Monday, February 23, 2009

"the Cult of the Amateur": A Review

While going through the list of books recommended to me by Amazon, the above title for some reason, entered the list. As I read the publisher's review my interest was piqued. I looked over the page and noticed that through the wonderful Amazon Marketplace, the book could be picked up for a mere $5.00 plus shipping and handling. As I thought about it, I became very interested and so with a simple 'click' of the mouse, I ordered a copy through the Marketplace. Honestly, why wouldn't you do the same, that is order through the Marketplace rather then through the main bookselling page.

But I digress; the author, Andrew Keen, is an observer and commentator on technology and its affect upon our society and culture. He reveals in this book an undying hatred on all things Web 2.0. For him it is the opening of a Pandora's box of problems that will lead to the erosion of culture and learning. He fears, and this is quite obvious from his writings that Web 2.0 will bring about the end of Culture as we know it and replace it with something not as appealing. He mourns the potential loss of newspapers and magazines, not just because he likes holding and reading them, but what they represent, and that is, journalistic integrity. In the place of journalists are the bloggers who lack the ability, in his words, to write news or to even take the time to digest the news in order to develop a proper understanding of the news.

This is not to say Andrew Keen is some sort of luddite. He confesses in the first chapter as being part of the Web 1.0 bubble. He writes:
Back in the Nineties, I was a pioneer in the First Internet Goldrush. With a dream of making the world a more musical place, I founded, one of the earliest digital music sites.

He has also embraced much of Web 2.0, he blogs and can be followed on Twitter. It is on the latter you can learn he has an addiction to PG tea, drinking 25 cups a day, for example.

What is his concern? He comments on the saying of T.H. Huxley, that if you give a million monkeys, a million typewriters and infinite time, they would type all the works of William Shakespeare. To Keen, it has happened, for there are millions of people banging away on their keyboards, bringing their limited opinions to the world of literature, learning and news gathering.

To Keen, blogging might mean the end of journalism as we know it, and replace with a shallowness that defies definition. He states that people are blogging and giving their opinion on news without having the proper learning to understand what it takes to gather news.

The genesis of the book was from an article he wrote in the Weekly Standard entitled Web 2.0. He began the article with this observation:
THE ANCIENTS were good at resisting seduction. Odysseus fought the seductive song of the Sirens by having his men tie him to the mast of his ship as it sailed past the Siren's Isle. Socrates was so intent on protecting citizens from the seductive opinions of artists and writers, that he outlawed them from his imaginary republic.

We moderns are less nimble at resisting great seductions, particularly those utopian visions that promise grand political or cultural salvation. From the French and Russian revolutions to the counter-cultural upheavals of the '60s and the digital revolution of the '90s, we have been seduced, time after time and text after text, by the vision of a political or economic utopia.

Rather than Paris, Moscow, or Berkeley, the grand utopian movement of our contemporary age is headquartered in Silicon Valley, whose great seduction is actually a fusion of two historical movements: the counter-cultural utopianism of the '60s and the techno-economic utopianism of the '90s. Here in Silicon Valley, this seduction has announced itself to the world as the "Web 2.0" movement.

To him the seduction is the rise in both numbers and prestige of the glorified amateur, who has the wisdom and knowledge that can challenge that of an expert. With this as the basis, he is able to write about the dangers of Wikipedia, where amateur can opine about a wide gamut of subjects and even take on the workers of experts. He gave the example of Dr. William Connolley, a climate modeler from the British Antartic Survey. He found an error in the article on Global Warming. Unfortunately, he Point of View was different from one of the editors of Wikipedia and he was almost banned from the 'pedia. His crime, not following the prevalent 'political' point of view. So the amateur can bully the expert is what Andrew Keen laments.

His concern about Web 2.0 goes into other realms, such as the end of music, through piracy of music files, Internet porn and online gambling.

He offers a solution and most of it has to do through stronger laws and stronger enforcement.

Some of the high points, he calls Lawrence Lessig, an "intellectual property communist'. He also refers to Google as a parasite.

He brings up a number of very good points, in particular how in his view, the Internet of Web 2.0 is narcissistic and it is simply a matter of us reporting on ourselves, without the vantage of a third party giving us the proper view of ourselves. In this regard, his book is good to read to bring balance to the cheerleaders of Web 2.0. He does not that many of the most popular bloggers either contain links to mainstream media, or are hiring journalists as part of their staff to bring the proper level of professionalism to their blogs.

What he fears most, is a world without the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

There are some concerns with this book, one is his discounting of any and everything done by the amateur. It seems to him, culture is only the product of the professional and the rich. He almost ignores the fact that culture has, through most of human history, been grassroots. It is the people gathering around a fire, or enjoying time together, sharing a song or a story, that is the birth of culture and not something brought about through committee. He mourns the 'death' of music, when the question should be asked, why as the music industry not kept pace with technology, or used technology as a means of bringing its music to people.

Other concerns is the fact he tends to blame "Web 2.0" for things that happened prior to its coming, such as Internet Gambling. By doing this, he weakens his argument rather then strengthens it.

While newspapers and magazines are going through a hard time, it is for them to evolve and work with the technology rather then allow it to bury them. I truly hope there will be newspapers and I think as long as we need professional newsgatherers, and they will never be replaced by bloggers, news media will exist. Also he complains about the number of new blogs, but my question is how many blogs continue and thrive. A quick search of blogs will reveal many as only having a number of posting and then the author quits and moves on to something else.

He also complains over such thing as the rise of plagerism because of the 'copy and paste' culture. This is a good complaint and it is up to the schools and universities to enforce the rules of plagarism. It has always been there and it is only through vigilance can it be kept at bay. Plus the stress should be on independent thought and not simply reguritating facts.

I would suggest this book as a good read. It will help you understand what is happening in the Internet, but I suggest you read with a critical eye. He makes good points, but he must be kept honest and not simply complain about everything to do with 'web 2.0'

No comments: