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Chicken Little 2.0

By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture

By Andrew Keen
Currency, 2007


Mad utopians are running wild. Infinite monkeys are taking over. The truthful sheen of our mass media has been tarnished. Advertisements are no longer trustworthy! The sky is falling, and Web 2.0 is responsible for the coming apocalypse. Or so we would be led to believe, if only our guide weren’t a blind man with an inner ear infection.

Our guide is Andrew Keen. Formerly a teacher with a master’s degree in political science, Keen moved to Silicon Valley during the web explosion of the 1990s to make his fortune. After the failure of his audiocafe.com, he wrote and lectured on the digital era and music in general until he ran into controversy. In February of 2006, he wrote an article for The Weekly Standard declaring the Web 2.0 movement—defined by Keen as a democratized internet, full of millions of self-obsessed amateurs churning out forests of mediocre content while simultaneously stealing anything they want—to be the modern successor of utopian Marxism. An amalgamation of the “counter-cultural upheavals of the 60s and the techno-economic utopianism of the 90s,” this ghostly specter of the twenty-first century conflates expert with amateur, producer with consumer, strip-mining our “culture industries” and rendering our collective minds infertile to reason, scholarly analysis, and good taste.

The Cult of the Amateur attempts to make this case in depth. While the original article was brief and somewhat cogent, its offspring is (despite its slim profile) bloated, meandering, and badly written. Keen tackles Web 2.0’s effect on the news media in all its forms: the publishing industry, the music industry, the blurring of our morality, the erosion of our privacy and of truth itself. Throughout the first 180 pages the tone is gloomy and relentlessly misanthropic (there is literally not one positive word from the author about the internet and the people who inhabit it). This would be acceptable if the case was strong and the writing was good. But Keen’s case falters upon its often ludicrous pronouncements, fringe-targets, shallow anecdotes, and lack of context. Only in a few instances, with emotion and the facts to back it up, does he really drive his point home.

We begin with T.H. Huxley’s “infinite monkey theorem,” which posits that if you provide infinite monkeys with an equal amount of typewriters, “some monkey somewhere will eventually create a masterpiece.” This is Keen’s metaphor for the inhabitants of the internet … sans the masterpiece. These monkeys (or us) are proliferating like cockroaches, and the modalities of the internet are their engines of destruction.

The case opens with the mass media’s pending destruction and its replacement by a democratized media inhabited by billions of personal truths. “The internet would democratize Big Media, Big Business, Big Government … even democratize Big experts,” replacing them with talentless “noble amateurs.” Ignoring the plethora of sites dedicated explicitly to professional and expert content (by people who would otherwise need “Big Business” to be heard), Keen claims that “you won’t find the talented, trained individual shipwrecked in his pajamas behind a computer.” But on many websites you often can. Why, one example has just sprung to mind.

The media and its experts are the gold standard by which Keen judges the blogosphere, and if we’re to be brought along with his argument, we have to agree. He worries about bloggers forcing The New York Times to “compromise its renowned editorial content.” Never mind that the drab, blandly middle-of-the-road Times Op-ed page has been on the wrong side of every issue from civil rights to the Iraq War. Nary a critical word about the media is uttered, and his end-of-the-world scenarios seem to have already come to pass. The blame for the decline in quality of content is placed squarely on the proliferation of blogs and extreme special-interest groups, “which don’t seriously debate the issues or address the ambiguities and complexity of politics.”

Few seem to, nowadays. Celebrity gossip has crept into virtually every news broadcast, and political reporting has now become another phrase for stenography. Keen laments a future where 2+2 can equal 5, but his looming apocalypse is already our nightmare. Even our most cherished “arbiters of truth” like The New York Times report polls and soap opera-like rows between candidates that would be right at home in US Weekly were the subjects in Hollywood instead of Washington. While every aspect of the internet boom’s involvement is dissected, the social and economic context is left unexplored, and so the argument fails to crystallize. Worse still, the author’s trust in his idols leads him teetering on the edge of inanity. He fears a future where “advertising and public relations are disguised as news,” and feels that already “our trust in conventional advertising is being further compromised.” One can’t imagine.

