How to Fix The Future debate

Last week, I was lucky enough to host a debate with renowned author Andrew Keen (@ajkeen) as he promotes his latest book in Europe. How to Fix The Future succinctly analyses many of the issues facing today’s digital society and provides positive steps that can help us to ‘remain human’. Indeed, Staying Human in the Digital Age is the subtitle of the book in the UK (although not in the US – so read what you will into that!).

Andrew and I have worked on a number of projects together over the last 4 or 5 years and he never fails to initiate vibrant and insightful discussion among the audiences he addresses. He has been a persistent sceptic of the often over-blown claims of internet, social media and digital players.

With The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew warned of the impact of user-generated content on musicians, journalists and other professional creatives while the rest of us were still diving in and trying to figure out how to harness these amateurs for communications. Digital Vertigo was among the first to highlight the dark-side of social media and warned of addiction, isolation and loneliness while the industry was claiming a democratisation and globalisation of connectivity and sharing. And most recently The Internet is Not the Answer, pointedly critiqued the huge concentration of wealth and power, and the disenfranchisement of the masses because of the increasing dominance of a very few US West Coast firms.

Most of Andrews views are now accepted as mainstream, so I was very excited to quiz him about his new book. Perhaps a little more optimistic, and certainly a call for a positive approach to the future, the book highlights how the dislocation we are seeing now is not novel. By providing a contemporary context to the writings of Sir Thomas More (Utopia, 1516), Andrew homes in on the importance of ‘Human Agency’ in solving these problems. Equally opposed to the growing luddite tendency of people to reject technology as to the almost messianic belief that technology will solve all problems, he argues that we need to focus on humans’ unique power to shape our futures and to decide what is right to do.

Our debate focused on the five areas where human agency can make a difference: regulation, innovation, customer and employee choice, social conscience and education.

I asked if our current political leaders were up to leading what is ultimately an interventionist programme – and the answer was that in many cases, they are not. He fears that we may need a large data or techno-disaster to force governments into action. Large, established national and federal governments are simple to sclerotic to act without this. However, people like Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner, and leaders at city and state level like Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island, and smaller states like Estonia, were taking responsibility for rethinking and reimagining the role of human agency in limiting the excesses of technology.

Was not the libertarian faith in massively decentralised approaches like blockchain and cryptocurrency an alternative path to managing the power of centralised authorities be they banks or tech firms, I countered? “The solution to technology problems cannot be more technology” Andrew answered, pointing out that the original concept of the internet was meant to usher in an era of equality, democracy and social progress which has not come to pass. Cryptocurrency and blockchain may include some good concepts, but alone they are unlikely to fare any better.

In the social conscience sphere, simple unloading money into sometimes spurious philanthropic schemes is not enough, commented Andrew. Today’s digital leviathans, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg etc, need to take more responsibility for the impact of what their companies have done and are doing, according to Keen. For example, whilst he believes that Bezos has the moral compass and dedication to create positive change; in light of the decimation of the retail industry at the hands of Amazon, Andrew suggests that investing in job creation, or retraining schemes on a massive scale would make sense. A ‘you break it-you fix it’ attitude needs to replace the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra of Silicon Valley.

Overall, we had a lively session with many questions from the audience ranging from application of anti-trust laws, to Britain’s role as an arbiter post Brexit. It was clear to all of us as communicators for technology firms that we need to work harder to include the ‘why’ of technology as well as the what, and to ensure we are exercising our own agency in deciding on how things are communicated.

Thanks to everyone who came and to Andrew for providing such great food for thought.

My favourite quote of the morning…

“The point of AI is to replace us – that does not make it bad, but certainly problematic.” Andrew Keen

Ben Maynard

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