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Review: The amateurish Cult of the Amateur

By on October 26, 2010
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The Cult of the Amateur is Andrew Keen’s polemic at the rise of content on the web that is uncontrolled by traditional media companies. Halfway through it shifts from a reasoned defence of the status quo to a shrill, tabloid style attack on the Internet. Screaming “Ban this sick filth"” may get you tabloid support, but it is no way to argue about the future of media.

I didn’t enjoy reading The Cult of the Amateur by former Web entrepreneur turned digital anti-fanboy Andrew Keen.

Maybe it’s because I am one of the digital utopians who Andrew derides. I confess it: I believe that the Internet will be as great a force for good within society as the steam engine and the printing press.

Maybe it’s because I’m not the target demographic. It’s aimed at traditional media companies who want to feel reassured that Web 2.0 companies are evil, and that governments should step in to protect declining industries.

But mainly it’s because halfway through, Andrew’s arguments about the dangers that amateur content poses to traditional media buisness models peter out. Instead, he rails against pornography, against online gambling, against social networks and against Internet addiction.

I wonder if there is a Internet critics version of Godwin’s Law. If there isn’t. maybe I should coin one:

Lovell’s First Law of Internet Criticism: In any conversation about the role of the Internet  in society, the likelihood of abandoning reason and by resorting to “but we must protect the kids” approaches one.

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t protect the children. far from it. But this argument is equivalent to saying “There were 2,671 children killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads in 2009. We should ban all cars.”

OK, it’s not quite the same, but I was expecting a “shrewdly argued jeremiad”, according to the New York Times. Instead I got the shrill rantings of a Daily Mail column. Which was, as you can imagine, disappointing.

So does he have a point?

Personally, I don’t think so. Why not? Let’s look at some of Andrew’s arguments.

The Internet is killing jobs

Andrew rails against the way that people who make professional content are losing their jobs. At no point does he consider that it may, in fact, be that the Internet is making something that used to be difficult – distribution – easy.

In other words, the Internet is putting content distributors out of work in the same way the combine harvester put sickle-wielding peasants out of work or the steam engine put wagon drivers into unemployment. Does anyone really believe this was bad for society in the long run?

The Internet tells you what you already know

Andrew argues that Google is useless because: “it just tells us what we already know”. He never addresses the point that for all ordinary citizens to have access to what someone knows is an incredibly valuable outcome.

The inequitable distribution of knowledge used to be a very real problem. Only those who could afford $1,600 for an encyclopaedia had access to it. Now anyone can use Wikipedia. That spreading of knowledge is an amazing, wonderful thing. (And if you splutter that the expensive Encyclopaedia Britannica, written by “experts” and very expensive was somehow better, read this peer-reviewed research that challenges that assumption).

The Internet is allowing us to construct our own version of the truth

This is true, but twas ever thus.

Andrew quotes Marshall Poe writing in the September 2006 issue of the Atlantic

"We tend to think of truth of something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars… But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth… The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five then two plus two does equal five. The community doesn’t have such an absurd or useless thing but it has the ability.”

This strikes me as being as being so wilfully blinkered as to be painful.

I studied history at university. The thing that was drummed into us, over and again, was that we had to understand the bias of the sources.

Everyone writes with a purpose. Everyone. They have an agenda (even if they are not aware of it). It might be private, it might be political, it might simply be to defend their worldview. But any historian knows (unlike Marshall Poe, who I’m afraid I don’t know, but that quote makes him sound like a simpleton) that truth is a variable quality, one that is usually determined by the victor. There is no such thing as objective truth. In the UK, if you read the Guardian, you get different “truth” than if you read the Telegraph. In the US, Fox News tells a different narrative of the “truth” from the New York Times.

Unlike Andrew Keen and Marshall Poe, I believe that the Internet is a force for good because the “truth” is not determined by a small coterie of powerful media barons. If the erosion of that unelected power is a consequence of the cult of the amateur, bring it on.

Kids are stupid

Keen argues that we are all becoming credulous; that we believe anything we read on the Internet, even though it hasn’t been edited and fact-checked.

I believe the reverse. I believe that the Internet is training us not to believe what we read – whether that be in the Internet, on paper or on TV screen.

This is a good thing. For too long, we have believed whatever we were peddled. We believed something “just because it was in a book”. Well, David Icke has a book. Scientologists have books. New age quackery has books. The fact that it was in a physical book used to lend an air of authenticity to rumours, myth and speculation .

If the Internet makes all of us think harder about what we read – all the time – that may use up some of our scarce time, but I don’t care. It is a great thing for society.

