Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Cult of the Amateur

It's shaping up to be a beautiful day here, one that will be talked about for weeks to come. But let's not go there and discuss an issue that has been debated for decades but now has a new face.

In 2006 Andrew Keen produced an essay which went on to become a book about the destruction being wreaked upon professional journalism and culture by the proliferation of Internet content created by amateurs. A polemic, a diatribe, a venting of the spleen -- Keen's point is that all this proliferation of free content is costing us in a variety of unseen ways that are damaging to us in the long run.

The book, which I have never read but have read about on several occasions, reminds me of another book lamenting the damaging effects of pop culture, Edwin Newman's Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? Newman was a news correspondent for NBC when he wrote this book in 1974. His carefully pointed analysis likewise laments the way things are going with regard to language and culture, though he is more concerned about language than what it was actually doing to the people whose jobs were involved in utilizing it.

Keen's book is decidedly aimed at bashing one of the foundational tenets of the Internet: "Information wants to be free." Keen notes that "free" always costs something, and to some extent he's right. For example, Duluth, MN has something like 29 "free" public parks. I had lunch this week with someone involved with the city who reminded me that free public parks are expensive to maintain.

For the longest time I have been watching the magazine industry as it strives to transition to the Internet. Some are doing it better than others. Yes, there are pressures being placed on journalism, but think of all the writers who have finally found a voice, who can own their own soapbox and not be squeezed out from publication and kept away from readers because they failed to have suitable credentials. Every writer knows that the publishing game was in need of an overhaul. You jump through hoops and hope somehow to bypass the gatekeepers so a managing editor will pick up your query and read it while they still have half their brain engaged after shuffling through 3,000 other queries.

If Keen's rant shows up in audio format at our library I will certainly make an effort to give it a fair shake. In the meantime, I will read the reviews. Here are some of Olly Buxton's comments at

Since Andrew Keen is so instinctively dismissive about amateur contributors to the Internet - people like me - it's hardly surprising that I should instinctively dismiss his book, so let me declare an interest right away: I like Web 2.0. I've been a contributor to it - through Amazon customer reviews, Wikipedia, discussion forums, MySpace, Napster and so on - for nearly a decade now, and I've followed the emergence of the political movement supporting it, exemplified by writers such as Larry Lessig and Yochai Benkler, with some fascination. and no, I've never made a dime out of it (though I have been sent a few books to review, not including this one).

Andrew Keen is that classic sort of British reactionary: the sort that would bemoan the loss of the word "gay" to the English language, and regret the damage caused by industrial vacuum cleaners on the chimney sweeping industry. His book is an impassioned, but simple-minded, hearkening to those simpler times which concludes that our networked economy has pointlessly exalted the amateur, ruined the livelihood of experts, destroyed incentives for creating intellectual property, delivered to every man-jack amongst us the ability - never before possessed - to create and distribute our own intellectual property and monkeyed around mischievously with the title to property wrought from the very sweat of its author's brow.

Keen thinks this is a bad thing; but that is to assume that the prior state of affairs was unimpeachably good. You don't have to be a paranoid Chomskyite to see the pitfalls of concentrated mass media ownership (Keen glosses over them), or note that the current intellectual property regime - which richly rewards a few lucky souls and their publishers at the expense of millions of less fortunate (but not, necessarily, less talented) ones, isn't the only way one could fairly allocate the risks and rewards of intellectual endeavour.

Well, there you have it. Hope you'll now get out there and enjoy your weekend. Make it a good one.

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