LATIMES book review followed by NPR interview with the author -suggested further reading: Human Nature and Continuing Human Existence
June 16, 2007 Los Angeles Times
BOOK REVIEW By James Marcus, Special to The Times
'The Cult of the Amateur' by Andrew Keen
The Web entrepreneur laments the rise of the amateur blogger.
LONG, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away — which is to say, during the loony apex of the 1990s Internet boom — Andrew Keen was an entrepreneur. An Englishman by birth, he relocated to Silicon Valley and in 1996 founded Audiocafe.com, one of the
earliest websites devoted to digital music. Like most such ventures, his crashed and burned before it could earn a dime.
At this point, many a man might have retreated from the Web in a permanent sulk. Not Keen. As late as 2000, he was producing MB5: The Festival for New Media Visionaries (the title alone makes me weak with nostalgia). Four years later,
however, the scales finally fell from Keen's eyes.
The occasion was the annual pajama party thrown by multimillionaire Tim O'Reilly, who made a fortune publishing tech-related books and magazines. In earlier years, the 200 celebrators on hand would have been buzzing over the latest
wrinkle in e-commerce or broadband penetration. In 2004, the flavor of the month was Web 2.0 — a "shiny new version of the Internet," as the author puts it, which stressed the participation of a mass audience. Keen was having none of it. Where his
companions saw democratization, he saw a vast throng of blabbering narcissists. Get thee behind me, Facebook!
Keen was, from that moment, a man with a mission. And now he has produced his manifesto in "The Cult of the Amateur."
What Web 2.0 has really delivered is "superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment," he writes. "Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and
extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating … our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced … by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers,
home-spun moviemakers, and attic recording artists."
Nobody can deny that the Internet has produced an ocean of drivel. In April, the Technorati search engine company estimated that there were 70 million blogs in existence, with another 120,000 being created each day. And there are more
than 182 million profiles on MySpace. Most of this stuff will never be seen by another human being. Much of it has been created specifically to fleece any visitor bold or bored enough to stop by. Keen is right to deplore it.
Alas, he keeps undermining his argument by ignoring the genuine benefits of Web 2.0, and hanging every societal ill around its neck. You would never know from "The Cult of the Amateur" that the Internet has fostered real communities as
well as sociopathic claques, or that there are smart, thoughtful, ferociously informed bloggers. Keen soft-pedals the fact that many of those "gatekeepers" have already expanded their reach onto the Internet. Keen himself has a blog — whoops, a podcast —
called "AfterTV," which presumably is not on trial in his rather selective kangaroo court.
Internet porn is a problem. Child predation is a problem. So is identity theft and the pilfering of copyright-protected music. Keen laments them all, dishing up an abundance of blood-curdling details. But few of these rackets can be
attributed to an evil cult of amateurs: When it comes to crime, in fact, it's the experts we have to fear.
In the course of fingering democratization for the collapse of our culture, the author also champions some unlikely victims. "Our ability to trust conventional advertising is being further compromised by the spoof of advertisements
proliferating on the Internet in large numbers," he thunders at one point. (A reminder: Advertisers are not purveyors of expert information — they're salespeople.) Keen also springs to the defense of former Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.), whose serial
bloopers were caught on camera by his opponent, then posted on YouTube. "Given that Burns really did commit these gaffes, the videos weren't technically lies," concedes the author. Well, no, they weren't lies at all, and a legislator who was videotaped
dozing off during a congressional hearing deserves all the ridicule he can get.
Still, there's a deeper flaw here. Keen, who plainly loves the culture he sees on its last legs, keeps confusing different types of authority. He hunkers down in the trenches with political hacks, advertisers, news anchors and the
panicky proprietors of your average Hollywood studio. These are the people he deputizes to keep the barbarians at bay. But talent — the great wild card in the human endowment — is not the monopoly of upper management. And the blogger in her proverbial
pajamas, or the twitchy nerd with his battered acoustic guitar, may well end up carrying the cultural torch. Who's to say?
In any case, amateur is hardly the dirty word Keen makes it out to be, and his reflexive obeisance to people in charge cripples his polemic. After all, a James Madison (whom Keen cites approvingly for having a similarly jaundiced view
of human nature) wrote: "The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted." I believe it was the professionals he had in mind.