His requiem for truth suffers similarly:

Without editors, fact-checkers, administrators, or regulators to monitor what is being posted, we have no one to vouch for the reliability or credibility of the content we read … when we, the citizens, don’t know whom to believe or whom to trust, we may end up making the wrong decisions, or, worse yet, just switch off—from the candidates, from politics, from voting at all.

When sixty percent is considered high turnout in an election, one might be led to think that our oracle has misread his tea leaves. Aside from the typical timeline confusion by now familiar to the reader, Keen here displays his contempt for readers (and viewers) in general. Serious citizens know not to get their information from one source, and they often have a good idea of where to get it from (it’s not Wikipedia). Yes, theirs is a small market, but it’s one likely to remain with us as long as we have schools and politics and readers. Our “careful aggregation of truth” will not be torn asunder by the spread of misinformation. It may take a few dents, but the shared narrative will not melt away. People are not quite the docile know-nothings Keen makes us out to be, as, schizophrenically, he himself makes clear in the very first paragraph of this chapter: “Every week a new scandal further erodes our trust in the information we get from the Web.” This skepticism is a good thing, and it augers well for the future.

After mistaking the future for the present, Keen summons nationalism theory (ironically fathered by Eric Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian) to strengthen the case. Paraphrasing Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, he states that:

Modern communities are established through the telling of common stories, the formation of communal myths, the shared sense of participating in the same daily narrative of life. If our national conversation is carried out by anonymous, self-obsessed people … then Anderson’s imagined community degenerates into anarchy.

Swimming way out of his depth, Keen appears to have stopped at the introduction to Imagined Communities, because the bulk of the book is about how nationalism spread. It turns out that the printed word was a crucial linchpin in the genesis of our imagined communities. Thus a man reading a newspaper in Kentucky feels some connection to the goings on thousands of miles away in California. With the advent of the internet, the possibilities for expanding this shared narrative are immense, and have already been made manifest in organizations composed entirely of members linked by thin strands of fiber-optic cable.

  Keen also has concerns about plagiarism, gambling and sexual predators on the internet, and his hysteria here reads like one of Time magazine’s patented epidemic reports. Students using material without citation is a sign of a massive cultural shift, wherein “Web 2.0 technology is confusing the very concept of ownership, creating a generations of plagiarists and copyright thieves.” Even the clergy are plagiarizing their sermons! And while the problem is of course real, comparing online gambling to opium addiction in 19th century China is close to abhorrent. As with gambling, his discussion of oversexed preteens is overwrought; it’s him against the world (and the ACLU). To Keen, “the Web 2.0 world is uncomfortable with ethical debate.”

Speaking of abstractions, the recurring indeterminate pronoun “they” pops up frequently in the book, and this demonstrates more than just paranoia and lazy writing. Andrew Keen is haunted by bogeymen. When he actually summons these phantoms out of the mist, the reader is hard-pressed not to fall down laughing. The worst example of this is his invocation of “liquid text,” which would be at home among the ranks of Timothy Leary’s wackiest theories. Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly is quoted at length describing,

a universal library in which “each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before…once digitized,” Kelly says, “books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves.”

We’re thus left to fear Rousseau and Paulo Coelho’s forthcoming collaboration, Confessions of an Alchemist.

Our ability to take the author seriously is further undermined by ill-considered first-person narratives, unnecessary acronyms, and buzzword-like definitions (Keen sometimes channels the self-aggrandizing Thomas Friedman). When someone links a large amount of websites to a certain page to raise its likelihood of coming up in a Google search, he cites is as an example of “UGC—user generated corruption.” After describing the supposed lure of Web2.0, he says, “I call it the great seduction,” like a little child proudly displaying an unimpressive drawing to a parent.

