The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture’ is a 2007 book written by entrepreneur and Internet critic Andrew Keen; it is a critique of the enthusiasm surrounding user generated content, peer production, and other Web 2.0-related phenomena.

The book was written after Keen wrote a controversial essay in ‘The Weekly Standard’ criticizing Web 2.0 for being similar to Marxism, for destroying professionalism and for making it impossible to find high quality material amidst all the user-generated web content. The book was based in part on that essay. Keen argues against the idea of a ‘read-write culture’ in media, stating that ‘most of the content being shared— no matter how many times it has been linked, cross-linked, annotated, and copied— was composed or written by someone from the sweat of their creative brow and the disciplined use of their talent.’

As such, he contrasts companies such as Time Warner and Disney that ‘create and produce movies, music, magazines, and television’ with companies such as Google. He calls the latter ‘a parasite’ since ‘it creates no content of its own’ and ‘[i]n terms of value creation, there is nothing there apart from its links.’ He elaborates on the point by saying, ‘Of course, every free listing on Craigslist means one less paid listing in a local newspaper. Every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for a professionally researched and edited encyclopedia such as Britannica.’

Thus, he concludes that ‘what is free is actually costing us a fortune.’ He also refers to changes such as downsizing of newspaper business and the closing of record labels as forms of economic pain caused by internet-based social changes.

Keen quotes social philosopher Jurgen Habermas about the internet and related technologies: ‘The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.’ Keen states that most of modern social culture has existed with specific gatekeepers analyzing and regulating information as it reaches the masses. He views this expert-based filtering process as beneficial, improving the quality of popular discourse, and argues that it is being circumvented.

Keen also criticizes the ability of the Internet to promote social harms such as gambling and pornography. He writes, ‘It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements have resulted in social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.’ He sees ‘cultural standards and moral values’ as ‘at stake’ due to new media innovations.

More broadly, Keen remarks that ‘history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise’ and argues against the notion that mass participation in ideas improve their quality. He highlights that popular opinion has supported ‘slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears’ among other things. He warns against a future of ‘when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.’

Technology advocate Lawrence Lessig, who was criticized in both the original essay and in the book, wrote an extremely negative review of the book in which he listed what he stated were a multitude of errors in the book including mischaracterizations of Lessig’s views and work. Lessig also set up a wiki where users could collaborate in listing problems with the book. Larry Sanger, the founder of the expert-centered wiki Citizendium, said that ‘The book is provocative, but its argument is unfortunately weakened by the fact that Keen is so over-the-top and presents more of a caricature of a position than carefully reasoned discourse.’

He said that it was hypocritical for Keen to express support for ‘Citizendium,’ for incorporating expert opinion, when the inherent point of the project is to supply free content, which Keen so opposes in principle. Sanger stated that the book ‘combines several different criticisms of Web 2.0, incoherently, under the rubric of ‘the cult of the amateur’ but the book ‘is a much-needed Web 2.0 reality check.”

Free software advocate Tim O’Reilly commented in response to the book, ‘I find, Andrew Keen’s, his whole pitch, I think he was just pure and simple looking for an angle, to create some controversy and sell a book, I don’t think there’s any substance whatever to his rants.’ Furthermore, he has said in response to the book, ‘I think the Internet is often held to another standard. You don’t say, ‘Why aren’t the newspapers writing about Bismarck, he is more important than Pamela Anderson.’ But people will say that about Wikipedia. It’s just bias.’ Anthony Trewavas, professor at the Institute of Molecular Plant Science at the University of Edinburgh, discussed the book in an article in ‘Trends in Biotechnology.’

Trewavas wrote that Keen’s ‘concern is the blurring of the distinction between the qualified and informed professional and the uninformed and unqualified amateur,’ expressing concerns that this social change can hold back agricultural development. Trewavas stated as well, ‘in agriculture, pesticides, food and farming, expert scientific knowledge and experience is seemingly regarded as having no more weight than that of the opinionated, unqualified (and inexperienced) environmentalist.’

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