Based on the title, I thought this was going to be another book about the Bush Administration. But instead of being about the incompetence, hubris, cronyism, and greed that’s running our government and ruining our country, The Cult of The Amateur is about the incompetence, vanity, narcissism, and greed that’s running the Internet and killing our culture.
Overall, Keen’s polemic is a very relevant book and one I wish everyone would read. It’s sure to spark a lot of debate at dinner parties between the second and third bottles of wine. So bring a fourth just in case. You won’t agree with a lot of what Keen asserts, and you shouldn’t, because like the Silicon Valley insiders he rallies against throughout the book, he too is out of touch with the majority of American Culture and how we as a whole use the Internet. Keen takes it all a bit too seriously. Everyone I know acknowledges the entertaining silliness of all the crap on YouTube and Craigslist, taking it with a grain of salt for what it is. Keen seems unable to do this. He is very upset about the questionable trappings of Wikipedia’s open forum and inherent problems, but he takes this site far more seriously than anyone I know. There have always been numerous resources in modern man’s world, some more reliable than others. How is this any different?
Very early into the book I found myself asking, is he too paranoid? Or has our technological culture in fact become a duplicitous web of spineless, lying predators? And if so, isn’t that just mirroring real life, which is full of duplicitous, spineless, lying predators?
Keen draws on a few misguided commercials supported by partisan bloggers in the 2004 and 2006 elections as evidence of an overwhelming “partisan minority that uses ‘democratized’ digital media to obfuscate truth and manipulate public opinion” (Swift Boat Veterans For Truth anyone?). Technology has certainly legitimized and given voice to the amateur, but when the rich and powerful continue to do so much more harm in this world, is it the extremist blogger we should be worrying about? The Government, The Church, The News, and Big Business have been taking swings at the Truth for so long, I guess it’s our turn at bat. Thanks, technology!
I categorically disagree with Keen’s assertion that every free classified ad on Craigslist is the loss of a paid classified advertisement to a newspaper. I post things on Craigslist because it’s free. If it wasn’t free I just wouldn’t post it anywhere, newspaper or otherwise. I feel the same way about downloading free music. I used to download songs because they were free. If I couldn’t have downloaded them for free, I wouldn’t have instead bought the CD, I wouldn’t have bought it at all. For the record industry to count every single download as a loss to its industry is just wrong. But it has clearly affected the industry (see the closing of Tower Records and the hundreds of other independent music stores), just nowhere on the scale that the greedy record industry claims. Having worked in promotions for a radio station, I know firsthand that if you show up anywhere in America at an amusement park or a bowling alley or a gas station or a fast food restaurant with t-shirts, keychains, and koozies to give away for free, you will be swarmed and raped until they are all gone. Every last cheap, menial, insignificant one of them. If you set up a table and charge for them, you will not get rid of a single one. That’s America.
Though I will agree with Keen’s opinion about Web 2.0 and its vicious mauling of Talent. He states that, “Talent, as ever, is a limited resource, the needle in today’s digital haystack. You won’t find the talented, trained individual shipwrecked in his pajamas behind a computer, churning out inane blog postings or anonymous movie reviews. Nurturing talent requires work, capital, expertise, investment.” Though this opinion of Keen’s is certainly likely to fall on disagreeing ears in this country as going directly against the American Dream. We are a nation adamant about The Big Hope. He are still hell bent on supporting and fulfilling the promises of Horatio Alger that we will insist on the “democratizing” values of Web 2.0 to be true. We have to believe that the cream rises to the top. For the time being anyway. Even as such a childish dream continues to chop away at the sturdy trees of talent. I agree, we are losing CRAFT. But this is not doomsday. There is a lot of excitement over the potential of technology and people’s vanity are definitely being exploited. I think the wave will roll back to sea eventually.
