Snobs.com

Call me a populist and a utopian and I’ll say thanks.

There has been much linking and buzzing about Andrew Keen’s militantly snobbish piece in The Weekly Standard in which he bemoans the internet and web 2.0 as a geeky rendition of communism. He reveals a sort of neoneoconservatism that wraps back around to the days before liberals became cultural snots and conservatives tried to act populist and class-blind, the days when conservatives where elistist power hoarders in small, closed societies of privilege.

This is just the sort of ridiculous piece that gets links and I don’t know why I’m falling into the trap except that it’s just so laughably insulting to the entire human race that it makes me feel as if I am Mr. Matter meeting Mr. Antimatter here.

My view of cultural weltanschauung was transformed in the mid-80s, when the remote control took over half of American couches and the cable box and VCR gave us choice — and, lo and behold, when given the chance to watch good shows, we did. It turns out that we do, indeed, have taste and TV, of all things, proved it. I came to see that if you are not a populist, then you cannot believe in democracy or free markets or education or reform religion or education: Why bother with the people if the people are fools? Those technologies gave us control over the consumption of media and the internet gives us the means to create media and that’s what Keen dreads but I celebrate.

In web 2.0, Keen sees the means of flattening culture. I see the means of the people speaking. That’s not communism. That’s democracy. That’s freedom.

Rather than Paris, Moscow, or Berkeley, the grand utopian movement of our contemporary age is headquartered in Silicon Valley, whose great seduction is actually a fusion of two historical movements: the counter-cultural utopianism of the ’60s and the techno-economic utopianism of the ’90s. Here in Silicon Valley, this seduction has announced itself to the world as the “Web 2.0″ movement…. This Web 2.0 dream is Socrates’s nightmare: technology that arms every citizen with the means to be an opinionated artist or writer.

The means to speak.

So what, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? As an ideology, it is based upon a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology. It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone — even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us — can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 “empowers” our creativity, it “democratizes” media, it “levels the playing field” between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is “elitist” traditional media.

Amen. But, again, do not assume that everyone who uses these tools wants to be published in The Weekly Standard. What you see is not a mass of minimedia. What you hear is the people, talking. And if you refuse to listen, you will make a rotten capitalist, journalist, politician, statesman, cleric, teacher, or neighbor. Keen hears the voice of Marx in Kevin Kelly fretting about “Mozart before the technology of the piano… Hitchcock before the technology of film. We have a moral obligation to develop technology.” Keen says:

But where Kelly sees a moral obligation to develop technology, we should actually have — if we really care about Mozart, Van Gogh and Hitchcock — a moral obligation to question the development of technology.

The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts.

No, it is inherently dangerous for the business of those who used to control the means of creation and distribution. And that is Keen’s real fear:

Traditional “elitist” media is being destroyed by digital technologies. Newspapers are in freefall. Network television, the modern equivalent of the dinosaur, is being shaken by TiVo’s overnight annihilation of the 30-second commercial. The iPod is undermining the multibillion dollar music industry. Meanwhile, digital piracy, enabled by Silicon Valley hardware and justified by Silicon Valley intellectual property communists such as Larry Lessig, is draining revenue from established artists, movie studios, newspapers, record labels, and song writers.

Is this a bad thing? The purpose of our media and culture industries — beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people — is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent. Our traditional mainstream media has done this with great success over the last century.

Traditional, controlled, centralized, elitist media that gave us The Beverly Hillbillies and Oliver Stone movies and Oprah and monopoly newspapers and Mary Higgins Clark books on the successful end… and unread literature on the unsuccessful end.

In the Web 2.0 world, however, the nightmare is not the scarcity, but the over-abundance of authors. Since everyone will use digital media to express themselves, the only decisive act will be to not mark the paper. Not writing as rebellion sounds bizarre — like a piece of fiction authored by Franz Kafka. But one of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience.

Aha. And there is Keen’s other essential fear: that is voice will not rise above that of the masses. But he does not have the courage not to speak. He blogs and podcasts. Heh.

