Okay, maybe he doesn’t hate it — or at least not all of it. After all, the New Yorker and the BBC and the Oxford English Dictionary are available on the Internet, right? (or at least parts of them are). But it’s clear that Andrew Keen doesn’t like what the Web is doing to our Culture with a capital C, and that’s why he’s written a book called “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.”
He joined us at globeandmail.com for a virtual Q&A session this afternoon, and I managed to pass along some questions from friends like Rachel Sklar and Eric Berlin. I wish I had had a bit more time to rustle up even more :-)
To Keen, the current “Web 2.0” focus on interactivity and “user-generated content” (what a horrible term) — with blogs and wikis and forums and Digg-style voting and so on — is bordering on Marxism, as he wrote in a widely-circulated opinion piece last year. In other words, it celebrates the contribution of the individual regardless of whether that individual has any talent, and Keen believes that this is stamping out the finer things in our culture, which presumably include the opera, classic literature, the Philharmonic, etc., etc.
It’s easy to criticize Keen on any number of fronts. Lawrence Lessig takes Keen to task for criticizing the sloppiness in the “blogosphere” and then making exactly the same kinds of sloppy mistakes in his book. “Here’s a book,” Lessig writes, “that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors.”
Lessig concludes that the only possible answer is that Keen is “our generation’s greatest self-parodist.” He has also set up a Keen Reader wiki so that everyone can contribute their own errors from the book.
Assuming we are actually supposed to believe that Keen is serious, one thing he avoids in most of his arguments is that “user contributions” are a cornerstone of our democratic society. If the process of saying what you think of something (or someone) allegedly works for electing governments, why is it so absurd to apply those principles to the production of other things? No one is suggesting that works of art should be designed by committee — but the only people threatened by “user-generated content” or other Web 2.0-style features are those who have achieved their lofty status solely through being anointed by the cultural aristocracy.
Keen — who ran a dot-com that ultimately failed in the first bubble — says in the book that “Democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent.” I would argue the Internet helps to do the exact opposite — it helps to support truth (by making it easier to find errors), it improves discourse by broadening the available range of opinions and commentary (assuming you like that sort of thing, which Keen presumably doesn’t), and it helps to reveal expertise, experience and talent in places we may not have thought to look for it.
Yes, the Internet also produces a lot of sound and fury for no purpose — and there are a lot of idiots and pompous windbags that use the Web as a platform for misinformation or outright falsehood. In other words, the Internet is a reflection of humanity in all of its variety, both good and bad, and ultimately we find in it whatever we are looking for. Keen looks for the cheap and crass and useless, and he finds it. It’s too bad he isn’t helping us find the good stuff.