The Cult of the Amateur – Book 5

This book is another in the “high-tech heretic” genre (cp. also Clifford Stoll’s, Silicon Snake Oil); a former techie raising serious questions about the impact of tech (the subtitle gives it away: “How today’s internet is killing our culture“). Andrew Keen was a high tech entrepeneur and now questions much of the value of the internet, especially the web 2.0 stuff. He covers a lot of ground and raises a lot of interesting points. Let me highlight at least some strengths and weaknesses noted so far (I’m half way and should finish pretty quickly as it’s a pretty fast read).

Strengths:

  1. Points out some of the ways web 2.0 is eroding the concept of truth. With examples including wikipedia (a source most college professors dislike!), Keen points out that the truth can change at any moment (based on whatever the last edit was, whether the edit was done with evidence or accuracy). He also talks about wildly postmodern hypertext fragmentation of literary texts which perform a similar function. Or simply the blurring of the distinction between fact and opinion (because there are no fact checkers or editors – but see below) or the way that all kinds of conspiracy theories and other crackpot views are given equal status with legitimate, reasoned views supported by evidence.
  2. Argues that web 2.0 in particular (e.g., blogs like this one, youtube, facebook, etc.) flatten out the cultural horizon causing us to lose any sense of value for high culture (I don’t think he uses this term, but I think that’s a fair depiction). A symphony by Mozart and a video of a dancing baby are equal on the internet and there is no clear system of gatekeepers to help point us to the things of enduring and greater value. This makes a bit of sense to me as I admit to having a smidgen of elitism in my blood (see, for example, William Henry’s In Defense of Elitism).
  3. A last positive observation I will make is that even if the second point is not true, the sheer bulk of material (blogs, videos, etc.) makes it extremely difficult to sort through the available material. Hence, the truly great and worthwhile may get drowned out in a sea of crap (pardon my French). The lack of some sort of gatekeeper, editor, cultural guides on the internet means that anyone might be directing you to that recommended book or movie, including immature teenagers or demented crazies. Keen’s example of the experts at the old Tower Records store speaks of something valuable that has been lost.

Weaknesses:

  1. While the book is titled the cult of the amateur, I think the author sometimes suffers from a different cult – the cult of the elite. What I mean is that Keen has an overwhelming deference to the expert. There are, of course, a number of problems with this. I’ll highlight three:

    First, experts are like anyone else subject to confirmation bias, groupthink and other similar things destructive of their objectivity and the validity of their expertise.  

    Second, given the politicization of many of the centers of expertise Keen appeals to (is journalism objective? are the universities? is science? is history?), we need a way to appeal to experts in a more chastened way. I can’t help but think of William Buckley’s assertion: “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone diretory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” I’m not sure if I’m there, but I can see his point.

    Finally, many of his examples of the danger of the web 2.0 can easily be duplicated with non-internet phenomenon. For example, he criticizes citizen-journalism due to its lack of fact-checkers. But mainstream media has had massive failures in this area, as well. Keen does mention a few of these failures, but argues that the media has corrected their errors and disciplined the errant. However, it is worth noting that it is the internet (and citizen-journalists) who have identified many of these errors and pressured the traditional media to correct their errors. One need only think of Rathergate or many other similar accounts. On the internet, readers often critique internet reports helping to insure their accuracy (or prompting corrections); so perhaps this is not so much an advantage as Keen imagines.

  2. Underlying some of Keen’s eanalysis is a somewhat static and probably unrealistic view of economics. If a PR firm uses an amatuer video for an ad and saves $330,000 (one example he gives), the money is not just sitting on the table, but is available to reduce prices, pay larger dividends to shareholders, increase salaries, create other new products, or perhaps some combination of these options. The end of a specific business or career path due to technological change is not anything new and may open up better use of resources, though of course the short-term disruptive effects can be difficult. (To be frank, I’m not always sure money spent on advertising is all that productive, but that’s another story). I have similar skepticism about many other lamentable economic impacts noted by Keen. To be sure, there remains a series of important questions:  if all the internet is filled with amateurs who mostly link to and comment on other stories, what happens when no one is doing hard news any more? if most music is free, will there be facilities and resources to do superb recordings? and so on…
  3. Finally, on culture. Keen is certainly correct that the internet is affecting the cultural hierarchy and undermining the gatekeepers, particularly of high culture. But some of this may be due to the fact that these gatekeepers long ago left most of the population to create increasing self-referential and inaccessible art. Mozart was popular with the masses; 12 tone music, not so much. In journalism, the increasing politicization of the media again creates a disconnect and opens space for alternative media. Education has some of the same problems. So, it may be that this “problem” is a defeater for another problem; I’m not sure which is worse! Shows like American Idol do show there are talents in fields that are hindered by the existing elite power structure, but they also remind us that there are a lot of really awful performers out there too that would never be heard except for new technology.  I wonder if it would not be possible to come up with a third way. Again, a topic for another day. 

