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Wednesday, 30 January 2008 00:00

The peril of complacency

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The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Doubleday, 2007. $22.95

Web 2.0 is killing our culture.

So claims Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. In this blistering broadside against the social communities of Web 2.0, Keen contends that our online culture is quickly destroying or radically altering everything from our political dialectic to the music business. According to Keen, the audience has become the actor, the amateur has taken the reins from the professionals.

Keen’s first concern in The Cult of the Amateur is for truth. After informing us that a new blog is “being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day,“ he examines the effect of blogs on our perception of truth and on our regard for news and information, writing that “kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshoe.blogspot.com.” (Some would add that many adults can’t tell the difference either).

On Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia used by millions of students and teachers, there are no editors, no fact-checkers; “everyone with an agenda can rewrite an entry to their liking — and contributors usually do.” Keen gives examples of McDonalds and Wal-Mart employees using Wikipedia to spread company positions.

Keen demonstrates how the Internet and blogging encourage a bogus journalism, a journalism based on opinion rather than fact, on editorializing rather than on reporting. Amateurs — some Internet executives call them noble amateurs — are slashing away at journalistic standards that have held for nearly a hundred years, standards that include the employment of facts rather than theories and a board of watchful editors rather than a loner in a bathrobe spreading rumors and sensationalizing scandals. Keen gives solid examples here, showing us, for example, how many of the initial reports done by these citizen journalists regarding murder and rape in the wake of Hurricane Katrina actually proved false or exaggerated, and only helped to exacerbate racial strife and an already terrible disaster.

Certain sectors of American business have also suffered from the explosion of Web 2.0. Keen spends a considerable amount of space in his book examining the moribund music industry. A joint report by European and American researchers found that in 2006 Internet users downloaded 40 songs for every legal music download. Even at the iTunes price of 99 cents a song, this number of illegal downloads equals $19.99 billion annually, money stolen, as Keen astutely notes, from artists, labels, distributors, and record stores. Such devastating losses have already brought about the closure of record stores, a poorer quality of music because of studio expenses, and a slow death for many recording companies.

Keen traces the effects of the Internet on television and the movies as well. With pirated movies reaching thousands of more people each day, and with scripted television shows no longer as viable as reality shows in the face of Internet piracy, both the film and television industries face enormous and potentially devastating changes in the near future.

Keen finally turns the bright, harsh lights of his critique on the moral effects of Web 2.0. What, he asks, will eventually become of a nation of plagiarists (cheating in universities and high schools is at an all-time high, largely because of the availability of online papers and articles)? What will become of our political system, already wounded by corruption and apathy, as bloggers alter public debates with loony theories? How many lives and marriages have been ruined by the availability of online gambling and pornography?

How many young people who today blithely throw their lives onto YouTube will someday rue their lack of caution? How do we live in a world in which privacy shrinks every time we go online?

In the face of such issues, Keen’s proposed solutions seem weak. His chapter on these solutions is only 20 pages long, about one-tenth of the book. He advocates increased government intervention, a move which nearly all users of the Internet would resist. In terms of the music industry, he advocates lowering the prices of CDs and encourages consumers of music to pay for their stolen music. He points out that the arrests of certain online gambling entrepreneurs closed down some gambling Web sites, yet most readers will suspect that other sites surely leaped up hydra-headed to take their place. He urges parents to watch their children’s Internet activities, a ho-hum solution that would bore even the most ardent conservatives.

Despite all these concerns, Andrew Keen is no Luddite. In his own words, he is “neither anti-technology nor anti-progress. Digital technology is a miraculous thing, giving us the means to globally connect and share knowledge in unprecedented ways.“ He is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has appeared on radio and television, has written for Forbes, the Weekly Standard, and Fast Company, and has founded Audiocafe.com. He is an insider.

Perhaps it is this insider position that allows him to so effectively present what Americans are in danger of losing to the cult of the amateur. In his conclusion he writes, “We need to reform rather than revolutionize an information and entertainment economy that, over the last 200 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.”

In The Cult of the Amateur, Keen raises arguments and issues that we ignore at our peril.

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