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.
RJon 29 Jun 07
I completely agree. I posted on this a few weeks ago on my own blog and came to basically the same conclusion – if the internet ever kills the video star, it’s only because he knocked off the radio star first.
And elitist bad-culture, dispatched from the black tower with no possibility of revolt and no voice of dissention, is far more damaging than a democratized internet.
My friend Josh makes some good counter points on his blog, and points out the very important fact that the internet is inherently commercial. It’s important to keep in mind during this discussion. Because of this, I think traditional forms of entertainment (ie TV) is even more damaging: TV’s business model is geared towards keeping you sedated enough to watch ads, while the web is geared towards getting me anything I want, though advertising is certainly still a part of it.
Karl Non 29 Jun 07
Man, guess I shouldn’t talk to my friends in real life either. My opinions might be too amateur to be expressed. All cocktail party conversations must now be professionally researched and supported.
Let the market decide which sources are listening to and which aren’t. That’s the way it’s always worked. As usual, these things come in trends. If an overabundance of amateurs produce content that turns out to be short-lived, people will learn from that and change their own behavior.
Use your own judgment as to whether something makes sense or not. Just because it’s on the net doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. I do understand his point in general, but he’s gone way overboard with it.
Noahon 29 Jun 07
Yeah, when the casset tape came out the people said it would ruin the music industry, same with 8mm camcorders, digital video cameras, UHF television people even complained about movable type cheapening the printed word.
JohnOon 29 Jun 07
I think the ‘newspaper’ case can be abstracted into professionalism. There is plenty of room for amateur entertainment value. Perhaps the room for professional entertainment is shrinking. There is also some room for amateur treatments of professional topics (newspaper in your case). But we can’t let that get too large. I am in IT by trade, and theology by choice. IT has often been considered “in need of regulation”. This isn’t formally done, but informally done. In theology there is the same informality. There are plenty of people in IT, and theology that have no training whatsoever. Sometimes these amateurs add value – most of the time they muck up the conversation. Professionalism should adopt the amateurs that add value.
The true problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of the public cannot tell the difference between an amateur and a professional on the level of execution (Theologians, professional and amateur, both write books). That is where education needs to be improved on the part of the people.
Giles Bowketton 29 Jun 07
The development of newspapers led to tabloids and the New York Times. It’s the same thing. The emergence of new forms of garbage culture comes along with the emergence of new forms of high culture, and everything in between. We get iPhones, and we get I Knows Me Some Ugly Myspace. That’s life. It’s always going to be that way.
Andyon 29 Jun 07
The idea that “culture” is doled out in consumer-sized quantities is quite elitist. Culture is a function of the people, not of some uber-artists who control access. I would say that things and institutions like the Recording Industry, many “art” museums, and commercial television are the exact anti-thesis of culture, despite the fact that I enjoy the output and existence of these things or that they have actually helped to feed and influence culture.
Everyone has always been a creator of some sort, be it an author or an artist, a programmer, etc. It’s just that the Internet makes those everyones and their output easier to access. I’m not sure why this corrupts culture or makes culture less valuable. It makes culture, in aggregate, more valuable. Only those in the ivory tower of culture control would see this as a threat.
Sahadevaon 29 Jun 07
Laurence Lessig recently wrote his take on the book, deciding it was actually a brilliant parody of itself,
Lessig’s post has some other interesting commentary, definitely worth the read.
Scott Andreason 29 Jun 07
Toeing the line between scholarship and practice, I recently wrote a paper on this called “Web 2.0 and the Culture-Producing Public.”
I tend to be a bit more hopeful than the author of this book, but we have to remember that whatever we turn into is entirely of our own making. Check it out if you like.
SWWon 29 Jun 07
I can listen to a bad garage band today, but I don’t plan to. Instead I might listen to Bob Dylan, who still makes music and releases it despite this dark cloud of the Internet. Who knows, maybe I’ll listen to a great garage band that never could have been heard outside their neighborhood in 1989.