: It’s no surprise that fellow digital snot Nicholas Carr agrees with Keen but Matthew Ingram does not.

: And a sort of moral opposite to Keen’s argument is the wail we hear from some quarters that now the people, empowered, are turning into gatekeepers, to which Doc applies proper perspective.

The internet is just people speaking.

  • Jorge

    Jeff……… I will try to say this straight foward. Taking the Weekly Standard at face value is like believing in something without objectivity. The magazine is no worse than any conservative or liberal publication. The problem is not only with the authors of claptrap, but the readers inability to know bullshit when they see it.

    Given the age old principles of economics and entrepreneurship, people should try to apply the crap they read to their own economic problems and ways of life. If it doesn’t hunt, burn that rag and never look back.

    Coporations are the backbone of our capital society. They can be humanity’s milk cows or our slave master. Everyone shouldn’t be expected to know these things. If the people that are educated would just teach two others it would be a very short time before this country alone would be on a rocket to social bliss.

    We are the masters of our own destiny. At this time things aren’t looking so good. If we can turn our country in the right direction, and achieve our personel goals, don’t forget to pull our brothers and sisters along with us.

  • http://www.paulparducci.blogspot.com Paul Parducci

    Keen and his pals are offering up the same old elitist party line. Everytime the “tools” change there is a group of well-placed shaky-kneed gate-keepers that wish to properly control the art flow. I say bring it on. Everybody get to your cameras and keypads and make em sweat!

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Suppose I find the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”. I put it up online someplace. Now what?

    The real issue is not the liberation of publishing, but the ability for material to be found. Retrieval is the problem that has never been solved. It’s why we have so much advertising. Producers have to try everything in order to reach their potential customers. Marketing is just as important for the world of ideas as for toothpaste. I don’t see any good solution. Just look at the poor results that pop musicians have had reaching their audience without the large corporate promotion machines.

    We have solved the first half of the information flow using the new technology of the internet, but we’re stuck on the second half.

  • http://blog.spartac.us/ Brian O’Connell

    There’s a much better economic metaphor for Web 2.0 than marxism: the gift economy. I don’t know who first came up with it, but it’s been floating around.

    A pimary difference is that marxism is compulsory while the gift economy is not- and that’s a huge difference. (I am far from being an economist or anthropologist- it might be worthwhile for someone who is to compare and contrast actual primitive gift economies to Web 2.0 to see if the metaphor is valid or can offer any additional insights.)

    The problem for the media elites then is in trying to sell things that many others are giving away for free. I think they’ve already lost out in the opinion market, but as is known, everyone has one of those, so that was the easiest. I have doubts about video though. It takes a big investment in time and effort. On the other hand, have you seen some of these amateur Star Trek productions? Some of them a quite good.

    In any case, the fact that everyone who wants to contribute can doesn’t mean that interest in these contributions will be uniform. Quality stuff will be sought out and rise to the top.

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  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    keen is looking for press, any which way he can get it. ah, the catch22 of blogging about a moronic perspective ;-)

    his U2 example kills me. if he could only remove himself from his own reflective subjectivity, he’d recognize that hip-hop has been 2.0 since mix tapes were being hawked from the truncks of beat up caddys. that communal hustle brought us KRS-One and countless other teachers — each a relative U2 in their own right, and none marketed by traditional factories of mainstream media.

  • http://writingup.com/ashok ashok

    (Gulp)

    I liked Keen’s argument, even though it was over the top. All that stuff about Marx and the defense of what are clearly rotten media organizations are problematic.

    The question of whether everyone speaking will mean no one listens is deep; the question of what constitutes “equality” goes very far, esp. if equality depends on institutions that are undermined (ironically enough) by the drive for more and more equality. The question of what media institutions are in essence, and what their role is in rewarding talent or being visible manifestations of what we need to agree on before we debate anything is, again, critical.

