The Cult of the Amateur

By Andrew Keen

The Cult of the Amateur is one of those books that are a pleasure to review because they put forth their arguments in such a clear, direct, uncompromising and totally unbalanced way. One can condense the book’s message in a sentence: The public, open nature of the Internet is destroying our culture because it has allowed for the triumph of “ignorance, egoism, bad taste, and mob rule” over professionalism, expertise, truth, and intellectual standards. There are no cultural gatekeepers online. Indeed, the gates have been torn from their hinges by hundreds of millions of monkeys with keyboards.

Such a judgment is unfair, as well as being old. The kind of downhill slide into a democracy of taste and judgment that Keen attributes to the advent of the Internet has been going on for a while now with regard to almost every aspect of our culture that technology has allowed us to produce cheaper, faster, and more disposable versions of. Fast food is an obvious example. In all human history we have never been able to make food as bad, as downright unhealthy, as the stuff many of us eat today. A mass consumer society demands quantity, affordability, and convenience in its cultural goods – not oil paintings but cell-phones that take pictures.

In other words, the Internet as we have it today is less a cause than a symptom, a reflection of larger historical currents. This is clear from a more objective look at the evidence. Keen is relentlessly biased in overplaying the failures of the Internet and underemphasizing problems with more traditional sources of authority. Yes, Wikipedia has its share of problems. But, as studies have shown, for the most part it is no less reliable for the average user than the stalwart Encyclopedia Britannica. And of course it’s far more accessible. Keen’s denigrating of online sources for information is especially churlish given his own reliance on Web-based sources that are only revealed in endnotes, and which he seems to have cherry-picked in order to fashion his own misleading arguments. This is a little grating coming from someone only too happy to explicitly identify himself as one of the book-worthy talent elite.

Then there is the issue of downplaying the failures of the mainstream media. Given all of the embarrassments over the way the American media in particular handled the reporting leading up to the invasion of Iraq, as well as the outing of such prominent frauds as Jayson Blair, one would have thought the lesson was to look on all news with a more critical eye. But Keen never mentions Judith Miller, and only refers to Blair as an example of how the mainstream media got it right by having to publicly account for their shortcomings. This isn’t good enough given his emphasis on the importance of editors and gatekeepers. Nothing he says addresses the problem of systemic corporate bias in the media, which the Internet at least provides some alternative to (for the time being). And much of what he deplores about online news and political blogs – the emphasis on opinion and personality, the rise of infotainment and fake news – was going strong in print and on television long before the Internet took off. If anything the Internet was following the mainstream’s lead, and for the same reasons: it made the news cheaper to produce and more entertaining. You can’t blame Fox News on the Internet.

Keen does, however, make one important point. This has to do with the cannibal economy of the Internet, the way it has grown to dominate the traditional “old media” cultural landscape by raping that landscape of both its content and its advertising revenue. Which is a big problem.

Keen is clear on the fact that culture follows the money. And he’s right. The problem is that there is no money in the content of culture, in being a creative, cultural producer. The great Internet successes on the Internet are not in the content business. Starting at the top with Google, which is described, accurately, as “a parasite.” The content of the top Web 2.0 Internet brands – Google, MySpace, Yahoo!, FaceBook, YouTube, Blogger, even the film review resource Rotten Tomatoes – is all outsourced or user-generated. These sites produce virtually nothing of their own, they simply exist as platforms. And they are the new Internet economy’s big winners.

Content, then, is for losers. Content is crap. Copyright on the Internet? Why even bother? Mere content isn’t worth it.

This is the real threat to our culture, not the assault on our traditional institutions. Those institutions can, at least in theory, transform themselves into more viable forms. The problem is that the Internet represents perhaps the final step in the process of our rejection of the very notion of culture having any value at all. This is a disillusionment the human spirit will find hard to survive.

Review first published online December 6, 2007.

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