Book Review: Cult of the Amateur

A dear friend handed me Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, and proclaimed it "the worst book in the universe." Intrigued, I
decided I had to sample a chapter or two. [Coincidentally, the paperback edition was released today.]

I ended up devouring all of it. For while this might not be the worst book in the universe – there might be extraterrestrials capable of generating worse – it is certainly the worst book I have read in years. Granted, I am not a professional book reviewer, nor do I play one on the Web, so no one assigns me bad books to read. Like most people, I normally try to avoid reading anything that might be shoddy or boring.

According to Keen’s polemic, "amateurs" are destroying news, music, movies, and television, infecting "Our Culture" with errors and driving out "quality" content. They do this by writing
solipsistic blogs, recording self-indulgent videos, editing slapdash articles for Wikipedia, and other horrifying crimes of the intellect. Furthermore, the free-for-all nature of the Internet is degrading the moral integrity of "Our Culture" with easy access to gambling and
pornography, and by facilitating the theft of intellectual property.

To Keen, the world is cleanly divided between the Manichean polarities of the Expert and the Amateur. If you have a recording contract with an established media conglomerate, or you write for a daily newspaper in a big city, or you have a doctorate and a salary from a university, you are an Expert: the source of all that is right and good with Our Culture.

But
if you lack the establishment’s endorsement, you are an Amateur, a
know-nothing cretin whose opinions are not worth a single Internet
data packet. Though Amateurs presumably grew up imbibing Our Culture,
they are not part of Our Culture. If they were, they would have
prostrated themselves before record companies, colleges, and other
authenticating institutions, instead of creating their own content.

Even
if you are a mere consumer of new media, you do not escape Keen’s
dragnet. You there, with your iPod! You are decimating physical media
sales, causing entertainment industry executives to writhe in their
sleep. And you, leaving an editorial comment on Amazon.com! Who
authorized you to spew your discordant "thoughts" all over the
Web?

With
my right hand on a stack of CDs, I swear that this summary is no
caricature. "Say goodbye to today’s traditional experts and
cultural gatekeepers," Keen warns (p. 9). This apocalyptic
revelation came to him during a wilderness getaway with Silicon
Valley luminaries, who staged a free-form conference where everyone
had to contribute. The general subject was "Web 2.0," the
nebulous concept that media consumers can also be media producers.
Keen realized that Web 2.0 threatened the music industry, in which he
previously pioneered online music distribution, as well as
"traditional" sources.

He
has been the Prophet Jeremiah of Web 2.0 since that momentous camping
trip. Unlike Jeremiah, who rooted his denunciations in centuries of
Jewish history, and had an alternative vision for how his
contemporaries might live, Keen is content with splenetic venting.
Broad complaints like "Wikipedia is not edited or vetted for
accuracy" (4) only pass muster if the reader has no idea how a wiki
works. If a Wikipedia article’s readers are all potential editors,
and a portion of those reader-editors are knowledgeable about an
article’s subject, and some of them correct and expand the
article…how can one say with a straight face that the article isn’t
"edited or vetted for accuracy"? The answer, of course is that
they might
not be edited by people who meet Keen’s definition of expertise and
experience.

By
Keen’s standards, I should not be writing this review, because I am
not a "credentialed" journalist, nor do I receive a salary for my
writing. I compose this essay for the sheer pleasure of doing it,
which is the very definition of "amateur."

But
am I an amateur, as in "not an expert"? For twelve years, I have
made a living by working on Internet-related technologies, from
networking to applications to interface design, so I am conversant
with the developments that Keen decries. For over five years, I
worked in the news media, and dealt with many of the issues that Keen
raises. I have also written book and play reviews for "real"
(paper-based) publications with flesh-and-blood editors (though I
wasn’t paid very much, when I was paid at all.)

Isn’t the best strategy to judge people as individuals, giving proper Lose Weight Exercise to their education and experience, but ultimately deciding whether they are wise or foolish based on their words and deeds?

All
that being said, I don’t go around calling myself an "expert"
on anything, because that seems far too self-congratulatory. My
intent in relating these facts is simply to point out that the
definition of "expert" is rather ambiguous. How does one know
someone is an "expert," in the absence of an official credential?
And does it logically follow that someone without a credential has
nothing of value to express? We have all encountered silly jackasses
with advanced degrees and lofty professional certifications. Isn’t
the best strategy to judge people as individuals, giving proper
weight to their education and experience, but ultimately deciding
whether they are wise or foolish based on their words and deeds?

As
it happens, the news media have employed "amateurs" from the
beginning. At the dawn of journalism in the 18th century, expatriates
wrote letters about events in foreign lands, which were edited and
published in newspapers. These correspondents, as they were called,
had other employment to sustain them, but newspapers relied upon them
for their observations about their host country. To this day, the
news industry depends on such semi-professionals to fill gaps in
their coverage. Only a handful of newspapers can afford a full-time
opera critic, for example, but there are plenty of opera lovers who
will write an 800-word review in exchange for a couple of free
tickets and perhaps a small stipend.

By
adopting a fundamentally ahistorical point of view, Keen has
positioned himself to be the Pat Buchanan of the digital age.
Buchanan believes that American society reached perfection in the
1950s, when blue-collar manufacturing jobs were relatively more
rewarding, and moral traditionalism was the status quo. To Buchanan,
anything that helps the manufacturing sector and restores traditional
American values circa 1958
is a net advance for American society in 2008. Even if you reject
Buchanan’s socio-economic critique (I do, mostly), you must grant
that Buchanan can marshal objective support for his point of view: by
most measurable social indicators (violent crime, illegitimacy, drug
abuse, etc.), the U.S. is worse off than it was a half-century ago.

