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September 14, 2007

'Narcissistic bloggers and illegal downloads are undermining our culture and deceiving our children' — Andrew Keen


Ciar Byrne interviewed Andrew Keen, author of a new book entitled "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy," for a September 10, 2007 article in The Independent.

Long story short: "Leave the web to the professionals... narcissistic bloggers and illegal downloads are undermining our culture and deceiving our children."

Here's the piece.

    Andrew Keen: Leave the web to the professionals

    Internet pioneer Andrew Keen believes that narcissistic bloggers and illegal downloads are undermining our culture and deceiving our children

    A new voice has penetrated the chorus of internet evangelists, with a warning note about the dangers of Web 2.0. It is that of Andrew Keen, who insists that he is no Luddite, but rather a Silicon Valley insider whose eyes have been opened to the damage that the internet is wreaking on our culture.

    Keen, an Englishman who moved to California to become one of the original dot.com entrepreneurs, has just returned to the UK to spread the message contained within his new book, "The Cult of the Amateur".

    "The book is a polemic," the author confesses. "It's never claimed to be particularly fair." He even concedes that the book's subtitle — "How today's internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy" — is "a little sensationalist".

    Distortion, not to mention downright untrustworthiness, is one of his main gripes with Web 2.0, the second incarnation of the internet epitomised by websites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google and MySpace. Keen is also concerned by the lack of financial reward for talent. The internet relies on professional journalists, writers and musicians for much of its content, but blogs, online advertising and pirate downloads are rapidly putting newspapers, publishers and record companies out of business.

    But what perhaps grates on Keen most is the boundless narcissism that the internet has engendered in unqualified members of the public who use it to broadcast their opinions to the rest of the online world.

    He compares Web 2.0 to a literary invention of the postmodern Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote a short essay, "The Total Library", in which he envisaged a chaos of information in an infinite number of books.

    "Back in the Nineties, I was a pioneer in the first internet gold rush," Keen writes at the start of his book. In 1996, he founded Audiocafe.com, one of the earliest websites devoted to digital music. It closed after just 18 months, but Keen remained a member of the internet fraternity, producing MB5: The Festival for New Media.

    His epiphany came in September 2004, on a camping trip for FOO – Friends of (multi-millionaire media owner Tim) O'Reilly. The word on everyone's lips at the corporate scout camp was "democratisation". But Keen began to feel "seasick".

    "I soon realised that even my gut was reacting to the emptiness at the heart of our conversation... It suddenly became clear that what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated."

    In person, Keen modifies his argument. "I don't blame technology ever. The internet is just a mirror: when we look at it, we are looking at ourselves. It's not cars or guns that kill people, it's drivers or shooters."

    For someone with his own blog, www.cultoftheamateur.com, Keen really has it in for bloggers. "I don't like unsubstantiated opinion, the kind of narcissistic culture the internet engenders, although it didn't invent it."

    He doesn't read many blogs himself — "I don't have time" — but makes it clear that he reserves his criticism for actual blogs, not sites like The Huffington Post, which he describes as "an online start-up newspaper".

    Keen is unmoved by the increasing numbers of professional journalists blogging, many at the behest of their employers. "A lot of journalists are pissed by the idea of blogging. You are disintermediating the professional gatekeepers. I don't see the point. Either they're professional journalists or they're bloggers. It's hard to do both."

    He adds, however, that if Robert Fisk or Martin Amis blogged he would read their stuff. Rather, it is the idea of the "noble amateur" that worries him — the consensus among some in the internet community that the opinions of unqualified members of the public are equally valid to those of experts.

    Keen believes that, although the traditional media can be biased or get things wrong, the filters of editors and lawyers mean that "for the most part it does a pretty good job reporting the facts". He identifies the irony that most of the opinion flooding the internet depends on traditional media for its raw materials.

    The book contains frightening examples of how the internet allows people to masquerade as something they are not, from the predatory paedophile pretending to be a teenager, to "Al Gore's Penguin Army", which posed on YouTube as a "self-made" riposte to An Inconvenient Truth but was traced to a conservative Washington DC public relations and lobbying firm.

    Keen, who has two young children of his own, fears that a generation is growing up without the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. "We need more media literacy in class. What we read on Wikipedia is not necessarily true, but kids assume that what they read on the internet is true. I think there needs to be some serious studies. Researchers have to go out and ask kids, 'When you read a blog, do you think it's true?' We take it for granted that this generation has our sophistication."

    The "mash-up", a work created from bits of other people's work, is also a target of Keen's critique. While he agrees that all great works of art – and, indeed, lesser ones — are indebted to earlier works, he believes that there is "a new permissiveness about intellectual property that is not healthy".

    "Mass media was a pretty good time for creative art," he argues. "This Web 2.0 world doesn't look as rosy, because the artist isn't rewarded. Consumers are getting used to the idea of getting things for free."

    He sees two possible futures for the internet. The first is a dystopian vision in which newspapers continue to close, the recording business collapses and — starved of advertising — television reaches a crisis point.

    The second is more positive, a Web 3.0: "I think people are going to rediscover expertise and professionalism in the context of this new media."

September 14, 2007 at 05:31 PM | Permalink


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"pirate downloads are rapidly putting newspapers, publishers and record companies out of business"
Anyone seen evidence of record companies being in dire trouble - other than from their own stupidity (I'm looking at you, Sony) recently?

Posted by: Skipweasel | Sep 15, 2007 3:13:18 PM

"So, he just hasn't discovered book of joe, yet.

Maybe he did!

He was a guest on Colbert's show last week and Colbert did his usual number on him.
Keen's attitude and general demeanor exemplified his book - Somewhere between pompous ass and ignorant ass.

Posted by: Ray | Sep 15, 2007 11:49:20 AM

"Halfwit assistant"?? AssASSIN!

Posted by: Flautist | Sep 15, 2007 10:12:38 AM

unread by sender yet sent by unwitting yet guilty halfwit assistant.

Posted by: JonathanD. | Sep 15, 2007 3:37:12 AM

I guess the benefit, and perhaps the only benefit, to buying his book is to reading something by someone hasn't been on the internet over he lasts seven years. My view, there are plenty of twits who aren't sapping the economy by having their living expenses paid by newspaper sales so the internet at it's worst is a win-win proposition. But assumins some average elementary school library skills then whatsits authors worries are, well, worthless.

Posted by: Jonathan D. | Sep 15, 2007 3:33:38 AM

"I think people are going to rediscover expertise and professionalism in the context of this new media."

So, he just hasn't discovered book of joe, yet.

Posted by: teg | Sep 14, 2007 9:12:41 PM

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