Sure web 2.0 and the Internet in general have downsides (privacy?), but the fact that I get to choose what art I enjoy is not one of them.
Maybe the reviewer is taking something out of context, but this line – “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands…” – seems to indicate Keen is missing the point. “Our music” is a holdover term from mass media.
Of course there might be more bad music out there than good music. But should we call the whole collection “our music” and then feel bad when the aggregate of all of it doesn’t measure up to Jimi Hendrix or Thelonious Monk?
If I look up in 5 years and can’t find any good new music, I’ll be worried. But if I look up in 5 years and find some great music, with more bad music scattered in the background, I’ll be thankful for the good tunes and happy for those poor lesser musicians if they are having fun playing. Who knows, maybe they’ll improve with time and 50 people will really really like their music. How bad would that be?
Drew Bellon 29 Jun 07
What decade is he from where the bulk of pop music isn’t produced by “amateur garage bands”? Is he lamenting the loss of Glenn Miller?
Benjyon 29 Jun 07
So it’s worse that people can now pick what they like, rather than settling for what they like better out of the choices “Big Media” tells them to like?
The reality is that movie studios, record labels, TV networks, newspapers, etc. all focus on what’s profitable rather than what’s good.
“Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves.”
Um… even before the internet we also had Milli Vanilli, velvet Elvis paintings and countless Police Academy movies…
Mikeon 29 Jun 07
I liked this review by Dan Gillmor, who called the book “A shabby and dishonest treatment of an important topic.”
Nickon 29 Jun 07
More of ourselves is much more interesting than pre-packaged, commoditized “culture”. There’s always pushback when people get ahold of the means of production. It’s very scary for some people.
Alex Bunardzicon 29 Jun 07
Your point being?
Kirby Fergusonon 29 Jun 07
Thanks for treating the book with an even hand, Matt. Much of the response I’ve seen around the web has been knee-jerk violence.
I have one very specific suggestion for improvement to the Web 2.0 world, and I think Keen touches on this in the book. I’d like to see less anonymity. I think anonymity is the primary enabler of much of what is wrong with online behavior.
heather wallaceon 29 Jun 07
Hi “monkeys” – I interviewed Andrew Keen for an Orato.com story. I’m not trying to start a fight between him and all the people he calls monkeys, but I did think you’d be interested in reading his article:
How The Internet And Innocence Kill Culture
Sincerely, Heather Wallace senior editor www.orato.com
betoon 29 Jun 07
There’s a saying I used to have, that the Web is actually what you make out of it. If all you see on places like YouTube are home videos of cats playing piano or Jackass wannabes lighting their asses on fire, it’s not really hard to agree with Mr. Keen.
Trashy content has always existed alongside valuable content, and now that the Internet gives everyone in the world a soapbox to shout things out, we just get to have more of both. Way much more. Having access to mindless drivel has never been easier – but equally so has been having access to really valuable, formative content. So in the end it’s all about choice.
Edon 29 Jun 07
There’s no need to worry about real reporters going away, because they fulfill a vital market function that lots of us are willing to pay for. New business models are out there waiting to be discovered.
Anonymous Cowardon 29 Jun 07
WEB 2.0 IS CREATING THE BIGGEST MERITOCRACY THE WORLD HAS EVERY SEEN. THIS DISRUPTION IS QUITE FRIGHTENING TO PEOPLE WHO WORKED SO HARD TO CLIMB THE LADDER THE OLD FASHIONED WAY – AT THE WHIM OF A BOSS. NOW THE MARKETS SHALL DECIDE. PERHAPS THE BEST EDITOR OF FINANCIAL NEWS IS SOME 18 YEAR OLD IN ISTANBUL. WHO KNOWS. WHO CARES. ITS IT A MERITOCRACY AND THOSE WITH THE SKILL SHALL RISE TO THE TOP WITHOUT POLITICAL FRICTION. EVERY ONE OF US IS BOTH THREATENED AND EMPOWERED. ONE CAN CHOOSE TO MAKE THE MOST OR NOT OF THIS UNPRECEDENTED TIME IN HISTORY - FOR SURELY IT WILL BE REGARDED AS ONE OF THE MOST DRAMATIC CHANGES IN HUMAN HISTORY.