Keen
believes that Our Culture was far better off 20 years ago, when
movies could not be pirated on the Internet and compact discs were
enormously profitable. He even uses Buchananite language to describe
his project as "protect[ing] the legacy of our mainstream media"
(185).

But
how much of Our Culture will be remembered in another 20 years, much
less 100? Let’s look at the
top songs of 1988
:
the #1 song was "Need You Tonight" by INXS. Further down the
list, you have Poison’s "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Tiffany’s
"Could’ve Been," topless model Samantha Fox’s "(Naughty
Girls) Need Love Too," and other timeless classics. Is this the
best we have to offer future generations?

For
a book that asserts the superiority of professionally-generated
content and large media companies, it is ironic how truly atrocious
Keen’s writing is, in big ways and small. He misspells "Gmail"
(174). He spells "HollaBackNYC.com" two different ways in the
same paragraph (177). Six Apart is a corporation, not a software
package (65), and it sells products and services like a "traditional"
software company, albeit through the Internet.

He
clutters his sentences with strong words that loseWeight Exercise their meaning by
their frequency: "absurd," "crazy," "nonsense," "moral
disorder," "scary," "hubris," and on and on. Intellectual
property theft is "as pervasive – and potentially destructive –
as a new strain of avian flu" (142). Self-broadcasting is an
"obsession" (175). "Google is a parasite" (135). A blogger is
"rabidly pro-Israeli." He says if the intelligence community uses
Web 2.0 technologies to defeat decentralized terrorist networks,
"Next thing, they’ll be telling us that to beat the terrorists,
they have to drive planes into tall buildings" (176-7). In a
painfully unselfconscious passage, he claims that "Unlike
professionally edited newspapers or magazines…the majority of
political blogs make radical, sweeping statements without evidence or
substantiation" (53-4). Inevitably, Keen provides neither evidence
nor substantiation for that statement.

He
seems ignorant of the meaning of the phrase "big lie," thinking
that it’s something a single ad agency can accomplish, rather than
a phenomenon of government-generated propaganda (17). His line of
argument against political blogs rests two points: 1) that
private-citizen bloggers should not be commenting about politics
without prior approval; and 2) that these blogs-gone-wild are bad for
democracy. Essentially, he contends that widespread participation in
the democratic process is bad for democracy. Huh?

Keen’s
view of culture – which probably enjoys widespread agreement in the
"traditional" media industries – can be usefully juxtaposed
with those of Edmund Burke, the Georgian-era British parliamentarian.
Burke thought that a culture (including religion, social mores,
political systems, etc. – contained a gigantic amount of what we
might call "embedded intelligence," small adjustments and
compromises made throughout the life of a nation, which are taken for
granted and sometimes poorly understood, but nevertheless are crucial
to the proper operation of any society. Just as you would not replace
a car engine without knowing how an automobile works, you would not
rewrite a culture, or rework its institutions, without a deep and
wide understanding of how that culture works. Even then, changes are
best instituted gradually, and with the humility that comes from
knowing that tradition is, as G.K. Chesterton famously called it,
"the democracy of the dead."

As
someone who has imbibed Burke’s defense of traditional culture, and
who shares his skepticism about rapid cultural change (particularly
when intellectuals market those shifts under the guise of
"revolution"), I could have been sympathetic to Cult
of the Amateur
. I do not
believe that change is necessarily an improvement; I do not believe
in destroying structures merely because they are inefficient or even
corrupt. Before dismantling and rebuilding social structures, in my
view, two questions must be asked: First, is the new structure likely
to be better than the old one? Second, are the benefits of the new
order likely to be worth the disruption in building it?

If
Keen had pursued that line of analysis, I would have been his
handmaiden at the word "cult," even if I disagreed with his
conclusions. But his defense is shallow and weak, because his
attenuated perspective starts with the appearance of the Beatles on
the Ed Sullivan show. Compared to the lifespan of Western
civilization, that happened last month. He gestures toward high
culture, mentioning Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos twice, with little
evidence that he appreciates their value. In an aside, he says he is
a music lover who knows very little about the mechanics of music,
like most people are, but isn’t that an admission that he
is…(pause for effect)…an amateur?

On
economic grounds, Keen’s arguments fare even worse. He claims that
because Craigslist’s mostly-free advertising competes directly from
San Francisco-area media companies, it "steals" $50 million of
classified advertising revenue annually (130-1). Producing a superior
service at a better price is not stealing. It just isn’t.

Pirating
music and movies is stealing, though, and Keen is justified in
condemning it. But one can agree that a teenage kid with $10,000 in
stolen media on his laptop is a naughty boy, while recognizing that
the true economic damage is far less than the retail value. If piracy
weren’t an option, the kid would have spent a small fraction of
that amount on licensed media, unless he was particularly wealthy.
Efforts to combat piracy are often onerous, such as software
copy-protection, or laughable, such as the movie industry’s slick
commercials discouraging piracy, which, as my wife says, "make
stealing movies look really cool."

I
would have liked to read a nuanced, literate critique of how the
Internet is affecting our culture, even if the tone was negative or
downright hostile, because no technology should be adopted without an
appreciation of its potential benefits and harms. I would have also
enjoyed a skewering of high-tech hype and its antinomian, inhuman
tendencies. But satire and irony are the proper tools for the job,
not painting "OUR CULTURE’S END IS NEAR" on a sandwich board
and shouting at pedestrians. The former approach will gain attentive
readers; the latter makes people avoid eye contact and cross the
street.

"The
Cult of the Amateur" is less about the threat that the Internet
poses to Our Culture than about Andrew Keen and his crotchets. In a
real, convincing way, he conclusively demonstrates one portion of his
thesis: that not every author is worthy of publishing a book.

Andrew Hare

Andrew Hare is a former CCT Graduate Student.