The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen
- 5 Jun 07, 02:07 PM
The Cult of the Amateur
How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy
by Andrew Keen
“If we are all amateurs, there are no experts.”
Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur is the latest addition to the Newsnight book club. In it, the author expresses his concern for the profligacy of online amateurism, spawned by the digital revolution. This, he feels, has had a destructive impact on our culture, economy and values.
He says, “[They] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels”.
He complains that blogs are “collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture”.
He claims that Wikipedia perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and ignorance, and labels YouTube inane and absurd, “showing poor fools dancing, singing, eating, washing, shopping, driving, cleaning, sleeping, or just staring at their computers.”
He warns that old media is facing extinction – “say goodbye to experts and cultural gatekeepers – our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios.”
What do you think? We’ve published two extracts from Andrew Keen’s book below. Have a read and share your thoughts – is he being alarmist about the effects of the Web 2.0 revolution, or raising genuine concerns? Are we at the mercy of the amateur? Can kids tell the difference between credible news sources and the amateur’s blog? What, in any case, can be done?
Extract from CHAPTER 1 – THE GREAT SEDUCTION
… democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. As I noted earlier, it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions.
I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. 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. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.
Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled 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 (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.
We—those of us who want to know more about the world, those of us who are the consumers of mainstream culture—are being seduced by the empty promise of the “democratized” media. For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth.
Truth, to paraphrase Tom Friedman, is being “flattened,” as we create an on-demand, personalized version that reflects our own individual myopia. One person’s truth becomes as “true” as anyone else’s. Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile. To quote Richard Edelman, the founder, president, and CEO of Edelman PR, the world’s largest privately owned public relations company:
“In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.” 1
This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.
Need proof? Let’s look at that army of perjurious penguins—“Al Gore’s Army of Penguins” to be exact. Featured on YouTube, the film, a crude “self-made” satire of Gore’s pro-environment movie An Inconvenient Truth, belittles the seriousness of Al Gore’s message by depicting a penguin version of Al Gore preaching to
other penguins about global warming.
But “Al Gore’s Army of Penguins” is not just another homemade example of YouTube inanity. Though many of the 120,000 people who viewed this video undoubtedly assumed it was the work of some SUV-driving amateur with an aversion to recycling, in reality, the Wall Street Journal traced the real authorship of this neocon satire to DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C., public relationships and lobbying firm whose clients include Exxon-Mobil.2 The video is nothing more than political spin, enabled and perpetuated by the anonymity of Web 2.0, masquerading as independent art. In short, it is a big lie.
Blogs too, can be vehicles for veiled corporate propaganda and deception. In March 2006, the New York Times reported about a blogger whose laudatory postings about Wal-Mart were “identical” to press releases written by a senior account supervisor at the Arkansas retailer’s PR company.3 Perhaps this is the same team behind the mysterious elimination of unflattering remarks about Wal-Mart’s treatment of its employees on the retailer’s Wikipedia entry.
Blogs are increasingly becoming the battlefield on which public relations spin doctors are waging their propaganda war. In 2005, before launching a major investment, General Electric executives met with environmental bloggers to woo them over the greenness of a new energy-efficient technology. Meanwhile, multinationals like IBM, Maytag, and General Motors all have blogs that, under an objective guise, peddle their versions of corporate truth to the outside world.
But the anticorporate blogs are equally loose with the truth. In 2005, when the famous and fictitious finger-in-the-chili story broke, every anti-Wendy’s blogger jumped on it as evidence of fast-food malfeasance. The bogus story cost Wendy’s $2.5 million in lost sales as well as job losses and a decline in the price of the company’s stock.
As former British Prime Minister James Callaghan said, “A lie can make its way around the world before the truth has the chance to put its boots on.” That has never been more true than with the speeding, freewheeling, unchecked culture of today’s blogosphere.
1. “Liquid Truth: Advice from the Spinmeisters,” PR Watch, Fourth Quarter 2000, Volume 7, No. 4.
2. Antonio Regalado and Dionne Searcey, “Where Did That Video Spoofing Al Gore’s Film Come From?” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2006.
3. Michael Barbaro, “Wal-Mart enlists bloggers in PR campaign,” New York Times, March 7, 2006.
From THE LAST WORD
At the 2005 TED Conference, Kevin Kelly told the Silicon Valley crowd that we have a moral obligation to develop technology. “Imagine Mozart before the technology of the piano,” he said. “Imagine Van Gogh before the technology of affordable oil paints. Imagine Hitchcock before the technology of film.”
But technology doesn’t create human genius. It merely provides new tools for self-expression. And if the democratized chaos of user-generated Web 2.0 content ends up replacing mainstream media, then there may not be a way for the Mozarts, Van Goghs, and Hitchcocks of the future to effectively distribute or sell their creative work.
Instead of developing technology, I believe that our real moral responsibility is to protect mainstream media against the cult of the amateur. We need to reform
rather than revolutionize an information and entertainment economy that, over the last two hundred years, has reinforced American values and made our culture the
envy of the world. Once dismantled, I fear that this professional media—with its rich ecosystem of writers, editors, agents, talent scouts, journalists, publishers, musicians, reporters, and actors—can never again be put back together. We destroy it at our peril.
So let’s not go down in history as that infamous generation who, intoxicated by the ideal of democratization, killed professional mainstream media. Let’s not be remembered for replacing movies, music, and books with YOU! Instead, let’s use technology in a way that encourages innovation, open communication, and progress, while simultaneously preserving professional standards of truth, decency, and creativity. That’s our moral obligation. It’s our debt to both the past and the future.