Keen review

Book review: The Cult of the Amateur

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007
Andrew Keen

One of the hardest parts of reading The Cult of the Amateur is the temptation to agree with the author, Andrew Keen. It's tempting, when involved in an edit war, to pick up the book, read it, and say, "My god, he's right! People who don't have a clue are RUINING the Internet!", before stepping back and realizing, he's also talking about you.

Keen opens his anti-Web 2.0 polemic (and he admits in the afterword that is exactly what he was aiming for) by stating that Web 2.0 technology and attitudes are "blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur".

Obviously, I approach this subject differently than Keen, and have for a while. One section of my personal website gets about 200 hits a month because someone else cited it on Wikipedia; that same content, which I researched and assembled about 12 years ago, was covered at the time by the Wall Street Journal in an article about how the Web could provide information that wasn't available in regular resources. The information that I created was never put online by the company in question; eventually, they just started referring people to my page (how the WSJ found the information).

Keen's short book focuses almost entirely on blogging, MySpace, YouTube, and of course Wikipedia. Like many people who are arguing against the current state of the Internet, he disregards the main "amateur" things that preceded them, such as BBSes, regular web pages, and shareware, in order to make his points. Indeed, the World Wide Web started out collaboratively, initially developed as a system at CERN to keep track of internal information.[1] If you had the most recent information, you updated it. Andrew Keen was an entrepreneur whose reputation came in the late-90s dot-com bubble, and when reading the book the reader perceives that he'd like to go back to the time when only the highly-technical people (and the people who could afford to hire them) could post to the web. He wants to install gates on a system that, when you return to the very basic DARPA-plans for an Internet, was designed to be amorphous and decentralized.

Keen points out that in the past, "our collective intellectual history has been driven by the careful aggregation of truth - through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, and radio and television". Much in the same way that he doesn't seem to see through to the original intent of both Internet and World Wide Web, Keen has an idealized, end-of the-20th-century view of that aggregation. Until a few centuries ago, most information was aggregated by religious bodies, which was followed by a period of free-wheeling publication (much of the writing of the Founding Fathers of the United States would be considered self-published today; indeed, the first American newspapers were quite comparable to political zines, published mostly to advance personal ideas). This was followed by a century-and-a-half of corporate-controlled presses, and researchers are still working to find out truths about events that were sanitized or covered up in the early parts of this century. Despite the sheer flood of information, it is not a bad thing that researchers in 100 years will be able to find out just what a person who "just wants to talk" had to say.

The modern press, with highly professional editors, attempts at neutrality, fair-handed coverage and more, is a very recent development, not the megalith of information that Keen envisions it as being, and tells his readers it was. One of Keen's main arguments is that "few of us have any training, knowledge, or hands-on experience to generate any kind of real perspective". The feeling that I, as a web developer, occasional journalist, and active user in the technology lumped into "Web 2.0", come away with is that Keen does not possess the knowledge and experience to give the readers of his book the very perspective and authority he wishes information online to have.

In many science fiction apocalyptic futures, people are shown not caring at all about their environment, becoming passive consumers of... well, one can't even call it information (think of things like Max Headroom and Idiocracy). Unlike Keen, I don't think that it's a bad thing when I see a woman wearing a shirt that cheekily announces, "I'm Blogging This"; it means that she's paying attention to what's going on, even if that attention turns out to become a narrow slice of what happened. Certainly, there are hundreds of sites out there that discuss the inane, and sites where people who barely seem able to put a coherent sentence together want to discuss George W. Bush's foreign policies. But being involved enough to want to post a video blog, whether it decries Livejournal's Strikethrough or the tragedies in Darfur means that you're engaged, reacting, and speaking out. Keen may not realize it, but his work reads far more like a disillusioned Usenet post than a book.

External links

(Note from Thespian; My issues with Keen's history were based on my own professional history in technology and journalism; Robinson's review covers Keen's discussion of economics, a subject I know nothing of, with, "and when he starts to talk about economics, the wary reader will wish he had taken his own advice and left it to up the experts".)
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What does "If you had the most recent information, you updated it. Andrew Keen was an entrepreneur whose reputation came in the late-90s dot-com bubble, and it's hard to reading the book the reader perceives that he'd like to go back to the time when only the highly-technical people (and the people who could afford to hire them) could post to the web." mean? - Ta bu shi da yu 09:48, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Oi. I missed that because I had another grammar issue in that sentence; it now reads: "and when reading the book the reader perceives that he'd like to go back to the time when only the highly-technical people (and the people who could afford to hire them) could post to the web." Doh! Thanks for asking so I could fix it before it got out to baffle others! --Thespian 10:07, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
No probs, and great book review! - Ta bu shi da yu 13:25, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Well said, Thespian! Steve Dufour 10:39, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

