Nick Carr is a smart guy – but he’s wrong

Nicholas Carr is a former editor at the Harvard Business Review. He’s written books, he’s written for the New York Times, he’s spoken at MIT and he’s won awards (see Nick’s comment below for clarification). I have done none of these things (okay, I won an award once in Grade 6). I do, however, have a blog – just like Nick does over at Rough Type – and so that puts us on an equal footing, more or less. Is that bad? After all, I’m not nearly as smart or as accomplished as he is. We may have different tastes when it comes to a bunch of things, like whether ZZ Top is great music or not, or whether John Kricfalusi of Ren & Stimpy fame is one of the funniest cartoonists alive.

Why is any of this relevant? Because Nick has written a post in which he says that Web 2.0 is part of a “machine” that is killing (or will kill) culture as we know it, since Web 2.0 is designed to fuel what he calls “the new narcissism.” In this, he agrees with Andrew Keen, who has written a long piece for the Weekly Standard (which you can find here) about how Web 2.0 reminds him of Marxism, a utopian vision that became a nightmare.

And what is this Web 2.0 nightmare? Keen calls it “Socrates’s nightmare: technology that arms every citizen with the means to be an opinionated artist or writer.” He also says – to use the quote that Nick pulled out for his post: “If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization… is cultural ‘flattening.’ In the end we’re left with nothing more than ‘the flat noise of opinion.'”

This – not to put too fine a point on it – is a load of elitist clap-trap. (Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web is much more succinct than I in his post about it). Every time something even remotely new or different comes along, there’s always a knee-jerk “how did this riff-raff get in here” kind of response from places like the Weekly Standard. Imagine if everyone were entitled to voice their own opinion, or indulge their own tastes, instead of recognizing the superiority of whatever art or music or literature they’re supposed to be bowing down in front of. Total chaos. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria.

In his final paragraph, Nick warns us to “beware of those who come with money and influence and pretty-sounding abstractions and who are utterly unaware that what they so joyfully seek to impose on the world is their own reckless banality.” I can take a little reckless banality, to tell you the truth – and there’s plenty of that at Harvard too, I’m betting – but I’m just crazy enough to think that out there in the blogosphere there are lots of unique voices that could also be heard, if only elitist morons like Andrew Keen would take the poker out and loosen up a little (Eran at has a nice one).


Nick has responded to my original post in the comments.

29 thoughts on “Nick Carr is a smart guy – but he’s wrong

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  4. I don’t know Nick, but whenever I come across stuff like that I picture a guy sitting in a wing chair in some university library somewhere, muttering to himself about how he can’t concentrate on Aristotle’s Poetics (in the original Greek, of course) because those damn kids won’t turn down their boogie-woogie music.

  5. Real wrath-of-God type stuff, indeed, all of us proles speaking up and being heard. What will they think of next? Elections?

    But seriously, one point that Messrs Keen and Carr didn’t mention is what is surely one of the most powerful consequences of this, um, empowerment. The atomization of media will inevitably amplify the hurly-burly of competition and produce a much more interesting and provocative community of voices.

    Is the age of the expert over?

  6. I was telling some folks the other day about how I attended the TorCamp conference. TorCamp was a really informal conference (the “unconference”) that really encouraged dialog from the 20 or so people in each workshop, NOT just the person leading the workshop. I was amazed at how how many smart people there are in a room at events like that. Normally you only here from the one person at the front of the room at conferences…

    Change is afoot and there is room for unlimited voices in the blogoshere. Seems like some people don’t want to embrace that change…

  7. Okay, yes, super, fine, I read the posts and, yes, these elitist dudes do need to remove that pickle. But on the core of it, haven’t people chosen their info source from Place A vs. Place B forEVER? Said another way, isn’t all that is really happening here that Experts are being more broadly and cheaply distributed? It used to be that you chose your Camp by doing things like reading the Sunday Sport vs. The Economist. The same thing is happening today, it’s just that the point-of-view buffet is fuller, and it’s nearly free.

