The cult of the amateur

“Shrewdly argued,” says the New York Times about Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur” – and I couldn’t disagree more.

To me, the book read like a big huge warning sign or exclamation mark, pointing at the perceived damage the internet is inflicting on established culture industries and – seemingly oddly – on established moral standards. Its statements are indeed eyebrow-raising and powerful, but often also rather blunt, and relying on partly or fully flawed arguments.

The principal idea of the book is this: today, anyone can use the internet as a tool of either mass or interpersonal communication, regardless of whether they posess any kind of expertise or moral responsibility. The results: an armada of at best mediocre, unreliable content, from authors of highly questionable credibility; the total disrespect for intellectual property rights (leading to the collapse of eg. the established movie and music industries); moral standards undermined; and a society where everyone is spying on everyone else (because they can and are encouraged by the – deteriorating – media).

Today’s internet is likened to an infinite number of monkeys (however good intentioned they are, they are still monkeys), typing on an infinite number of typerwriters.

Surely eventually they will come up with something genuinely great (even if they only type away randomly; although there is the slight chance that there might be experts among the monkeys, too), but even when that happens, it will be impossible to find this randomly created piece of greatness in the inifinite heaps of useless junk that the monkeys – in general – produce.

Sure, it’s great to have sobering reminders that not everything “web 2.0” is great. But I felt that Keen pushed the exaggerations too far, selectively taking into or leaving out of consideration facts to construct an argument.

There seems also to be a strange, and I believe false, dichotomy here. Or maybe “irrational” would be a better term, because it flies in the face of the elitism that permeates the monkey-simile. It is this: everything that is produced by the established culture industries is pictured as good, everything produced by so-called amateurs is bad. Hollywood movies, manufactured pop music – it’s all greatness, it has to be, because there are experts involved in their production. Traditional newspapers, tv and radio channels? Surely they all are trustworthy, given the formal training their staff received…

I guess that adding the occasional “most,” or “usually”, “however” or “on the other hand” would have made the argument less bold on the surface – but perhaps also much more, how to say, correct.

Largely, then, I disagree with Keen’s conclusions (I will dedicate a separate post on his views on social news sites); not necessarily with their contents however, but to the extent they are true. Or I could say that what Keen sees as inevitable damage done by the internet (and its oblivious amateur monkey users), I consider a possibility; the contrast to the overly enthusiastic web2.0-utopias.

In any case, it’s good to be reminded that the freedom of communication MIGHT be undermined by the uncertainty of identities, the lack of credibility and accountability, and the lack of established control and standards. It MIGHT; but it is up to empirical research to offer evidence supporting or refuting this claim.

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