Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur (1)

For a book that purports to warn us about the dangers of networked ignorance, Andrew Keen's polemic against Web 2.0 is itself quite badly mired in ignorant suppositions.

Its subtitle is How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy. I'll come to Keen's cultural critique in a moment, but firstly let's quickly dispose of one of his economic arguments. He advises us that when Frit-o-Lay forked out just $50,000 to five competition finalists to make an amateur ad for their Super Bowl slot, rather than paying an agency the $381,000 that a professonally-made commercial would normally have cost, $331,000 was thus "sucked out of the economy". How so? Did a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time? Did the Frit-O-Lay executives take the cash out and bury it under concrete in their company car park?

He is right that the 'culture industries' are experiencing a significant reconfiguration and perhaps also that techno-idealists have generally only considered the impact of all this from the point of view of the end-user. Yet he is still failing to convince me that the next generation of genuinely talented writers, artists and musicians is on course for creative liquidation.

I have about a third of the book still to read. Thus far I have found myself wanting to take issue with Keen at the end of almost every paragraph. He's not always talking nonsense, but the arguments are frustratingly loose and invariably powered by self-evident exaggerations. Many new technologies are indeed open to abuse, but Keen's rhetoric compells us to consider that in the case of Web 2.0 abuse is the norm (...that every Wikipedia editor is a lobotomised gimp etc.)

Yet how is it that we all found out about Edelman's manipulation of the blogosphere? Is the medium really as filter-free as Keen would have us believe?

I think of myself as a bit of a professional amateur and have sometimes considered with regret the passing of the great dilettantes from previous, less-specialised eras. It is of course so often the dabblers that will spot the connections between the various monolithic fields of study. Sometimes 2+2 really does = 5 and you need an ecclectic mind to point this out. (Let us not forget that Einstein came up with General Relativity whilst working at the Swiss Patent Office.)

Back in the heady days of Web 1.0 my agency consisted of half a dozen gifted amateurs. We had a go at everything, we made things up as we went along. Soon we were displaced by specialist coders, designers, marketeers etc. Did we starve? No, because the march of technology ensures that the horizon of wisdom-obsolescence is constantly shifting and the amateur can always survive by shuffling along after it.

"It's ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule...on steroids," squeals Keen of the socialised media. Of course this kind of anti-democratic rant is as old as political theory itself, and was probably best pitched by Plato in The Republic. Cultural elites are always going to lean towards the notion that society should be run by the experts and not by the idiots. A hundred years ago intellectuals like Keen were moaning about the very mass-market media whose demise is now said to represent the end of civilisation as we know it.

The downsides of democratisation have consistently revealed themselves the moment the masses turn up, and the altruistic anarchists have their party spoiled by a combination of the the banal and the malign. Yet by then the technofiles are usually already starting to move on somewhere else.

It is the job of the journalist to inform us not to converse with us, Keen himself informs us rather pompously. Real journalists take on the big institutions and run the risk of prosecution and jail. They have the training, the contacts, the influence... Without them, he suggests, the "pajama army" would have nothing to reference as all the former journalists and movie directors will be cleaning toilets, and the barren remnants of our culture will consist only of the facts that bloggers will have to make up to fill this appalling gap.

Yet today it was YouTube not the hallowed mainstream media that showed the French public how their newly-elected President rocked up late for a G8 press conference un peu éméché after what must have been some fairly liquid negotiations with Vladimir Putin.

Keen has systematically characterised the process in question as one of flattening and fragmentation when my own experience of it has also been of new dimensions and new connections. There must be a better response to the concept of the wisdom of the crowd than pointing out that the crowd has a track record of coming up with unwise ideas like slavery and Britney Spears.

And there's surely more to the recession of high culture and informed civic debate than the empowerment of the mediocre and the moronic by convergent technologies, but if this book has the answer then it's saving it for the last sixty pages.

More later perhaps, if I can tear myself away from that "corrupting and confusing...long commercial break dressed up as democratised media".

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