Glen C.on 29 Jun 07
Any discussion about the evils of new media needs to see this video by Ze Frank. It speaks for itself.
Keithon 30 Jun 07
I would hope so.
Gordon Branderon 30 Jun 07
While I agree that it’s a dark day for newspapers, I’m hoping (and fairly confident) that reporting will pull a “pheonix” and rise from its ashes, and come out the stronger for it. God willing, what we’re seeing is just the ugly process of learning how to use this new and powerful tool of new media as part of reporting and news. (Aside: try googling “Backpack Journalist”. It’s a word to watch.)
Jeff Colemanon 30 Jun 07
This was published in the Weekly Standard? William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, whose basic mission is to ensure that the US goes to war with every country in the middle east?
Now there’s a source with credibility!
Auguston 30 Jun 07
Most people who use the word elitist (and I would include nearly everybody who has responded to this thread) generally don’t seem to have even the first clue about what stance those ‘elitists’ are actually taking.Jeanette Winterson has some relevant comments:
Humility in the face of art, believe it or not, is the one thing that most ‘elitists’ insist on, and it seems to be the one thing that most ‘democratic’ types seem incapable of.
Gary R Boodhooon 30 Jun 07
but August, it seems to me this arbitrary separation into art and non-art and the requisite humility is itself quite suspicious. If only because it implies consensus on a 50,000 year old mystery.
I have no problem with humility or being small, but for that word to be venerated as the only reaction to art seems limiting. What about defiance? apathy? confirmation… dare I say… apotheosis? I’m equally fond of reacting that way too – to my own work, that of my peers and those upon whose shoulders I sometimes stand.
Juan Gonzalezon 30 Jun 07
To assume that the entire world is using the web in the same fashion that the average MySpace-junkie, will lead to tragic results. As with any technology, it is the people and their ability to realize the methods of applying it towards improving their lifestyle what will generate long-term good. Bruce Sterling dares to explore the consequences of pushing the current technology trends far into the future and the outcome is both plausible and likable. There are, however, many people that would run scared if they knew that in a few years they will be spied by invisible gadgets, surrounded by foreigners and immersed in a local culture far richer than anything they’ve experienced so far. I can’t wait.
Spencer Laveryon 30 Jun 07
Honestly, he’s got a point.
bozon 30 Jun 07
willyon 30 Jun 07
Honestly, I do not think so.
Rob Landryon 30 Jun 07
As someone who has worked in broadcasting, at newspapers and who now runs a Web design company, I too am worried about the future of journalism. To a certain extent, other factors are at work. Circulation at most newspapers was in decline before the ‘Net came along, though the flight of ad dollars to online sites has started to accelerate the decline.
People just don’t read the paper as much as they once did. People have also always gravitated to news sources that validate their world view. What’s different now with the Internet is that people can easily find blogs and news that “fits their lifestyle” and just as easily avoid any contradictory information.
Serious journalism is hard work, and you don’t become a good journalist just because you cracked open a copy of WordPress, no matter what some bloggers like to think. (Let me add that I think that the rise of blogging is on balance a good thing, but it can’t replace traditional journalism)
That hard work takes time, effort and money. When monolithic newspaper companies start to knuckle under to the new economics imposed by online advertising, the big question is who’s going to supply that time, effort and especially money to support quality journalism.
You know the special interest groups will put their time, effort and money into promoting their views.
The Founding Fathers understood that a free press was essential to preserving liberty. The decline of traditional media poses arguably the most serious challenge to that liberty that we have faced in a long time.
