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Cult of the Amateur

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen (Doubleday/Currency, 2007)

Librarians are rarely seen as being on the leading of anything. It is refreshing to find a book on a topic ZDNet describes as “Very engaging, and quite controversial and provocative,” that librarians have debated, hashed, implemented, abandoned, rehashed, and re-implemented for at least the past twenty-five years. For instance, long before the web gave so-called visionaries the idea of amalgamating all literature into a single hypertext library (see pp. 57-60), Wilfred Lancaster was advocating that his fellow librarians abandon the book and place all human knowledge into databases. That and other examples are enough to warm librarian’ hearts to know that the rest of the world is finally catching up to them. But enough gloating.

Keen’s thesis is that the phenomena some are calling Web 2.0 is one of radical participation where the differences between actor and audience, writer and reader, performer and audience, and expert and layman are either blurred or obliterated. By the way, this is a bad thing. He dubs this mentality “the myth of the noble amateur,” a mentality freed from the socializing effects of professionalization. So that there is no mistake, Keen thinks that experts and professional are good things that no advanced society can long do without. Keen likens our situation to T. H. Huxley’s evolutionary analogy of an infinite number of monkeys typing away over an infinite number years to come up with Hamlet. The upshot is that the preponderance of drivel that spews from the web makes it well nigh impossible to find anything of worth. The implication is not only is the proportion of precious metal to dross way out of line in Web 2.0 but also that there are far more efficient ways of creating cultural items then setting everyone loose to create them. The result is that the Web 2.0 is undercutting its own existence and debases the culture from which it arose.

Just what is Web 2.0? Like intelligent design, what Web 2.0 is rather depends on what one wants it to be. At a minimum, Web 2.0 is a network data communication, storage, retrieval and promulgation system that allows all users some role in the collection, development, and distribution of that data, regardless of what that data may be. Some examples of Web 2.0 applications would be wikis and blogs.

Cult of the Amateur is entertaining, provocative, provides many points to ponder and is well worth the time, but it is not without its flaws which detract from Keen’s thesis. To start, Keen throws in technologies that pre-date Web 2.0 (such a peer-to-peer networking) that just happen to exhibit some of the same deleterious habits. This is compounded by his spending so much time on music piracy and the 99 cent MP3 single. Music is one of Keen’s passions, but he allocates to much space one what turns to be an analogous instance of his presumed topic. Keen also appears to confuse the cause of the problem of the myth of the amateur with its symptoms. Populism has a long history in the United States and is deeply etched in the American psyche. As a nation, we do not trust elites and experts are an elite class. Moreover, Keen glosses over the fact that the systems that certify individuals as experts are not entirely successful, excluding some worthies and admitting others who are far better at working the system than mastering a disciple. At times Keen ignores counterexamples, such as the recent article in Nature that appraised the Wikipedia favorably against the Encyclopedia Britannica. Finally, he ignores the ambiguity of some of his
evidence, as when he remarks that Middlebury College will not accept the Wikipedia as source. What goes unsaid is that virtually no college or university would accept any general encyclopedia (including the Britannica) as a source.

These defects serve to distract from the serious issues that Keen brings up. It has been long evident to librarians and academics in general that the Web (that is, Web 1.0) made it difficult to distinguish a trustworthy source from a plausible nutcase. The problem of plagiarism has increased tremendously in recent years not only because it is so much easier now, but because the notion of intellectual property has been so devalued by unthinking file sharing. The anonymity provided to publishers by the Web courts irresponsibility, while the unjustified assumption of anonymity by unwary users threatens privacy. The Wikipedia (Keen’s stand-in for all wikis) while more reliable than Keen is willing to admit, does have a problem of both scorning experts and implicitly relying upon them, as in the case of the former Wikipedia administrator “Essjay,” a high school graduate who posed as a Harvard professor. Keen’s example of Google being a vast repository of personal information supplied by people doing innocent searches is well taken. And while blogging has more value than Keen is prepared to admit, much of it is not original and depends on the very journalism it is threatening to starve.

Now one might ask, does this review have his own axe to grind? Well, I do have a blog (in an area that I did some graduate work and that no one but me would want to read), and I have been known to use the Wikipedia (and even have it listed in Ethel’s Webliography) but would never suggest that anyone cite it as a source. So no, I am not a disinterest party, but then again–at
least in this case–I am not an amateur either. Then again, Keen is not a disinterested party either and not altogether the expert social scientist that one would expect for this topic. Even at that, The Cult of the Amateur is well worth the read.

-jimm wetherbee

Cult of the Amateur is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.