of the early 21st century.

The answer, then, can’t just be more regulation from government. Noblesse oblige, after all, can’t be legislated. As critics like Tim Wu have argued, the answer lies in our new digital elite becoming accountable for the most traumatic socioeconomic disruption since the industrial revolution. Rather than thinking differently, the ethic of this new elite should be to think traditionally. Rather than seceding to Burning Man or Mars, this plutocracy must be beamed back down to earth. “Move fast and break things” was the old hacker ethic; “you break it, you own it” should be the new one. Rather than an Internet Bill of Rights, what we really need is an informal Bill of Responsibilities that establishes a new social contract for every member of networked society.

Silicon Valley has fetishized the ideals of collaboration and conversation. But where we need real collaboration is in our conversation about the impact of the Internet on society. This is a conversation that affects everyone from digital natives to the precariat to Silicon Valley billionaires. And it’s a conversation in which we all need to take responsibility for our online actions — whether it’s our narcissistic addiction to social media, our anonymous cruelty, or our lack of respect for the intellectual property of creative professionals. The answer lies in the kind of responsible self-regulation laid out in William Powers’s “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” his excellent guide for building a good life in the digital age.

“You have only one identity,” Mark Zuckerberg so memorably trivialized the complexity of the human condition. In our conversation about the Internet, we need to recognize that our multiple identities are often at odds. For example, the Internet is generally excellent for consumers. But it’s much more problematic for citizens. Internet evangelists, especially libertarian entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, see everything in terms of satisfying the customer. And while Amazon does indeed satisfy most of us as consumers, it is having a far less satisfactory outcome for citizens, who are more and more concerned with the reliability of information, the civility of discourse, and the respect for individual privacy.

It’s a conversation that needs to take place in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and the other centers of digital power in our networked world. The time is now ripe for this. Some of the more responsible entrepreneurs, academics and investors are finally recognizing that the Internet — the technological revolution they believed would make the world a radically better place — hasn’t been an unmitigated success.

Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz warns about the increasing inequality of our digital age. Union Square Ventures’s Fred Wilson worries about the dangerous new monopolies of our digital economy. New York University’s Clay Shirky is troubled by the tragic fate of journalists in a world without print newspapers. Charles Leadbeater says the Web has lost its way. Emily Bell frets about our new media one percent economy. Marc Andreessen is concerned with the impact of anonymous networks on civic life. MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman worries that the Internet’s “Original Sin,” its reliance on free advertising’s supporting content, has transformed the network into a fiasco. Distinguished bloggers, writers, and journalists like Dave Winer, Astra Taylor, John Naughton, Dan Gillmor, Om Malik and Mathew Ingram all fear the power of large Internet companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Jeff Jarvis is disgusted by the plague of trolls, abusers, harassers, lunatics, imposters, and assholes on the Internet.

What society are we building here?” Jarvis asks. And that question should be the beginning of every conversation about the Internet. Like it or not, the digital world is reshaping our society with a bewildering speed. The fate of employment, identity, privacy, prosperity, justice, and civility are all being transformed by networked society.

The Internet may not (yet) be the answer, but it nonetheless remains the central question of the first quarter of the 21st century.

Excerpted from “The Internet Is Not the Answer” © 2015 by Andrew Keen; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Andrew Keen is an entrepreneur who founded in 1995 and built it into a popular first-generation Internet company. He is the executive director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast, the host of the Techonomy Web series “Keen On,” and a columnist for CNN. His other books include “Digital Vertigo” and “The Cult of the Amateur,” which has been published in 17 languages. Reach him @ajkeen.

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