Steve Rummelon 30 Jun 07
I saw this book in the discount pile at Borders. Read a bit standing, until it occured to me – culture is not what you see on TV, or on the internet. Culture is what you live and do in your daily life. Art Museums are only ‘cultural’ if people identify with them, not just use them as references – ‘Oh, Chicago has several world-class museums, but I’ve never been to one – we are a cultural city…’
The vast mess that is the internet is just another version of Americas conversation with itself. The presence of so many ‘amateurs’ show we’re still paying (some) attention and at least trying to participate and interact. I wanted to ask Keen, did he think the first practitioners of a free press were ‘professionals’ ? Not at all – a fast look at some of the first free-press pubs in the US show crude political cartoons (sketches of populist politicians farting at a portrait of the king). Professional? I think not. Proof of concept? Definitely.
Besides, ‘professional’ journalists in the US are so hamstrung by the demands of selling ad time (TV) or space (newspapers) that the American public can hardly be said to be well-served by the current ‘professional’ class. Heck, I live in the US, and I have to subscribe to the Economist and read the BBC to get decent news of my own home country – US domestic media are either pure drivel (FOX), gloss (MSNBC), trash (CBS) or pablum (CNN) it is impossible to actually rely on them for even basic facts, let alone informaed analysis or heaven forbid considered opinion.
I left Keen’s book where it belonged.
Steve R.on 30 Jun 07
@My Above Comment – yes I realize the Internet is not purely American (thank goodness!) and I should have inserted the word ‘like’ to reinforce this in paragraph 2.
Auguston 30 Jun 07
“Culture is what you live and do in your daily life.”
That’s actually a very, very recent definition of the word (as in, less than forty years), and basically only came about because sociologists cherry picked it rather than come up with a jargon term of their own. Up until that point, culture had always been something you acquired rather than something you did all the time. It was supposed to be something special, something different from the mundane and the every day.
Gary: the issue, of course, is that it’s not entirely arbitrary, and nor did I (or Winterson) say that the only reaction should be humility. I just suggested that in our current “me me me” state, it’s the one that most of us are either incapable of, or refuse to try at all. The point of the humility, is to let the thing work on us first, rather than simply force ourselves on it. It’s an interesting experiment, you ought to try it. You may find (as I did), that some things I dismissed as musty and out of touch are actually tremendously vital.
Evan Wheeleron 30 Jun 07
There has been a lot of good commentary in literary circles on the topic of writing and criticism, and the future of both on the internet. See virtual snake oil for more.
Author Richard Schickel laments that we are loosing the practice of criticism.
Josh Getlin reports on how major newspapers are shrinking their book review sections in spite of what publisher James Atlas believes is “a very robust period for publishing,” which effectively cedes critical clout to bloggers.
Literary critic Adam Kirsch observes “hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.” Although his discussion focuses on literary blogs, the problem of amateurism extends to blogs of any subject.
Erikon 01 Jul 07
Read criticism of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and it becomes clear that popular culture has been “bad” for centuries, if not millennia.
Hubris Sonicon 01 Jul 07
oh for petes sake…
Sade Reedon 01 Jul 07
Little do most people know, but “personalization” is yet another manifestation of mass media “culture”.
The funny thing is, this “personalization” is still developed by someone, somewhere, that has a motive, an intention. All tools have intentions. A hammer’s intent is to hit, a knife’s intent is to cut (thank you to the author Phillip Pullman for this concept). The intent of “personalization” is to deceive the consumer into believing this choice is entirely their own.
Ever wonder why many dialogue online buttons read, “Submit”?
Nergon 01 Jul 07
The web reflects our culture. I don’t look at people getting hit in the nuts on TV anymore than I would on the web. I read technical books at home and technical articles n the web.
The web is what we make of it, not what it makes of us.
Jameson 01 Jul 07
Don’t you think that bloggers should be less mindless and post on more meaningful things such as charity? America is in the toilet and you aren’t do your fair share to make it better. You are a journalist but not an activist. I would hate to be you.