    I’m an elitist, so I don’t assume the future will be better as more people are empowered. I hope as more people are empowered they will act responsibly, and things will be better. But I don’t bet on it, and I don’t assume it to be true.

    Fire away but understand this: you can win this argument verbally, but because blogging is so decentralized, its future depends on how its used. If it is used badly, people like Keen won’t just have been right, won’t just have been prescient — they’ll have their hands on a Truth which puts an end to hope. Right now I think the questions they raise are fair, and need to be taken very seriously – the hopes we have for this blogging thing are not something to be squandered.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    If I ever need surgery, I damn sure hope my surgeon is one of the elite in his field.

    Democracy may be a fine thing in principle, but in practice it’s often deadly wrong. Citizen media can’t seem to differentiate experts and frauds in any of the subject areas where I have enough knowledge to tell the difference, and I doubt if it does anywhere else either.

    Web 2.0 is basically just the latest bid by Tim O’Reilly and friends for the lunch money of all the pimply-faced geeks with a bad attitude toward authority, and it saddens me to find anybody taking it seriously.

  • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

    Keen’s article is definitely off point in its “fears” and conclusions, but it does make some sense.

    For sure the Web 2.0 crowd exagerrates its worth and likewise Keen overrates its negatives.

    As for the utopian hippy commi’s….I think the internet is in the process of disembowelling them.

  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    the more i publish, the more i listen to others; not the opposite. keen doesn’t seem to grasp that concept. two years ago, when my blogging hit a wall due to my employment within a large corporation, my scope of sources was limited to a few magazine. now, i subscribe to over 100 feeds from 12 countries and employ numerous technorati & del.icio.us keyword alerts. by default, i’ve become more engaged in the conversation, not less.

    and who said anything about joe shmo operating on me? we’re talking avenues of expression here, not a holiday inn express commercial.

  • http://writingup.com/ashok ashok

    Sean — I think that’s great, don’t get me wrong. I think I listen better because of the Internet too.

    But the big question of people shouting and continuing to shout is still open. I find myself listening too much sometimes, and I’m scared that trend may get worse.

    Being an elitist isn’t always about being a snob; sometimes it’s about being scared, justifiably so. Change isn’t always fun or good.

  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    ashok, what trend are you referring to? overhearing too much of the expressions of a non-pedigree society? or the ones delivered by pedigree, yet sans editorial and the machine at it’s back?

    is the issue that more people are blogging, podcasting, vlogging, etc. so there’s too much to sift through? or possibly that we’ve become caught up in the tidal wave of options and feel like we need to be plugged in 24/7? have we become information addicts, preparing to raise a generation of “infobabys?”

    if we couldn’t unplug for a respit now and then, yes, i too would be somewhat concerned. analog has it’s place, but this isn’t the essay that keen wrote. his writing was steeped in rhetoric, pointing fingers at innovators; people with both vision and empathy. it was really low brow, but i guess that’s your point on two levels, no?

  • http://writingup.com/ashok ashok

    The issue isn’t quite that, even though that is one of the literal implications of what I said.

    Not sure how else to frame it.

    You are right that there are more respectful tones for complaining about the innovation going on.

    Thanks for your response. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself on these threads.

  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    np. i wouldn’t be a good communist if i didn’t engage in conversation. ;-)

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Good Communists don’t engage in conversation, coon, they shout down people who express incorrect thoughts. They also don’t respect property rights, and they replace science with ideology (e. g., Lysenko). During Mao’s Cultural Revolution the cadres broke the fingers of concert pianists because talent is elitist.

    This so-called Web 2.0 is a menace to a free and democratic society because it’s driven by that sort of mind set. Significant work is being done by highly skilled protocol engineers to redesign the plumbing of the Internet to make it more suitable for the needs of the current century. That legitimate work is called Internet 2.0, and the con artists have ripped off that name in order to try and create something like Bubble 2.0.

    I want no part of such an exercise.

