Tuesday, 25 October 2011

REVIEW: The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen has recently announced that his new book, Digital Vertigo, is due out in May next year. In the mean time, I've been reading the book that made him the 'Anti Christ of Silicon Valley'...:

A N Wilson in the Daily Mail, the cover announces, considers this ‘a staggering new book… Andrew Keen really knows his stuff… His book will come as a real shock to many. It certainly did to me’.

The first paradox of many: Wilson praises the book whilst simultaneously announcing he doesn’t know much about the subject, and yet this is the quote used to sell it. And again, the implicit argument is: ‘the Daily Mail rates it, so it must be true’. Not the most convincing argument. It is a satisfying ironic twist that it was word of mouth recommendation and comments on social media that actually made me want to buy the book: it seems amateurs do have a use. These may incidental points, but in a book about authority and how amateurs are ‘killing’ our culture, the reliability, integrity and authority of the professionals it references are, necessarily, relevant.

But it gets stranger. The book is framed by two ‘confessions’. The opening of the first chapter states that Keen, whilst a nineties internet professional, was a member of the ‘cult’. The second, tucked away between the endnotes and the index in the acknowledgements, states that despite advocating for professional culture producers, he is himself ‘as a writer, a bit of an amateur’. Not, in itself, a contradiction. But it’s curious at least, in a book that differentiates professionals and amateurs (and their interests and status) so strongly.

Of course, what he says is more important than his role, status or professional supporters (although this rather contradicts the book’s central premise). And it’s a worthwhile, interesting and challenging message: that an ideologically driven misinterpretation of ‘democratisation’ is, through web 2.0, undermining the property rights and business models of cultural producers (including music labels, newspapers and film studios), and that this is resulting in a ‘levelled down’ cultural landscape which is less reliable, lower quality and in many cases, personally damaging. In short, that web 2.0 is killing our culture’.

There’s much that Keen says that seems to me to be true and several areas that have the potential to be especially rewarding seams of enquiry: 
  •  The difference between traditional ‘democracy’ as participation through choices, and so-called ‘democratic’ participation through production; 
  • How a ‘distributed’ model of production changes the relation between culture and capital, with as yet unclear consequences (it isn’t necessarily the case that more people with less capital will produce better results than fewer with more, despite web evangelists’ claims);
  • What effect ubiquitous cultural production has on producers’ ability to make a living and the long-term effects this could have on culture;
  • The creation of billionaire elites who own supposedly ‘social’ networks (and the tension between social and libertarian values that reveals).
However, Keen does not follow these implications up, since he asserts and illustrates his points, rather than systematically arguing them.  Different instances are used to indicate a single general trend, rather than a trend used to illuminate its differing implications for different media, groups of individuals or contexts. As a result, he is more successful in showing that the ground is shifting in our culture than why it matters. Many of the most alarming stories he tells (such as social media’s use in schools shootings and child abuse) mistake the use of social media for an issue specific to its form (speech can be used in the same ways, but is rarely considered in itself a social ill).

Key to Keen’s case is the idea that cultural production by amateurs is necessarily worse.  But T H Huxley’s image of infinite monkeys with typewriters who can eventually write Shakespeare, used several times by Keen, is in fact an illustration of how such an approach is at least theoretically capable of matching the highest standards (it also hints that the key challenge is selection, not production).

The book pins responsibility for ‘killing’ old media on its new replacements, rather than its own failures that allowed them to succeed: the mediocre programming, the recycling of press releases and spin as news, the crimes and cover-ups, the crassness. Many of the authorities that Keen cites have failed, over many decades, to uphold high values (whether in terms of morality or quality). One thinks again of the Daily Mail, but also the Hollywood studios, major music labels and newspapers owned by New International. They are, in many ways, responsible for their own downfall.

When something familiar is replaced by something new, the loss is often keener than the anticipated gain. What we are losing is far more obvious: we can already see it, we are already emotionally attached. But Keen says little about any possible upside to web 2.0: the new ways to access the highest quality work; the value of multiple perspectives; of interactivity, autonomy, devolved power; the talent that finds a way to express itself that would not previously have been possible (perhaps we shall find out that is it not talent that has been rare, as he asserts, but opportunity?).

Nor does he give sufficient credit to the nuanced ways in which those that he uncharmingly calls ‘monkeys’ consume online content. He apparently believes that people treat every Wikipedia entry and every blog post as gospel truth. I believe that most people recognise that both amateur and professional sources can be inaccurate, partisan and incomplete. To claim otherwise is to create a ‘Cult of the Professional’.

But if professionals can no longer assume authority as a right, neither should amateurs. Instead, it is ‘authority’ itself that is being redefined. And whilst Andrew Keen is surely right to assert that there is much at stake in this debate, for that very reason it is a debate in which we should all have the right to participate.

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