The link on this page to Business Week is dead. Or, I can't reach it from my computer, which is behind a corporate firewall. -- llywrch 19:43, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

they moved it, it seems, very minor naming issue (it was a .htm not a .html when I checked it); I've found the new page and fixed it. --Thespian 20:13, 17 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Verified fix, thanks! -- llywrch 18:56, 18 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  • Until the late XIXth century, practically all science was done by amateurs. To be "unprofessional" is not to be unqualified in the strict sense of the word; it is a secondary connotation the word has acquired lately (since the last century). An amateur loves what he does, and an dilettante delights in it. Their works are not a priori amateurish like a dabbler's. Dabblers may though eke out a living of their fiddlings, like Andrew Keen with his bloging and bookwriting.--Victor falk 06:42, 19 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
    • Indeed. Ironically, the publication that best reflects the work of amateurs is the early version of the Encylopedia Britannica. - Ta bu shi da yu 07:28, 19 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
      • And the first edition of the Britannica is amateurish (it was widely reprinted recently). Or do you mean the 9th or 11th? Septentrionalis PMAnderson 21:54, 19 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
    • Well said. Keen's claim that amateurs produce "superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis" shows a lack of knowledge about that noted (or notorious) amateur and gentleman Charles Darwin, who found support from the ferocious proponent of the cult of the professional Thomas Huxley just at the point when science was being seized by the pros from the amateur wealthy and clergy. .. dave souza, talk 08:36, 20 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Robinson's objections to Keen's economics sound well put to me; but he may well be quoting out of context. It is possible that Keen is arguing that money is not being distributed as it used to be, which could indeed be trouble. Septentrionalis PMAnderson 21:54, 19 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Eh, Robinson's article is a lovely put-down, and makes just the point that Keen is moaning that money is not be distributed as it used to be, which is a classic case of the Parable of the broken window. .. dave souza, talk 08:36, 20 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
A change in arrangements, however, will have frictional costs, which may be serious. (I.e. the trouble is not that things have changed; but that they are changing.) Septentrionalis PMAnderson 15:40, 20 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
At the expense of self proclaimed experts who deride amateurs doing it better than them, thinking that the world owes them a living. What's new? ... dave souza, talk 21:14, 20 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Dave; thanks for the link to the broken window fallacy; I hadn't heard this before, but it contextualizes things perfectly for some arguments I've had. Likewise, if you do read the actual Cult of the Amateur book, you will find that it is EXACTLY what he says, a few times, Robinson just picked the biggest example of it. If I'd known of the parable there, I'd have mentioned it; that's perfectly apt. --Thespian 22:45, 25 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Since when has the article been retitled the Parable of the broken window? Sheesh. That makes it sound biblical. Whether or not the name fits with the technical definition of "fallacy," that story has been called the Broken window fallacy from time immemorial.
Everything bad I said about him below, forget about it. Keen's right! ô¿ô 19:03, 29 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

The Grauniad has a rather interesting interview with Keen today, which suggests that the book is really an extended flame. The things people will pay for! It includes the assertion that "Until recently the Wikipedia entry for Andrew Keen informed readers that, in addition to coming from Golders Green, London, having an academic background and being an outspoken critic of Web 2.0, he was also "a child actor who found fame in a series of soup commercials". This isn't true; the sentence was inserted deliberately by the host of a Radio 3 show prior to an appearance by Keen, to show how easily the accuracy of Wikipedia can be undermined. This bit of factual vandalism remained for 12 days before it was removed - 11 days longer than an emendation from June 5, which replaced the entire first paragraph with the words "Andrew Keen IS a dumb motherfucker"." Just shows that sometimes the truth doesn't survive on Wikipedia! They've also run this critical comment, and The Observer ran a couple of less useful reviews.[2] [3] .. dave souza, talk 21:14, 20 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Bravo! Great review. Jenny Ice Cream 08:43, 23 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

The NYT review that you link says: 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."
Horsefeathers. Wikipedia refutes that nonsense in a heartbeat.
Keen, the Guardian notwithstanding, is self-evidently a Luddite with a pencil and a legal pad who's trying to find a niche shilling for yesterday's elites. You know who they are. Those faceless moguls who occasionally deign to allow their advertisements to be interrupted by programming. ô¿ô 18:12, 29 July 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]


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