  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    bennett, i was being sardonic. i guess the smile didn’t translate.

    how exactly is the work of lessig, o’reilly, et al equivalent to breaking the fingers of concert pianists? i’m consulting with a very large web site — old school — who is now using CC licensed images from flickr instead of paying $500 per image. to me, that sounds like socialized capitalism; giving exposure to *talent* and moving away from a middle-man system that *cashes in on talent*

    why do you blog?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I don’t think “sardonic” is the word you meant to use, coon, look up “ironic” and “sarcastic” at dictionary.com.

    I blog, to answer your rude question, on subjects about which I have expertise when I see an excess of misinformation flowing around the place, either in Big Old Bad Media or in Citizen’s Narcissistic Media. Specifically that expertise is in the field of network design and in politics. So I blog because I have elite knowledge and have done so since 1996.

    The analogy between the destructive works of intellectual property communists and over-hypers and Mao’s cadres is pretty straightforward: they seek to prevent people with elite knowledge or elite skill from profiting by it. Lessig wants to dismantle intellectual property rights, and O’Reilly wants to undermine legitimate software businesses.

    In the highly-complex world in which we live, we need to have better ways for experts to share their insights, and raising the noise level in the room doesn’t do that.

  • http://www.seancoon.org sean coon

    actually, sardonic was the word i meant to use and i wasn’t trying to be rude with my question; i was simply asking why you blog being that it’s a primary component of web 2.0.

    elite knowledge is nothing more than information imbalance. web 2.0 is the rebalancing of “elitists” hording information to promote their self-worth.

    as for “elite skills”, well, i really only see web 2.0 as an enabler, talent and skill will always bubble up to the surface, elitist or not. web 2.0 isn’t going to better position an average doctor to operate on me, but it might lead to generating a more transparent infrastructure for cross-reviews to highlight the more qualified.

    you hear noise, i hear symphonies… and i can agree to disagree, bennett.

  • http://www.akkamsrazor.com rzklkng

    Wha..wha..what?

    So wait, because people give away their labor and work and allow the community to create that prevents people with elite knowledge or skill from profiting from it? Can you please point out where their ordination as “elite” confers on them some special status or monopoly? Can we look forward to Elite Affirmative Action to ensure that your elite still have their place at the table?

    PS. Keen was formerly CEO of “Bubble” casualty AudioCafe, and (in some research is saw regarding a seminar he spoke at in 2000) as having developed the first successfull (financial) business model for the web.

    Sounds like sour grapes to me.

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  • http://whyyouwontgo experience

    i dont know keen… i do know that in 10 years every one of you bloggers who today copy “keens” bio at the blog2.0 conferences you get paid to attend, will be just as ridiculed as your doing to him now…

    and ironicially, youll be making his points to another group of 10 year younger web 3.0 pundits all trying to get that same invited dinner speech or paycheck for your “genius” in the world.

    maybe we should age in reverse physically like a bad sci fi story, we seem to be doing it mentally.

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  • http://www.blourgh.blogspot.com Nuno Oliveira

    It’s reallly hard not to see Keen’s book as a case against freedom of speech.
    As all freedoms worth having its benefits often equal its annoyances, we can only rely on good education and equality to erode the vanity in media and hope for the best.

    The argument that should have been central to the book- it isn’t- is that the profusion of content that web 2.0 brought eventually will lead to the innability of people to filter that content except through, paradoxically, a few well placed opinion makers that will have a great value to corporate interest as it happens today with all the Gadget websites.
    Its size may be its biggest enemy.

    Other than that I think Keen’s gratuituous polemic approach is less an alert than a well placed marketing strategy for the huge market of the outraged blogger out there.

  • chris

    So if only the priesthood of culture gets to decide who has a voice on the internet, which priest gave Keen the OK to blather on about elitism?

    Isn’t he just one of the iPolloi?

  • http://www.educationpr.org paul baker

    I just read the book myself. I find it simultaneously laughable and infuriating. And I, too, had to ask whether the purpose of publishing the book was mainly to light up the blogosphere.

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