And there’s more

Andrew gives no credence to the idea that Web 2.0 tools can help great content rise to the top. He defends journalists as if they are paragons of virtue not scurrilous, scaremongering, press release rehashers. (Obviously there are many examples of both types in the world).

He defends the status quo of inefficient distribution, of self-appointed guardianship of truth, of protecting those few who make it past the barrier of obscurity and generate massive economic rents.

I disagree with almost everything he says. But in the end, the thing that made me throw the book down in disgust, was this quote, from a section on sexual predators and pornography on social networks:

“What concerns me are all the offenders out there who are undetected because they have never been convicted.”

Andrew Keen is a dystopian. So much so that he is prepared to throw out the presumption of innocence that has underpinned civilized society for centuries.

In Keen’s worldview, we are all children. We need to be protected from raw views by the trusted, guiding hand of our elders and betters. We should be scared of innocent people because “they haven’t been convicted yet”. The Internet is full of new ideas, so wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to think, didn’t have the opportunity to discuss. If we left the control of content in the hands of big business.

I actually found myself getting angry while reading this book. Which I guess means The Cult of the Amateur is a good polemic.

But if you want a balanced reasoning of how the Internet is changing society and media, in my view for the better, you will have to look elsewhere.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • I think that Internet is doing the reverse – because anyone can construct a truth, anyone can challenge it. That means it is *much* harder to spread sustained “versions of truth” without challenge. I tihnk this is much better.

    I think anonymity will decline on the web, which is a very good thing.

    And if I am going to review a book, it would seem wrong not to link to it. Like it or not, Anderw put a lot of work into it. Plus, you need to read both sides of an argument to understand it. I have no qualms in using an affiliate link therefore.

  • Allan

    Not read the book so can’t comment on the contents, however on the broad points you highlight:

    The Internet is Killing jobs. Agree. This is also called efficiency. The guy is a Luddite.

    The Internet tells us what we know. So does a dictionary, not sure I see the problem. (However Google v Brittanica? Citing a 2005 article Nicolas? Come on – that’s ancient history!!)

    The Internet allows us to construct truth. I think I agree with the author on this. Yes, this has always been true, but the internet doesn’t have any of the filtering that traditional models do – editors, costs of producing and acquiring information (hence giving it economic value). At it’s best that is great but at its worst the internet does allow a bias to “ranting idiot of Kidderminster”, particularly from the refuge of anonymity.

    “Kids are stupid” – no they aren’t – they are lazy, and I bet wikipedia is cited with flagrant disregard. Put it this way, if you still believe in Santa, it’s fairly likely you will believe Wikipedia.

    (And if you think it is rubbish don’t put up an associates link!!)

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it’s a funny world…

    Yes, it’s a shame that the revenue stream for reporters are being disrupted, but on the plus side the “news empires” of the twentieth century were far from wholly positive for democracy in the twentieth century.

    Yes, it’s a shame that revenue for musicians is disrupted, but the people taking the big hit are those who have already made millions in endorsements – the obscure artists are learning the merit of giving away their tracks.

    Yes, it’s a shame that so much amateur content is of such bad quality, but it’s equally a shame that the system of authorising expertise is so blinkered and exclusionary.

    We’re in a period of change – and that’s unsettling and destructive. But it’s also exciting and full of possibilities. I for one remain hopeful.

    All the best!

  • Actually, I think that is a great point, and very relevant.

    The consequences of the car (easy long distance travel, local distribution, time saving etc) are clear; others are less so (the social impact of designing cities for cars not people).

    Both are important.

    I was hoping that Andrew would help me think, in an balanced way about the “Energy and Equity” equivalent for the Internet.

    he didn’t. He basically said:
    a) Lots of people who work for newspapers are losing their jobs. This is bad.
    b) Superstar muscians are making less money. This is bad.
    c) The best content comes from “experts”. Amateurs are terrible.
    d) Protect our kids and BAN THIS SICK FILTH.

    In other words, it was reactionary, old media stuff. What was disappointing was that he used to be a Web 2.0 guy. I hoped he had the knowledge, skill or desire to make a rationale, reasoned argument.

    I didn’t find one.

  • Anonymous

    I have my issues with the internet, but like you I am broadly optimistic for its potential.

    However, I would be careful with the “ban all cars” argument – the case against cars is much stronger than your flippant remark suggests (cf. Ivan Illich’s argument in “Energy and Equity”). The problem is not the car, per se, so much as the urban infrastructure’s presumption of the car as the de facto form of travel. The death of children is only part of the social cost of this infrastructure choice, and Illich singles out the losses of both time and community as overlooked concerns in this regard.

    Utterly tangential, but there you go. 🙂