Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, hits bookstores today. Keen has given us a brickbat of a polemic, which is to say, it's blunt, mean and not very sophisticated. Think of his argument as: Everything On or Transmitted Over or Affected By the Internet is Bad For You. His actual subtitle is "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture." Same thing. For those of us with stock in the belief that the Internet has liberated a great deal of latent creativity, ideas and dare I say it, beauty, it's an offensive notion.
It is also, to hear Keen's critics, a disingenuous one. Prominent voices like Jeff Jarvis, Dave Winer and Robert Scoble have all cast Keen in the role of a calculating and—worse, this—sophomoric provocateur, producing arguments that aren't worth a "thoughtful response," in Winer's words, because they are "beneath criticism." (Rather than offer a round-up of the various leading lights who've taken the whip hand to Keen, I'll hand you over to Dan Farber at ZDNet, who does an admirable job of it.)
As everyone seems to have their basic talking points down—Keen's not just wrong, he's terrible at being wrong—the only real debate in play is whether to engage Keen at all. The consensus is that Keen is a troll, and the only way to deal with trolls is ignore them. I can't say I agree. I read Keen's book when I first received a review copy back in February, and had a similar reaction as many others. One, thank god someone's finally poking a stick in the Web 2.0 happy hive; and Two, why does the welcome antagonist have to wield such a clumsy, ineffective tool?
I talked to my immediate editors at Wired about the book anyway. We agreed that the book was likely to get tons of press, and that you go to the ring with the opponent you have, not the opponent you want. I spent several, long hours battling Keen—whose not without personal charm and wit—and found him as exasperating as his book. For what it's worth, I believe Keen is in earnest, not merely out to make a buck. (Which isn't to say the two motives are mutually exclusive.)
In the end the decision was made not to run the piece. I have decided to run the interview on Crowdsourcing.com. Because while we all might know Keen is a troll, the London Times, Forbes, the Financial Times and some 45 other publications don't. According to the Nexis news database, they all gave Keen coverage in the last several months. The scientific community decided that Intelligent Design was beneath criticism too, and we know how well that went.
The fact is, Keen's arguments will sound mightily persuasive to a significant constituency who do believe the Internet is primarily a repository of porn, spam and corrosive amateurism. Failing to recognize that the choir to which Keen preaches might just be larger than our own congregation is an arrogant, and potentially irreversible blunder. While Web 2.0 insiders might love to hate Keen, many in the world at large will love to love him. I should note that I'm not the only dissenter on this count. Clay Shirky wages a more eloquent version of my argument here.
As such, in the spirit that all debate is good debate, I'm publishing the Wired Q&A after the jump. We kept the truly vitriolic bits out, so excuse me if it reads a bit more courtly than what I've written above. If vitriol is what you're looking for though, tomorrow I'll be moderating a debate between Keen and Time writer Lev Grossman at the Strand in New York. If you happen to live in the city or be in town for a visit, I hope you can join the fray.
Hed: ‘I’m Not a Technomoralist. I’m a Technoscold!’
Digital revolution? Andrew Keen doesn’t buy it. He hates Wikipedia, despises the blogosphere, and believes YouTube is killing off the cinematic arts. In his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, he argues we’re diving headlong into an age of mass mediocrity in which the mob replaces experts and we become collectively dumber. It’s a living. Keen has become the media’s go-to voice for techno-skepticism. (He’s been quoted by Newsweek, The Today Show, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.) We decided to ask him if he was, you know, serious. —Jeff Howe
WIRED: You’ve got some pretty tough words for the digital revolution. Is there anything about technology you do like?
Andrew Keen: I know a lot of people will say this is just another Luddite tract, but I’m not anti-technology. I’m anti-technological utopianism. There’s this idea that technology is going to liberate us all to become filmmakers and journalists. That’s a seductive idea if you believe everyone is intrinsically talented. I don’t believe that. I don’t like the way technology is being used to attack institutions that I hold to be essential to our society, such as newspapers and record labels and film studios.
W: Is Blades of Glory that much better than what you can find on Youtube?
K: Spend some time on YouTube, drift around the blogosphere for a while and then go listen to some random bands on MySpace. Afterward go read the New York Times, see a mainstream movie, and wander through a record store, if you can still find one. Then ask yourself which you’d rather have.
W: I think Ask-a-Ninja’s pretty damn funny. Could the Ninja guy have broken through the old system of gate-keeping? Aren’t there a lot more talented people out there then will ever break through using the traditional system?
K: This is where we fundamentally disagree. I don’t want the crowd to tell me what’s worth watching. I want a movie critic to tell me that. I don’t want the crowd to tell me where to eat, because I don’t trust them to know. Give me the old gatekeepers any day.
W: Techno-moralists are in pretty short supply these days. How did you get into this particular line of business?
K: I’m not a techno-moralist. I’m a technoscold. I wrote the book because it seemed that people involved in Web 2.0 are in an echo chamber. There isn’t a debate, and there isn’t a conversation. They’re just listening to themselves. I find this incredibly dangerous. My background is in Eastern European studies. I spent the first half of my life studying communism and radical idealism. So I’m pretty skeptical of anyone who promises some sort of utopia.
W: You’ve compared Web 2.0 to Marxism. Explain.
K: In Marx’s early work he promises us that technology will liberate us from work, allowing us to farm in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and write novels in the evening. I don’t want to come off as McCarthism 1.0 or anything, but I find it ironic that people like [Wired Editor-in-Chief] Chris Anderson and [Instapundit blogger] Glenn Reynolds consider themselves libertarians. Reynolds sees the market as liberating us from our needs, which is pretty Marxist. He’s like the poor man’s Chris Anderson.
W: What are your politics?
K: I’m liberal. Which is ironic. Ariana Huffington goes on and on about the left and right thing no longer being relevant, and I’m an example of that. Everyone thinks of Wired as a radical publication, but I think of it as more or less conservative, very free market. The kind of ideological map of the world now is one in which the libertarian globalists like Chris Anderson and Thomas Friedman—the Davos people—are on one side, and the old left and the old right are on the other. On one hand the world is flat, and on the other hand are those of us who believe in anything, whether it’s class justice or morality or cultural truth of one sort or the other.