Keen insists on portraying the people of this Internet Revolution, this Web 2.0 culture as vain, narcissistic, self-fulfilling, and self-congratulatory. And I will not disagree with him. But I feel that it is more important to identify this generation of writers/bloggers, YouTubeing Videographers, and anonymous Amazon reviewers as direct descendents of Gonzo Journalism. We have Hunter S. Thompson to thank and blame for this incestuous parade of “self-congratulatory clusters,” “digital narcissists,” and “vanity presses.” As the great HST did not report on an event unless it included his interaction and presence in the story, so too have we demanded that it is US who is interesting. It is US who is important. It is US who dominates the primary narrative. It is our story, our world and we’ll be damned if any power will continue to dictate and pander to us anymore. The Good Doctor predated and predicted this entire genre and approach of living and interacting with the world around us. We are truly in the Gonzo World now. There is no going back. Are we Doomed? I sincerely do not know. But we better stock up on some Wild Turkey, grapefruits, and ammunition. Just in case.
Very simply, Keen comes across as very elitist. Like lamenting the loss of the horse and buggy upon the invention of the automobile, Keen weeps over the lowered prominence of newspapers and radio. Our hallowed institutions are crumbling. This is a Revolution. That is the point. Sadly, it is our blood too that is running in the street. Many of our own heads will find their way into the stock of a guillotine before the Queen follows suit. And follow suit she will. As Keen himself explains, “Such amateurs treat blogging as a moral calling rather than a profession tempered by accepted standards; proud of their lack of training, standards, and ethical codes, they define themselves as the slayers of the media giants, as irreverent Davids overcoming the news-gathering industry Goliaths.”
Rallying against the “Noble Amateur,” Keen displays a naïve faith in the current system. The Media, The Government, and The Church are also often wrong and have been forever. Keen takes issue with Web 2.0’s embrace of anonymity and its lack of transparency. But herein, Keen fails to acknowledge an inherent contradiction in his argument. He demands transparency while also damning the dangerous qualities of the Internet found in pornography, gambling, and identity theft. Does anonymity not provide safety and security in an environment so filled with such unscrupulous folk?
Today’s controversy surrounding Global Warming provides Keen with probably his best argument and most legitimate reason to attack Web 2.0 and its “values.” Since outlets such as Wikipedia allow for every single writer, no matter their expertise and lack thereof, equal space to share their pronouncements, today’s Internet has allowed for the mass publication of a generous helping of egregiously wrong information. Beyond being the true Gonzo Generation, this is the George W. Bush Era. It is a content, uninformed citizenry Out There, indeed. Is the Internet to blame?
But it is not the Internet or technology that is to blame for this misrepresentation, fraud, and identity theft, is it? I hate to be such an apologist, but isn’t this just human nature? Finally, us pedestrians, us groundlings can easily join the soiled, corrupted ranks of churches, criminals, governments, pirates, dictators, and henchmen.
Keen spends the final quarter of his book taking a moral lashing at the ills of the Internet. However significant, following the complex ethical arguments of the rest of his well-argued and researched book, his attacks on gambling and pornography seem out of place. It’s too easy a position to take. It’s like the politicians who publicly promise that they are, “against crime.” Well, no shit. The Internet is a filthy, disgusting, dangerous place unfit for young eyes. But so is the street I walk down everyday to go to work.
Keen quotes Paul Simon halfway through the book and Simon’s position seems to be the most reasoned, practical opinion to have about the entire issue. Simon says that, “I’m personally against Web 2.0 in the same way as I’m personally against my own death. Maybe a fire is what’s needed for a vigorous new growth, but that’s the long view. In the short term, all that’s apparent is the devastation.”
Andrew Keen is like one of those Southern California homeowners who recently lost their house in the fire and is sick of having some Silicon Valley yuppie tell him that his loss is for the best. So maybe we are flooding our own world, but at least we’re not relying on the powers that be to build inadequate levees and then to fail in providing for its plighted citizenry. We’re building those inadequate levees ourselves!