Andrew Keen and his publisher have asked me to debate him about his book, The Cult of the Amateur, in New York in June. I’m asking your advice because I’m torn.
The problem is that Keen’s book is the worst of link bait. It’s link whoring. Or should I say talk-show prostitution? It’s frilly lace tempting those who want so much to dismiss this change. He tries to push every internet button he can. Like others, Keen wants to be the contrarian’s contrarian. But that only makes him a double negative. It makes him a curmudgeon, a conservative trying to hold onto the past, a mastadon growling against the warm wind of change. Now I’d be fine having an debate about what the change means and what’s good and bad about it, but Keen makes it all bad with sloppy generalities and blanket insults — like the very worst blog. It’s simply not a good book or a compelling argument.
Do we give this attention? Do we play wack-a-mole with these tiresome arguments? Or do we just ignore it with the sure knowledge that it will go away in an act of self-extinction?
To give you a few examples from the start of the book (which I’ve not quite finished):
Keen summons up the
T.H. Huxley infinite monkey theorem*, of course casting the internet — us — in that role: “Except in our Web 2.0 world, the typewriters aren’t quite typewriters, but rather networked personal computers, and the monkeys aren’t quite monkeys, but rather Internet users.” Just by using this new tool, we are ruining the world. How? “But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. This is no laughing matter.” Oh, yes, he’s serious about this. No sense of fine British irony here. He pounds his typewriter with a sledgehammer.
Keen says the internet is used to “publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.” But nothing else? No reporting? No fact-checking? No new talent making new video? No thoughtful reviews? No new independent music? No new tools for education? This is the most troubling aspect of his book: He acknowledges nothing good about the internet and we who inhabit it. That’s either blind or intellectually dishonest. Of course, there is good and bad here. I acknowledge the bad on the internet — the unbearable blogs, the flaming fart jokes, and worse, the people who use the medium as their outlet for hate — just as I remind its opponents of the bad books, movies, songs, and, yes, newspapers produced by the old media world. But in either case, does the bad negate all the good? Of course, not. I argue that media old farts and the curmudgeons who feed them pay too much attention to the bad and miss the good, and that is a waste. That is playing deaf.
But to Keen, we are the ruination of everything and we’re too stupid to realize it. “If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture.” Hearing your neighbor talk is now corrupting and confusing and Keen knows the difference but we do not. This is his unbearable snobbishness.
He predictably goes after Wikipedia and its articles, “none of them edited or vetted for accuracy.” That’s innaccurate. They are vetted by thousands — as newspapers now can be. He says that Wikipedia is “a more trusted source for news than the CNN or BBC websites” but provides no citation to back up that generality. Introduce me to the people who say that. I’ve never heard it. The book is filled with such as that — like, oh, the worst Wikipedia article. Oh, but Keen might have done well to have looked up a few facts on Wikipedia himself. A few pages later, he makes the cliched reference to cults and Kool-Aid when Wikipedia would correct him: Jim Jones’ poison was mixed with Flavor-Aid. Grape, to be exact. I know because I covered the story. I was on rewrite taking the first stories from Guyana. I’ll vet that. It’s in Wikipedia. Go look it up.
It’s also no surprise that Keen goes after social sites. “It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements have resulted in social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.” And a lot of happy marriages. The priesthood is also infested with its share of anonymous predators and pedophiles, but I don’t hear Keen railing against them. This is the worst of tabloid generalization: If one thing is bad, it is all bad. Paint the entire world with the same dark brush. That is the essence of the book’s intellectual dishonesty. There’s more that I may choose to annotate in later blog posts.
Ah, but here’s his real point, is essential conservatism: “But our cultural standards and moral values are not all that are at stake. Gravest of all, the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows and our movies are under assault as well.” Keen is trying to pass the full-employment act for old institutions — even, at one point in his book, including ad agencies! Now, of course, the old institutions do and still will contribute incredible value. But now we have the means to contribute more, to find more talent, to check their work, to hear more voices. I celebrate that. Keen dreads it: “The monkeys take over. Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.”
Keen is not just an elitist, he is authoritarian to the point of Stalinism. At the end: “Can we really trust society to behave properly in the Wild West culture of the Web 2.0 revolution? I would argue that we are easily seduced, corrupted, and led astray. In other words, we need rules and regulations to help control our behavior online, just as we need traffic laws to regulate how we drive in order to protect everyone from accidents.” Of course, we already have those laws and they govern life online. That’s a red herring. It’s the gatekeepers he wants, the experts anointed by institutions not by us ignorant masses, the authorities.
If you can’t trust society, then you don’t truly believe in democracy, free markets, reformed religion, art, education, or journalism. Why bother with us if we’re such a bunch of ignorant monkeys?
And why bother arguing with that? So I’ll do just what Keen would apparently abhor: I’ll ask you, the vast zoo of amateurs, whether you think I should take this on in an evening. I’m not handing over my authority; I’ll decide what to do. But I do value your opinion. So tell me what you think about the cult of contrarians.
* CORRECTION: Within an hour after I posted this, I got this email from Sam Huxley:
While my great-great grandfather is highly regarded for many things, unfortunately the infinite-monkey theorem isn’t one of them. In fact if you scroll down the Wikipedia entry you linked to it refers to the TH attribution as a common misattribution- I checked it out as it is the first I’d heard of it. Also, I would pass on the debate as I fail to see how magnifying such an outlandish opinion does anyone but him good.
I thanked Sam and asked him whether I could quote his email. Here is what the Wikipedia entry says:
In his 1931 book The Mysterious Universe, Eddington’s rival James Jeans attributed the monkey parable to a “Huxley”, presumably meaning Thomas Henry Huxley. This attribution is incorrect. Today, it is sometimes further reported that Huxley applied the example in a now-legendary debate over Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, held at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in June 30, 1860. This story suffers not only from a lack of evidence, but the fact that in 1860 the typewriter itself had yet to emerge.
So Wikipedia is right and a helluva lot more detailed at that.
And note how this correction came: thanks to the internet and its openness. Who would have known that Sam Huxley would read a blog post and point me to correct information — at Wikipedia? And isn’t it wonderful that the technology allowed me to correct that mistake within an hour of publication. I’m going to bet that Keen’s book may already be published and even if not, trying to fix it in an old print book will be difficult and expensive. All that only demonstrates the superiority of this new medium. But that’s another discussion.