Are we headed towards a world dominated by amateurish art, truthiness, photos of cute animals, and video clips of people being hit in the nuts? That’s the fear expressed in The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture (review), a new book by Andrew Keen. The book examines what Keen sees as the dark side of information democratization.
Mr. Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”
The book grew out of this essay published last year by The Weekly Standard. In that piece, he argues personalization is just another word for narcissism.
The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts. Its empowering promises play upon that legacy of the ‘60s—the creeping narcissism that Christopher Lasch described so presciently, with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.
Another word for narcissism is “personalization.” Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.
Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves.
He says not writing may be the new rebellion…
Orwell’s fear was the disappearance of the individual right to self-expression. Thus Winston Smith’s great act of rebellion in Nineteen Eight-Four was his decision to pick up a rusty pen and express his own thoughts…
In the Web 2.0 world, however, the nightmare is not the scarcity, but the over-abundance of authors. Since everyone will use digital media to express themselves, the only decisive act will be to not mark the paper. Not writing as rebellion sounds bizarre—like a piece of fiction authored by Franz Kafka. But one of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience.
Keen’s got a point in some areas but it all seems rather elitist. One man’s “mob rule” is another’s democracy. If individuals can’t decide for themselves what to like, who should do it? Is he proposing we all obey a Committee of Good Taste or something?
Besides, culture was suffering before the internet too. As far as I’m concerned, the death of the crappy sitcom, bad Hollywoood movie, overproduced major label schlock, etc. is just fine. And viva enthusiastic amateurs creating amazing stuff like this handmade Modest Mouse video.
That said, one area where I share his concerns: newspapers. Newspapers employ the people who actually cultivate leads and grind out stories. TV news blows and hardly any bloggers do any real reporting (commenting on the news is a lot different than discovering it). We all suffer when reporting disappears. And right now the future of the newspaper business ain’t looking too rosy.