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 It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer.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.
: 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.