The Cult of the Amateur – Read It

Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur, is often labeled a polemic, a contrarian whose sole aim is controversy. Indeed, the subtitle of his book “How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture” is a bit over the top; much of his book reads like a diatribe. I’ve expressed my disagreement with Keen before but you still need to read his book.

It would be easy enough to say that you should read Keen solely for the fact that he presents another viewpoint. This statement would be unfair. He makes some important observations about how the Internet, and more generally digital technology, is affecting our culture. These aren’t “the other side of the coin” ideas; they have their own merit and should be considered carefully.

At a fundamental level, many critics likely agree with some of Keen’s larger ideas including the problems of credibility, information overload, and safety on the Internet.

Credibility

Those who embrace Web 2.0 would not go as far as to say that the amateur is destroying a culture of the expert. But they would probably agree that having millions of blogs (and websites) authored by anyone with an Internet connection opens up a larger possibility for inaccuracies, misrepresentation, and downright lying. Just because something is posted on the web does not mean it is true.

Information Overload

Many people suffer from information overload today — especially on the web. There’s a growing number of content and service destinations on the Internet that are competing for the consumer’s attention. What is worthwhile? Keen believes that due to the democratized nature of the web, picking out the “signal from the noise,” when accomplished at all, is done so in an inferior way — a digital mob. With the absence of the expert, Keen sees the rule of a digital tyranny of the masses that not only is not credible but also produces a “flat noise of opinion.”

Safety

By now, you’ve probably heard about MySpace predators and the dangers of kids being online. One of Keen’s best take home points is the parent’s role in today’s Internet, “Parents must man the front lines in the battle to protect children from the evil lurking on the Web 2.0.” I think it was a purposeful decision to put “Web 2.0″ there instead of “web.” But the ideas here are what matter: moving computers to family rooms, knowing the hours children are online, and limiting what they are able to see through content filters (similar idea to blocking channels on T.V.). There’s not much wrong with these suggestions.

The iPod Effect

One area where I think Keen brings a needed opposing voice is in the area of personalization. Keen writes,

“Truth, to paraphrase Tom Friedman, is being “flattened,” as we create an on-demand, personalized version that reflects our own individual myopia. One person’s truth becomes as “true” as anyone else’s. Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile.”

Keen believes that the Internet is becoming a mirror to ourselves, “we use it to actually BE the news, the information, the culture.” We use iPods to only listen to music we like, read our friends blogs over actual news and informed debate, and filter out anything we don’t like. Thus, we limit discovery and remove a shared common cultural experience.

Conclusion

It is hard to say that Keen just likes to whine when he has a whole chapter devoted to solutions (the last chapter). As I’ve written before, many of Keen’s qualms with the Internet aren’t new problems but they “might be exacerbated in a digital world.” Stories on television are not always accurate. Reporters at expert institutions often bring a bias to their writing. People have always had the opportunity to gravitate towards perspectives they agree with, through discussion, print, radio, and television. Children have been unsafe on the playground. 

The Internet and Web 2.0 only makes it easier to do some of these things. Although I disagree with his ultimate conclusion of how to fix things (i.e., to put trust in experts again — I agree with it in part), I too see the questions about the web as “ideological rather than technological.”