    — Stuart

  8. I think you’re right, Mike.

    And Stuart, that’s a good point. We’re just extending and broadening the range of voices that are out there, which I think is a good thing. Yes, some of them are going to belong to morons or loudmouths, but not all of them — and there might even be the occasional genius 🙂

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  10. Nice response! What made me laugh about Keen’s article was that what Andrew Keen thinks is Web 2.0 is his own weird fantasy world. I mean, nobody I know ever claimed the Web (let’s forget the 2.0 bit for a second) was a utopia – yet Keen’s article makes it out to be a *dystopia*. As for Nick Carr, no matter what his pedigree – he may as well be George Bush for all the ‘us vs them’ claptrap he writes on his blog.

    Old media better wake up to this fact: the world is changing, get over it. Evolve or die.

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  12. I don’t know Nick, but whenever I come across stuff like that I picture a guy sitting in a wing chair in some university library somewhere, muttering to himself about how he can’t concentrate on Aristotle’s Poetics (in the original Greek, of course) because those damn kids won’t turn down their boogie-woogie music.

    Nope, you don’t know Nick, but I’m happy to have inspired your imagination. And now that I’ve roused myself from my library wingchair, emptied my pipe and staightened my bow tie, let me qualify the elitist qualifications you’ve so generously bestowed on me. I was an editor at HBR, not the editor, and I have written but one slender volume, though, as Johnny Thunders might have said, it was a motherfucker.

  13. Interesting what if scenario from a crazy person…… I can play the what if game to.

    Up until now society has had rules to function, and you had to obey those rules in order to live in the world and not go to jail or be killed. Since the invention of the interent those rules have started to break down. 30% of all searches on the internet are porn. Sexual preditors stalk myspace, and things like sex personals have exploded.

    I forsee a future where porn dominates the blogosphere, or the pornosphere as it will become known. Think of the millions of users who would love to read the blog of their favorite porn star? Think of how easy it is to sell something to people who think you have a personal connection with.

    The internet has become a sort of alternate reality where people act out on sex, fear, gread and ego/power. I believe that the more personal the internet becomes the greater this trend. Political blogs are full of “angry people”/nuts saying crazy things and basically wanting to kill the other side. thousands of scammers play on peoples fear and steal billions a year, in the UK alone 2 billion pounds was stolen last year. How many bloggers check thier ego feed on a dailly basis?

    In short rules that govern human society where formed over thousands of years, we are now seeing those rules broken down online and a new set forming in their place.

    It would seem everything that is becoming popular online is focused on creating a strong instant emotional response from the user.

  14. Richard: “I mean, nobody I know ever claimed the Web (let’s forget the 2.0 bit for a second) was a utopia …”

    Sure they do, just not in a trivial way. That is, it’s rare to find a strawman claim of the sort that there will be absolute perfection. But it’s pretty easy to find highly overblown claims of meritocracy and democracy, and it’s immensely tedious to repeated debunk them (i.e. Where-Are-The-Woman, and the vast attention inequality).

    The no-utopia is a deflection tactic from the unjustified evangelism.

    Keen’s just going overboard in the other direction. I suppose he could similarly argue “I didn’t call it a dystopia, just a loss of the best of what we have now”.

  15. Thanks for the comment, Nick. Just to clarify, I didn’t say you
    were like that image, just that that’s what your (and more so
    Andrew’s) comments reminded me of. And I’ve changed the post to
    reflect your lesser duties at the HBR. Thanks for taking my rant in
    the spirit in which it was intended.


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  17. “Reckless Banality”: I wish I’d called my blog that. Great post, Mathew.

    Nick: your book is a real “motherfucker”? Come again? On second thought, no thanks. Hold your fire, buddy.

    If anyone’s wondering why more women aren’t hanging ’round these parts, there’s a partial answer. I don’t mind potty language, but I draw the line at phrases that suggest women are most useful as fuckable objects.

  18. Thanks for the comment, Anne. And you’re right, “reckless banality” is a great name for a blog 🙂

  19. The Ghostbusters reference really nails the absurdity of the anti-democratization of content creation arguments. Just because everyone can publish doesn’t mean everyone’s worth reading. Everyone can be their own editor, and use technology (sites like Techorati,, or to help them figure out what’s worth reading.

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