The Cult of the Amateur

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The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy
Andrew Keen
First published on Amazon, 24 July 2007

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Since Andrew Keen is so instinctively dismissive about amateur contributors to the internet — people like me — it’s hardly surprising that I should instinctively dismiss his book, so let me declare an interest right away: I like Web 2.0. I’ve been a contributor to it — through Amazon customer reviews, Wikipedia, discussion forums, MySpace, Napster[1] and so on — for nearly a decade now, and I’ve followed the emergence of the political movement supporting it, exemplified by writers such as Larry Lessig and Yochai Benkler, with some fascination. and no, I’ve never made a dime out of it (though I have been sent a few books to review, not including this one).

Andrew Keen is that classic sort of British reactionary: the sort that would regret the damage caused by industrial vacuum cleaners on the chimney sweeping industry. His book is an impassioned, but simple-minded, harkening to those simpler times which concludes that our networked economy has pointlessly exalted the amateur, ruined the livelihood of experts, destroyed incentives for creating intellectual property, delivered to every man-jack amongst us the ability — never before possessed — to create and distribute our own intellectual property and monkey around with the title to property wrought from the very sweat of its author’s brow.

Keen thinks this is a bad thing; but that is to assume that the prior state of affairs was unimpeachably good. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to see the pitfalls of concentrated mass media ownership (Keen glosses over them), or note that the current intellectual property regime — which richly rewards a few lucky souls and their publishers at the expense of millions of less fortunate (but not, necessarily, less talented) ones, isn’t the only way one could fairly allocate the risks and rewards of intellectual endeavour.

Keen’s world is one where there is a transcendental reality; a truth, purveyed by experts, trained journalists, and in great danger of dissolution by the radically relativised truths of Wikipedia where the community sets the agenda, and if two plus two equals five, then it is five. So much Big Brother: Orwell’s novel gets repeated mention, it apparently having escaped Keen that a media owned by a concentrated, cross-held clique of corporate interests — which is what the old economy perpetuated — looks quite a lot more totalitarian than publishing capacity distributed to virtually every person on the planet.

Keen laments the loss of a “sanctity of authorship” of the sort which vouchsafed to Messrs Jagger and Richards (and their recording company) a healthy lifetime’s riches for the fifteen minutes it took to compose and record Satisfaction (notwithstanding their debt — doubtless unpaid — to countless anonymous blues musicians) and seems to believe individual creativity will be suddenly stifled by undermining it. There’s no evidence for this (certainly not judging by the proliferation of blogs, Wikipedia, and so forth, as Keen patiently recounts), and no reason I can see for supposing it to be true on any other grounds.

On the contrary, Yale law professor Yochai Benkler in his excellent (and freely available!) The Wealth Of Networks has a much more sophisticated analysis: there is a non-market wealth of information and expertise — residing in heads like yours and mine — which the networked economy has finally unlocked, for the benefit of all, and at the cost of the poor substitute that preceded it. That this might have compromised the gargantuan earnings capacity of one latter day Rolling Stones (to the incremental benefit of a few thousand others) is far less of a travesty — and more of a boon — than Keen thinks it is. Now rock bands have to sing for their supper. Keen may regret that but, as a concert-goer, I sure don’t.

Keen also, irritatingly, keeps returning to the Monkeys and Typewriters analogy (writes your dear correspondent, a monkey). It is true there may not be much talent behind the infinite typewriters, but the evolutionary lesson is that there doesn’t need to be, as long as we have tools, be they Google algorithms or manual reputation management devices (things like Amazon’s “helpful review” voting buttons) to sort the wheat from the chaff. And like it or not, we *do* have these tools: they’re the sine qua non of Web 2.0, the thing without which it would never have got off the ground.

And Wikipedia (or Linux, or eBay, or Amazon’s customer review system) is potent evidence of that. That there are notorious cases, a few of which Keen recounts, doesn’t detract from the fact that Wikipedia is largely comprised of brilliant articles, with helpful links and useful surrounding discussion, a complete history, and those articles that aren’t so good are obviously not: all you need to pack for a visit is your critical faculties. Again, if the choice were blind faith in Encyclopaedia Britannica or a sceptical read of Wikipedia, I know which I’d have, and which I’d counsel for my children — especially since Wikipedia is automatically up-to-date, preternaturally following the zeitgeist, and replete with good know-how on things that Britannica would never have in a million years. Most of the time, we don’t need a Nobel prize-certified article, and in Britannica wouldn’t get one anyway, if what we wanted to know about was ’’The Knights who say “Ni”’’.

Elsewhere Keen misunderstands Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jaques Rousseau, the Correspondence Theory of Truth, implies that traditional media isn’t systemically biased, assumes his fellow men have no sense of scepticism whatever (because something is watched on YouTube, Keen assumes it is necessarily believed true), and constantly fails to see the double standards in his own arguments: Complaining that traditional media is losing out to a swarm of unpaid, under-resourced amateurs, Keen suddenly remarks “but in reality it’s often those with the loudest, most convincing message, and the most money to spread it, who are being heard”. Plus ca change, eh?

Lastly, Keen laments the passing of specialist record and book shops like Tower, whose “unparalleled” and “remarkably diverse selection” will be lost to us for ever. Clearly he’s no online shopper then, since dear old Amazon would lick all of them put together — but Amazon, he says, lacks the dedicted expertise of sales assistants that could have stepped out of Nick Hornby’s Hi Fidelity. Except that it doesn’t, since it has literally millions of them — people like you and me — who can offer our tuppence worth gladly and without thought of recompense.

The thing is, there *is* a debate to be had here, though not quite the apocalyptic one that this author believes is necessary, and at times Keen touches on it, but his brimming prurience and needless moral disgust — at the cost of level-headed anlysis and expostion — towards a community which has simply adjusted to the new social envinronment more quickly than traditional political and business models have makes this a poor entry for the purposes of kicking off that debate.

In the mean time, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom and Lawrence Lessig’s Code: Version 2.0 (neither of which Keen seems to have read) might be a better place for interested persons to start.

See also

References

  1. This review was published in 2007!