Hubris, meet Nemesis

Andrew Keen has made himself the darling of vanishing old-media types who, seeking sympathy instead of vocational rehabilitation, desperately clutch Keen’s invective of new media to their breasts like wooden shields.

Steel workers had Bruce Springsteen, who gave us art in the process of paying tribute to many who lost their livelihoods. Michael Moore first made a name for himself by documenting the plight of auto workers in his moving film about residents of Flint, Michigan. Sofia Coppola did a nice job of depicting the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Keen, who probably doesn’t rise to the level of artist, may not have been the best chronicler or sympathizer old-school journalists could have selected, but they wouldn’t have any way of knowing so if they haven’t made a habit of objectively examining all sides of a story.

A number of reviewers have criticized Keen’s treatise, including Bob Robertson-Boyd, who writes for Google Book Search:

Often described as a polemic, The Cult of the Amateur is simply a screed against societal and economic change. It is a moralistic bombast against the populist notion of cooperation and collaboration in favor of a single point of reference determined and espoused by an expert. The author pulls out all of the goblins—narcissism, lying, thievery, gambling and pornography—to warn readers that their culture is under siege by know-nothing friends and neighbors bent on self-expression and actualization at the cost of a national dialog.

To believe the premise, our society will unravel—even our economy is at stake!—if my neighbors and I allow ourselves to chronicle the times we live in without heeding the checks and balances of experts. We are, with each visit to Wikipedia, with each blog post and each download, jeopardizing jobs in traditional publishing, distribution and media. What purports to be a defense of our national character ends up being a defense of the heyday of mass media where three networks and a handful of newspapers made the news and controlled the water-cooler conversations through a self-chosen circle of “experts.”

I have found it impossible to separate the words on the page from their outspoken author, Andrew Keen. Lacking direction and focus, Keen leaps from conclusion to conclusion often contradicting himself: as in his mourning the loss of niche knowledge among the staff of Tower Records and lambasting the uncontrolled blogosphere for perpetuating a never-ending series of narrow interests.

Keen’s academic pedigree shines through each sentence and illuminates his general distrust of the common man. This book is an unconscious paean to media darlings of a bygone era: the condescending, idealistic academician as talking head. Yes. Gambling can be dangerous and pornography is not for children. No. The crowd is not imbued with wisdom. Our society is experiencing significant growing pains and experimenting with new technologies and freedoms.

Through seven chapters, Keen focuses only on the negative consequences of technological advances and condemns our innate human curiosity and expression as irrevocably bad. In the eighth and final chapter, Keen finally allows that there are benefits and acknowledges that we may yet rein in this beast of Web 2.0 and realize our own folly. He might be right. We may yet welcome experts into our conversations, should they decide to participate rather than instruct. Doing so will strike a balance between narcissistic echoes in the blogosphere and self-referential experts espousing their wisdom. It is a bit of a strain to think how Keen, after seven chapters of self-righteously divisive language, can make that allowance; but the final chapter is a welcomed return to reality and pragmatism.

If you must read this book, I highly recommend checking it out from an American library—where royalties are not paid.

Robertson-Boyd has been working with organizations to develop content for online communities since 1993. Find him on most social and community networking sites as “BobRobBoy.”

Others who have commented on Keen’s assertions include:

Charles Cooper in “Web 2.0—the folly of amateurs?

Jeff Jarvis with “Snobs.com” and “Your advice: Should I debate?

Lawrence Lessig, who in “Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: BRILLIANT!” says:

Keen is our generation’s greatest self-parodist. His book is not a criticism of the Internet. Like the article in Nature comparing Wikipedia and Britannica, the real argument of Keen’s book is that traditional media and publishing is just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Here’s a book — Keen’s — that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors.

Reviews of The Cult of the Amateur have also been written by:

Cheryl A. Casey

John-Paul Flintoff

Killian Fox

David Harsanyi [Updated December 30, 2007]

Michiko Kakutani

Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Larry Sanger

Clay Shirky

Jason Sternberg

Have your say

As usual, it’s taken several months for the debate to surface in Columbus, Ohio. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, I urge you to visit Walker Evans’ blog and add your comments to his recent post written in reaction to a blogpost by the editor of the Columbus Dispatch.

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One Response to “Hubris, meet Nemesis”

  1. Robin Mizell Says:

    Well, the debate surfaced for a few seconds in Columbus before being caught in an undertow. Mike Ho revives it on the West Coast, where some people tend to be a little more outspoken and, dare I say, impassioned.

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