James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut" and the proprietor of a blog, House of Mirth.
June 16, 2007 Weekend Edition Saturday National public radio
Does the Internet Undermine Culture?
JOHN YDSTIE, host: Former Internet enthusiast and entrepreneur Andrew Keen has taken a U-turn. He now believes the current incarnation of the Internet threatens the values, the economy and the creativity of our society. And he’s written a book
about it. The book is called “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.”
Andrew Keen joins us from member station KALW in San Francisco. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. ANDREW KEEN (Author, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture”): Thanks for having me.
YDSTIE: Well, first of all, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page here. Your indictment is, again, what’s probably called Web 2.0, which includes things like YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia and Google. Overall, just give us a brief description
of the problem you have with this interactive version of the Web.
Mr. KEEN: My problem is that it fundamentally undermines the authority of mainstream media. We think two things going on simultaneously, the rise of the user-generated content, which is unreliable enough and corrupt, and a crisis in professional
journalism, professional recorded music, newspapers, radio stations, television and publishing. And that is the core of our culture.
Once we undermine the authority and expertise and professionalism of mainstream media, all we have is opinion chaos, a cacophony of amateurs.
YDSTIE: One of the things you criticized about the Web is the lack of cultural gatekeepers. But, you know, I think cultural gatekeepers often been viewed as a pejorative term. They are those people who believe they know what’s best for us. But
they’re often protecting entrenched interests who happen to be rich and powerful.
Mr. KEEN: That is a neo-Marxist argument - the idea that everyone who holds power is pursuing some sort of class or economic interest. I think the majority of editors at newspapers, agents and publishers at our big publishing houses, people in
Hollywood, are doing the best job they can. They have a great love and respect for music and movies and news.
And I simply don’t buy the idea that this so-called elite - and this is an elite through meritocracy, not through birth - are somehow pursuing specific corrupt agendas. I think that, actually, the blogosphere and the flattened Web 2.0
media will reflect that. And I think that the split(ph) behind the so- called democratization of this media is a new oligarchy. But the trouble with this oligarchy is it’s anonymous. We don’t even know who the people are.
YDSTIE: What about the argument, which was the basis for another well-received recent book that there is wisdom in the crowd that goes beyond what any individual or small group can offer?
Mr. KEEN: Yeah. That’s a good book - the James Surowiecki book. I don’t buy it. I mean, I think that in cultural terms and in information terms, I prefer the wisdom of the professional. And for people who are in doubt, look at Wikipedia and then
look at Britannica, look at the blogosphere, and then look at newspapers.
YDSTIE: Let me ask you, though, about the popular music scene, because I hear from a lot of musicians that they’re happy that they can get their work out on the Internet because the gatekeepers that were keeping them from getting on or the hurdles
that they had to cross in order to get a big company to back them were just too great.
Mr. KEEN: There are some examples, I think, of successful music acts who have made it on the Web. Arctic Monkeys is one. But, again, I think that the kind of musicians and, indeed, artists who are going to make it on the Web are people who are
skilled in sales and marketing. They’re not necessarily the people who are most able.
YDSTIE: What about the argument that this whole thing is just creative destruction in capitalism and it’s going to happen and ultimately it will lead to something that’s better and more efficient?
Mr. KEEN: I don’t want to encourage a technological determinism where we simply sit back and say what will be will be. We created this technology. We need to manage its consequences. I think it throws up some very, very interesting issues. For
example, Chris Anderson, the author of “The Long Tale”, was asked about the impact of Amazon on independent bookstores. As I’m sure many of your listeners know, independent bookstores are closing. They’re in big trouble, just like independent record
stores, as a consequence of the Internet.
In response, Anderson said that the death of the independent bookstore was what he said - and I’m quoting him here - “the road kill on the way to this digital nirvana.” I think we need to reevaluate some of or cultural institutions. If
bookstores or newspapers or encyclopedias are road kill, then what kind of society is this Web 2.0 world actually leading us to?
YDSTIE: Andrew Keen is author of “The Cult of the Amateur,” an indictment of the current state of the Web. He joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco. Thanks very much.
Mr. KEEN: Thank you. That was a lot of fun.
YDSTIE: It’s WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.