book review

The Cult of the Amateur
How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy

Andrew Keen (2007)

It is not often that you encounter a book that is so right and so wrong at the same time. Andrew Keen on the one hand does an excellent job busting the current Web 2.0 myth of democratised media. He reveals how the current ‘cult of the amateur’ turns user generated content into big profits for big companies, without properly paying the creators, and by stealing time from consumers who have to shift through all this amateur work themselves. His analysis is sharp and thought-provoking, a much needed antidote to the Web 2.0 hype. On the other hand his work quickly degenerates into a personal and highly rhetoric rant against Web 2.0, blaming it for anything from Internet porn to software piracy and the breakdown of moral standards in general. The book’s subtitle is very revealing for the quality and sentiment of this second part. Sharp as his critique of the cult of the amateur is, so bluntly he ignores the reasons why cultural institutes such as Hollywood or the music industry were failing in the first place. When Keen finally gives us his recommendations on how we can turn Web 2.0 into a force for the good, he sinks to a level I would call dubious and self-contradicting.

To start on the plus side, I can recommend anybody with an interest in the current web developments to read this book. Perhaps you should not read beyond chapter 3, but still those first three chapters are well worth the trouble and the money to get a copy. In these chapters he exposes the myth of the noble amateur and egalitarian rhetoric as vehicles for a very effective business strategy. Instead of empowering all those amateurs most Web 2.0 technologies are used to create free content for big corporations who use it to sell advertising space. As Keen aptly remarks: “in the first Internet revolution, a web site’s value was determined by the number of eyeballs; in the Web 2.0 epoch, value is determined by its accumulation of amateur voices” (page 52). Worse, the so called democratic media quickly degenerates into a digital jungle where only the loudest and the most opinionated survive. In this despotic virtual world, big companies with big budgets and an army of marketers rule from behind the guise of user-generated content. There is nothing egalitarian about Web 2.0, it is just that its elite is better hidden than ever before.

In the cacophony of web 2.0 it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction; between genuine consumer reviews and corporate messages. The ethical codes by which the old media operated have all disappeared. Nobody is held accountable for what they publish in blogosphere, resulting in an amorphous mass of opinions masquerading as facts and forcing us, the amateur audience, to “become amateur critics and editors ourselves” (page 46).

But what is exactly wrong with becoming amateur critics and editors?

True, it takes a way some, if not a lot, of our precious time, but I would not say critical skills and media-literacy are wasted on the general public. If anything it could help defend us amateurs against those ‘evil’ corporations that try to trick us into buying their goods in ever more clever ways. Sure, we could use the help of some experts to counterbalance the immense media power of such corporations, but why should they alone be able to decode that “what we read or see is what it seems” (page 79)? After all, is it a prerogative of art in general that it is revealing some truth of human existence by articulate but artificial means? Is art not often lying to reveal another truth? If the general public is being able to participate better in the pleasant activity of expert art consumption then I would say more power to the people. And more power is very much needed because, in my view, the cultural institutions, which demise Keen is mourning, where failing long before the advent of Web 2.0.

On the final pages of The Cult of the Amateur Keen makes a painful mistake. He writes: “And if the democratized chaos of user-generated Web 2.0 content ends up replacing mainstream media, then there may not be a way for Mozarts, Van Goghs, and Hitchcocks of the future to effectively distribute or sell their creative work” (page 204). However, the tragedy of Van Gogh’s life was that he could not distribute or sell his creative work. Frustration over the lack of recognition drove him towards madness and suicide. The art institutes and critics during the days of Van Gogh did not think much of the artist and did not anticipate the value we place in him today. This is no incident either, institutional histories of art and media have shown time and time again that the cultural industry is very conservative. Under the burden of the raising costs of media production this problem has only grown more pronounced over the last decades. Where Keen presents the correlation between the rise of the Internet and the demise of other cultural institutes as proof that the former is replacing the latter, he fails to take into account that the cultural institutes might have caused this crisis all by themselves and thereby creating an opportunity for the web to evolve and grow in the gap they have left behind. This is just the normal play of centrifugal and centripetal forces within culture, and we do need both of them to keep our culture alive. A correlation is never an indication of a causal relation between two facts, just as in reality almost no medium was ever driven in extinction by a newer medium: we still make paintings despite the fact the camera was invented a long time ago.

Instead of investigating real causes behind the current crisis in the mainstream media, Keen devotes the second half of his book to accuse Web 2.0 of almost everything that is wrong in this day and age. Internet porn is frying the mind of little children, and Google has raised “a generation of intellectual kleptomaniacs” (page 23). But as he himself points out: not technology itself but we humans still control our future. “The question is ideological rather than technological – and the answer is largely up to us” (page 189). Likewise I like to point out that ideology is also one of the causes of all these trends and the cultural institutions of the past have had an important part to play in the forming of the ideology behind the cutting and pasting of today’s children; to be just as polemic as Keen, I would say that the mainstream music video industry has done more damage to the sexual identity of teens than Internet porn has.

In a chapter titled ‘1984 2.0’ Keen shows how much privacy we are sacrificing for a false sense of security and increased corporate control over our lives. I am very much afraid that Keen is right in this respect, but to my surprise his recommendations in the following and final chapter involves more control, more policing and even more censorship. Leave it all up to the experts Keen says, for the crowd is “easily seduced, corrupted, and led astray” (page 196). And this is where you might start to wonder, how is Keen trying to lead us? Can we trust what he is saying? Close inspection of Keen’s book reveals that he is not above using a few rhetoric tricks himself. He frequently intermixes statistical data with dramatic cases, but I doubt those cases are representational for the whole data set. As pointed out above, Keen presents correlations between numbers as casual relations where you could just as easily argue the other way around. He makes stereotypes of his opponents and he uses his eloquence and humor rather than academic rigor to convince us of his points: “History has proven that the crowd is not often very wise. After all, many unwise ideas – slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears – have been extremely popular with the crowd” he writes at page 96. Four examples of mistakes supported by popular opinion do not prove anything, nor is the pun on Britney Spears justified. However, the pun distracts us from the fact that you could easily find four counter examples where democratic decisions by the crowds against the wish of the elite in fact improved things. For example: the popularity of Shakespeare by the people of his age, the social security fought for by the socialist, general education and women’s suffrage.

The sad truth is that I agree with Andrew Keen on his analysis of the myth of the noble amateur, but I do not think there is a new, more hidden elite using this myth to run the show. It is the same elite, only a little more select, that have find new ways to trick the masses into buying their stuff. Elitism is not being replaced by a form of communist inspired egalitarism, it is being refined; it is elitism 2.0. If anything this new elite is so much focused on commerce and so well trained in the use of new market principles strategies I could not describe it as anything but ultra-capitalist. We should not fear the future, for these demons come from the past.