Consider making a difference and make your next blog entry on something worth caring about. How about suggesting to your readers your favorite charity. Maybe some of them will even contribute…
Scotton 01 Jul 07
As someone in their 50s (married, author, self-employed, had a site since ‘99), I am soglad to be alive right now and living with the Internet. In all my years before the ‘Net, I never got the value of the daily newspaper, the major TV news stations, and most of the popular books and magazines. And I was always baffled by the incessant need to divide folks into either a Democrat or a Republican, and the weird need to feel that the only method of genuine education was gotten at a designated university that could give you 2 (or 3) letters after your name. ALL of it had a similar vibration to it, and all of it struck me as stuff for sheep. Or at least people half asleep. A giant game that few were aware they were playing.
True, I do not get the inane name-calling and other mean-spirited posts that leak into so many blogs and interactive sites. But I LOVE the Internet, because I can get ideas and conversations from all sorts of people. Not just those hired by CBS or The New York Times or those with Initials After Their Names or who wear purple gowns on Sunday and say they’ve been annointed by the gods. I was never interested in most of their opinions anyway, because I always felt their true expression was so often tainted… by corporate rules, by marketing, by money, by religion, by politics.
I say: bravo! Bravo to the whole messy Internet. I love it. It’s the most alive, vibrant, truthful thing for communication ever created. As others have noted, I believe it will be seen historically as a turning point for humanity.
Justin Bellon 02 Jul 07
All that’s new here is the the SVN ratio has dropped. In fact, there is more good stuff out there now than there ever has been. If you can be bothered to look for it.
I’m not going to bother to read the article, I’m in the mood for making bass-less assumptions (I used to be a Slashdotter).
He’s probably like those people who thought that movies and music were better in the old days. There are some good old movies, but there are also plenty of good ones now. And as for TV, I think the quality has only increased.
He seem to think that just because the potential was there, that something went wrong, because of what actually happened. When in fact, perhaps it was unrealistic that it ever could have been such a thing.
I think that anything that really is good enough, people will still be able to make money off it. I don’t think good quality stuff is a risk just because there is more crap. There has always been the same amount of crap, it has just been in a different form/media.
Besides, what about all the good stuff that we never heard of because it never got through these filters for whatever reasons? If he made any sense, then Futurama should still be playing.
I’d better stop talking, this post isn’t very coherent. Maybe he has a point after all (well, not really).
Ryanon 02 Jul 07
Surely what we have now is what you get when greed meets bad taste.
Nick Husheron 02 Jul 07
I find it difficult to identify with this statement; prior to ITMS or even P2P music sharing programs, I had a six-CD music collection of top-40 artists that I happened to find amusing at the time. Since finding online means of acquiring music (legal or illegal), my music library has grown to 70+ albums. Not all of which are “amateur garage bands,” or even particularly modern. I’ve found old or obscure classics like Chris Thomas King or Phil Ochs that I never would have bought from a brick-and-mortar store.
Additionally, I’ve gotten into more than a few series by downloading a few episodes through Bittorrent-LOST for example-and thereafter making the time to watch them on network TV, adverstisements and all.
So I guess that my experience has been directly the opposite of Keen’s, the internet has given me a window into pieces of popular culture that I wouldn’t normally bother to persue. Maybe my ‘blinders’ for all the braindead nonsense out there are much more tightly attached than his.
vanrijngoon 05 Jul 07
I say: What is the big scare to the whole supposed messy Internet, concerning bloggers,.... that people are finally finding out truths? I love it. It’s the only true way of bringing out truths,... for it seem that the everyday media has its boundaries they have to keep to, in order to keep their jobs. Everything in our elite society has its boundaries, and very much set for censorship. In this day and age, vibrant writings, the most truthful thing written as communications ever created, has its limitations. It must, and I mean for certainty, coincide as others have noted in the past and believe them to be. I believe blogging will be seen historically as a turning point for humanity, if the world of our remains in one piece long enough.
The big question is this,... will this be concidered off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, or otherwise inappropriate or a vapid comment? Cheers! vanrijngo
This discussion is closed.