In sum, an interesting and provocative read. I think it is always worthwhile for Christians to question the messianic pretensions of any technology. This book helps to do this and is worth a read for that reason alone.

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One Response to “The Cult of the Amateur – Book 5”

  1. James Says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I can guess at the arguments being made from your comments and I would say I largely agree with your positives, especially the unfortunate flattening, or even inversion of culture. You go on YouTube and see the most amateur of videos and all their little friends are lauding their skill and ability just because they aren’t able to do it. As soon as a criticism is raised, an onslaught of “Poor Comment” ratings ensue and scathing, poorly written retribution. We’re also in a culture where people don’t take pride in how they get their media, but rather how little they paid for it, not paying heed to whether or not their purchase (or utter non-purchase) is harming the artist that they claim to love. A simple example would be the people who come into my Barnes & Noble and hang out by the manga section reading. Then they can go tell their friends how they read this manga free of charge and tricked that stupid mega corporation.

    Some points from your highlighted weaknesses that I liked:

    “First, experts are like anyone else subject to confirmation bias, groupthink and other similar things destructive of their objectivity and the validity of their expertise. ”

    Yup, just like I mentioned above about the YouTuber. You might be the expert on computers in your town because you can run a router cable, or, in a more personal example, several people at Barnes & Noble say I’m really intelligent just because I know some random stuff they don’t.

    “For example, he criticizes citizen-journalism due to its lack of fact-checkers. But mainstream media has had massive failures in this area, as well…..However, it is worth noting that it is the internet (and citizen-journalists) who have identified many of these errors and pressured the traditional media to correct their errors.”

    Or my favorite common sense checker: The Daily Show.

    “if all the internet is filled with amateurs who mostly link to and comment on other stories, what happens when no one is doing hard news any more? if most music is free, will there be facilities and resources to do superb recordings?”

    To answer your hypothetical questions: They’ll just adapt to the new environment. The anime industry has started doing this already by fighting back against “next day available” free fan subtitled anime shows by delivering the shows in comparable speed and quality at the mere price of an advertisement at the start and end of the show. Along the same vein of things adapting and moving forward in unconventional venues, Joss Whedon’s show “Dollhouse” has been picked up for a second season in the face of low low “At broadcast” TV ratings due to large DVR and Online streamed viewership and probability of high DVD sales. To be more specific, traditional news venues will change from having news rooms to having news spaces where professional and amateur journalists with proper authorization come together to post and talk about the latest news story. The physical office space might simply be the printing works, some editors and interns. Or five years from now: a server, tech support, and administration staff who distribute the choice publication to peoples virtual paper (I’ve actually seen a tactile interface using flexible “organic” LEDs that it supposed to give you the feeling of holding a newspaper). And there will be sound facilities because there’s always a private entity who is willing to own that superb sound recording equipment and charge people to use it.

    “But some of this may be due to the fact that these gatekeepers long ago left most of the population to create increasing self-referential and inaccessible art.”

    This is true. Sometimes people who are high up in the fields don’t feel like writing and producing for the masses who “don’t get it” so they continue to not “get it”. I call these people pretentious fools. They’re the people who don’t like the new Star Trek movie because “I know a black hole doesn’t work that way.” A) You believe that. You don’t KNOW because you’ve never thrown anything into a black hole. B) Shut up, you’re ruining the movie which thankfully is very unpretentious.

    J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, showing you don’t need an expert to do something right.

    Hopefully reading my comment doesn’t take up too much of your reading time 😛

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