As I said, here’s the full review.
The Blogosphere is up in arms about Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur. He deliberately sets out to tweak the mavens of Web 2.0 — and he succeeds. This is great fun, because said mavens often have all the self-righteousness of revolutionaries, at least when it comes to the virtues of Web 2.0, and are thus eminently tweakable.
Keen decries everything he imagines is wrong with the Internet. He especially abhors the mediocre work of amateurs. Free but substandard work is apparently destroying whole industries, particularly our culture industries. He hates the fact that so much work on the Internet today is collaborative and distributed. The so-called wisdom of crowds is itself an “extraordinary popular delusion,” he says; the best work comes from the individual, professional mind. Anonymity coupled with anarchy leads to myriad abuses, from corporate gaming of YouTube to “moral disorder.”
The book is provocative, but its argument is unfortunately weakened by the fact that Keen is so over-the-top and presents more of a caricature of a position than carefully-reasoned discourse. The book is often well written, and presents many thought-provoking arguments and entertaining factoids, but it is also full of non-sequiturs, simplistic narratives, and outright inaccuracies. Still, maybe a bit of deliberate provocation is needed. Something more staid might not generate as lively a reaction or get people talking about issues that badly need to be discussed. In short, the book is a much-needed Web 2.0 reality check.
How successful is Keen’s argument? A brief review can’t do more than give a taste, because Keen rails against many things. The eponymous “cult of the amateur” is perhaps his main target. This is, he says, an uncritical, militantly amateuristic band of content creators, the free and mediocre productions of which are putting the jobs of professionals at risk. Our splendid Western culture — Keen is perhaps at his least persuasive in singing its praises — is the creation of well-paid professionals. Unpaid amateurs are undoing this culture in the space of a generation. Blogs are threatening professional journalism; Wikipedia, reference publishing; and YouTube, movies and TV.
The problem with Web 2.0, however, isn’t the prevalence of amateurs. Indeed, I see little proof that amateur, user-generated content is threatening the jobs of professionals. The industry perhaps most visibly damaged by the Internet has been journalism. But this is largely because we can get most of our professionally-created news free of charge online — provided by the same industry that is suffering layoffs.
True enough, Craigslist and other free classified services also cut into a large part of the newspaper business, but in this case, I’d say contrary to Keen that we should celebrate the fact that such a useful, largely self-organizing service can be free. This technological advance is bound to cause some economic upheaval; that’s the price of progress. Craigslist can’t be sensibly criticized on grounds that it weakens the business model of newspapers, if it delivers a better product than tiny ads on newsprint. It’s on this and similar points that Keen sounds like a Luddite.
But Keen denies being a Luddite. The book’s final chapter is a curiosity. “Digital technology is a miraculous thing” — he says after having explained how many Internet phenomena are less than miraculous — “giving us the means to globally connect and share knowledge in unprecedented ways.” The first example of a “solution” he offers is the Citizendium, or the Citizens’ Compendium, which I like to describe briefly as Wikipedia with editors and real names. But how can Citizendium be a solution to the problems he raises, if it has experts working without pay, and the result is free? If it succeeds, won’t it contribute to the decline of reference publishing?
The biggest problem with this book is that it combines several different criticisms of Web 2.0, incoherently, under the rubric of “the cult of the amateur,” and Keen in the final chapter gives back much of what he earlier took away. Free content, volunteerism, collaboration, anonymity, and decentralization make Web 2.0 a “miraculous thing” — and we are quickly discovering that the miracle can be had without the “cult of the amateur.” Keen himself seems to admit this. But if so, maybe he’s not such a reactionary after all.