The Cult of the Amateur


While PCs and the Internet have given hundreds of millions of people the opportunity to post their thoughts and opinions to a global audience for the first time in history, this “free, user-generated content spawned by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced…by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, and homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists”.

This at least is the almost apocalyptic claim espoused by writer, “silicon valley entrepreneur”, and (oh the irony) blogger Andrew Keen in his new book: “the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture”.

As a polemic, Keen’s treatise is robust knock-about stuff, rightly pillorying the rumors, lies, misinformation, scams, piracy, and other excesses of the Web 2.0 age; but when it comes to showing how they are “killing our culture” the book falls down seriously – all too often descending into a veneration of a past that never existed in which allegedly a self-selected intellectual elite was united in search of the “truth” and in creating a “rich cultural legacy” on behalf of the poorly-educated and ill-informed masses.

Indeed, it is Keen’s unashamed elitism – not to mention his highly selective cultural myopia – that is the main weakness of the book. Who is he to tell us that we should allow our tastes in movies or music be dictated by a small coterie of critics, when we can find a much more diverse variety of opinions out there in the wilds of Internet? And who is he to say that we can’t post our own thoughts online for others to read, no matter how inane they may be?

Keen is on (slightly) firmer ground when he describes the impact that the disruptive economics of Web 2.0 is “suck(ing) the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content”, but in his ludicrous attacks on businesses such as Craigslist (which according to Keen “has done more to undermine classified newspaper advertising than any other single institution”) he does not even attempt to explain why people who want to sell a washing machine or rent out an apartment should indirectly subsidize the kind of ‘professional’ journalism he espouses. Neither does he begin to admit how slow the traditional music, film, newspaper, and broadcast media industries were to adapt the new realities of the digital era and adjust their strategies accordingly.

As Keen himself admits, the Web 2.0 train has already left the station, and there’s no turning back. But while he points out that “we need to find a way to balance the best of the digital future without destroying the institutions of the past”, he offers precious few solutions as to how we should achieve this laudable goal beyond urging us to subscribe to newspapers, purchase (and not steal) digital music, and adopt Joost in favor of YouTube.

Indeed, for all the fire and brimstone of his rhetoric, Keen has succeeded only in setting off a damp squib rather than igniting a vigorous global debate. This is a shame, because the cult of the amateur could potentially have been a very interesting book.

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