His opening confession, not nearly as bad as the last one, as we shall see, is similarly glib. Keen recounts his former career as a “pioneer in the first internet gold rush.” He then rather sophomorically pronounces that “this, therefore, is no ordinary critique of Silicon Valley.” The sad truth becomes apparent after comparing Keen’s opus with similar screeds dotting the webscape: the vitriol, the ham-fisted rhetoric, and all-around amateurish quality of the work mark this book as distinctly ordinary.

It’s only in his assessment of the internet’s effect on the music industry that Keen comes close to hitting his stride. His eulogy to Tower Records is genuinely affecting (owing more to the story than the prose), and his point about the importance of the interpersonal “‘transmission of music’ from one generation to the next” is well made. With the deep gouge carved out of music stores country-wide, we all should be concerned that we’ll be without the wisdom of “the clerk who could have stepped out of … High Fidelity, the guy with the earring who has heard everything before anyone else, and who passes on that inside knowledge to the rest of the world.”

He raises similar concerns for the record industry vis-a-vis illegal downloading, but here he encounters problems with his sources and with math in general. He cites a 2006 IFPI (International Federation of Phonographic Industry) report that forty songs are actually downloaded for every legal music download, 20 billion illegally for 500 million legally in 2005. He then calculated that at the iTunes price of 99 cents, the music industry lost $19.99 billion that year. As any calculator will tell you, the actual loss would be $19.8 billion. The report is also suspect considering the source, the record industry itself (which based its results on “consumer research in 10 music markets and third party surveys”). Keen also ignores the positive aspects of the report, which cited massive growth in legal downloads in 2005 over the previous year in the US, with an astonishing gain of 434% in Japan.

The author worries that the decline of small labels and stores will leave the industry in the hands of a few, but his has already happened (as it has in the news industry as well). In fact, this consolidation, in all the industries Keen uses as examples of Web 2.0’s destruction, began long before the internet even appeared. So we come back again to the lack of context. The music industry, the news media, and the publishing industry are all in the hands of a few, and have been for quite some time. This is a result of economic policy, and the decline in the quality of content has its roots here as well. Given the profit-first model that these industry oligarchies run on, we should expect the “streamlining” of resources and the lightening of content. The latter also owes something to our culture itself, to the self-obsession, lack of civic interest, and a certain shallowness deeply embedded in the social fabric.

With this in mind, the true nature of the “Web 2.0 revolution” makes itself known. The internet is acting as an accelerant, a steroid, and as a magnifying glass for all of our ills. And Andrew Keen is terrified. It can’t be disputed that the internet is inflicting economic and social damage, but the author again misses the how. He sees black and white when there are shades of gray, and ignores the good for the evil.

At least until the end. On page 184, in a final chapter entitled “solutions,” a different Andrew Keen is writing:

So what is to be done? How can we channel the Web 2.0 revolution constructively, so that it enriches rather than undermines our economy, culture and values? I’m neither antitechnology nor antiprogress [sic]. Digital technology is a miraculous thing, giving us the means to globally connect and share knowledge in unprecedented ways … our goal should be to preserve our culture and our values, while enjoying the benefits of today’s Internet capabilities.

Aside from the reactionary keywords at the end, this is a comparatively bright and sunny Keen; the situation is not so gloomy and his solutions seem almost mundane considering the sky-is-falling approach he’s taken up to now. Smart news companies are integrating user involvement into their websites, while keeping it separate from the professional content, and similar music and video-content sites (which maintain this division) are appearing as well. Keen even admits that CDs are overpriced, and the idea that businesses should respond to challenges no longer seems novel to him. What of gambling, sex, and theft on the internet? The keys are good laws, good law enforcement, and family values. The reader is thus surprised by a rather upbeat chapter that offers answers to a problem that isn’t as bad as it seemed a few pages ago. Not content to undermine his entire book, Keen treats us to an almost painfully ironic little postscript in the form of “acknowledgments,” where he admits what any bemused reader already knows: when it comes to writing books, he is himself an amateur.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs. This is his first published piece.