Andrew Keen spoke today at the I-School about his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. He was counter-poised with Professor Paul Duguid of the School of Information.
The lecture hall was packed to overflowing, and on into an auditory annex, and rightfully so because this is one of the hottest controversies facing the modern world.
Andrew claimed that his original conception for this book was much more a thoughtful, and positive overview of the current Web 2.0 situation, but that his publishers informed him that first he must publish a contentious article in a prominent magazine, and then follow it up with a challenging book. They claimed a clear factual book would have a very small audience, and they were not interested in pursuing such a venture. So the treatment of this book transmogrified into one of a more polemic nature. He implied that this aggressive posture was necessary to get started in the authoring business if one intended to make a living as a writer. This theme was parodied last season on British TV in the show The Extras where the talented, and highly motivated central character is a serious actor who is forced by his producers into very a lowbrow sitcom where he becomes a big star, but at the cost of his soul.
Keen’s whole book seems to be filled with existential conflicts of this sort. It appears he has a love-hate relationship with all of these conflicting issues as perhaps we all do. But as a writer he has the obligation to face these demons more directly, and clarify them for us. We all love the free music available on the Internet, but we feel guilty stealing from the artists. We all like quality television too, but won’t pay for it either, and will sit through plot busting commercials to avoid laying out the necessary cash for the costs of production. We may claim to revere the Encyclopedia Britannica, but we wouldn’t dream of buying one, and instead will turn to Wikipedia for general knowledge. Perhaps it isn’t as scholarly in tone, but everyone admits that in the end it gets the facts right, and that is what we generally want from an encyclopedia. It’s all a sham, he claims, because everyone wants everything for FREE. And, he claims this problem is getting worse, because our youth are growing up in a culture where most of what they want can be gotten for free, and they are now expecting, and demanding that everything should be given to them for free.
One of the major complaints which Keen developed was that content creators are not being paid for their work, and part of the evil of that situation is that some of these creators themselves with excess time, brains and limited foresight are giving away what other people not very different from themselves are trying to sell. Musicians, newspaper men, the whole movie industry, and even contract photographers, are being deprived of a livelihood by the Internet, and the processes of Web 2.0.
There are a few people who are making fortunes, but these are not the creators of content. Those cashing in are the purveyors of empty containers, into which creators for their own short sighted reasons, are putting out quality material for free. The creators are being taken advantage of by the exploiters — so what’s new? Prime examples of this current trend are: Wikipedia, Linux, Open Office, Flickr, YouTube but there are lots of others, and some of them will probably become big, even as we pause to think. One of his complaints was against the people in this largely academic audience who are experts in various fields, and are blogging. The problem is that these people are being funded by the public to acquire special knowledge, and are provided with the time to write their findings up properly, and publish them. This is great, in some ways, but it puts the other less well situated professional person out of a job, and it degrades, and eventually kills any outside innovation from amateurs. These amateurs may have special knowledge, but not the background training, and style to frame their knowledge to publication standards. These academics are given a free ride and have honed their talents at public expense. This whole Web 2.0 subject is riddled with this kind of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable, good-bad conflict.
This book is about important current issues, and the author did a good job of covering those issues, but somehow I don’t think he got through to the essence of the arguments. This is another case of someone who hasn’t heard Probaway’s Law and who on first hearing it will reject it as callous and silly. But, the fact remains that, anything that can be digitized will soon be worthless — monetarily worthless in a short term sense. What is to become more highly valued by high tech humans is having control over personal things such as their time, attention, energy and safety. These things are also dependent upon information, and that information can also be digitized. We need to be cautious. We need to be wary! There may be a more beautiful world ahead of us but even if there is it will be filled with conflict and struggle. Perhaps the best one can do is just participate and live.