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Book Review: The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

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In cyberspace, nobody can hear you scream. That’s because everybody’s too busy blogging brickbats at Sarah Palin, corrupting Bill Gates’ profile on Wikipedia, poking their buddies on Facebook, and recording a juggling video on YouTube. Simultaneously.

At least, this is what Andrew Keen would have you believe. In The Cult of the Amateur, Keen launches a full-frontal assault on the wave of user-generated content that, in his view, has turned the information superhighway into a tenth circle of Hell called Web 2.0. Taking pot-shots at everything from blogs to podcasts, social networking to online gambling, Keen is out to get Web 2.0 – and this time it’s personal: "The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves."

In Keen’s view, nothing less than our cultural heritage is threatened by the forces unleashed by applications such as Blogger, Wikipedia, and MySpace. On the Internet, international law has been supplanted by mob rule. Rampant hordes of wannabes cut and paste their way across cyberspace, slashing the experts, ridiculing the professionals and doing unspeakable things to the wise. On Planet Web 2.0, a BA means FA and seemingly mild-mannered citizens are happy to smash your Windows and kill your Second Life.

Keen’s primary concern is the rising tide of fiction posing as fact. Untrained, unskilled writers pepper the blogosphere with inchoate arguments, and unsubstantiated rumours. These dispensers of drivel, he says, are obscuring the work of professional writers, artists and publishers, further blurring the line between information and gossip.

Wikipedia is singled out for particular vitriol. He charges the online encyclopedia with “almost single-handedly killing the traditional information business”. For Keen, Wikipedia is an electronic ebola, infecting the planet with half-truths, rumour and fraud.

His treatment of “citizen journalists” is equally damning. These mouse-bound correspondents “…simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training, but connections and access to information.”

But while he condemns the new kids on the blog, he holds traditional media in almost sacred reverence. The demise of his favourite music store in the face of online competition is described in hushed tones as if testifying to the fall of the Roman Empire. “They called it a bankruptcy auction, but, in truth, it was the last picture show.”

Similarly, Keen sees falling advertising revenue and sinking circulations for newspapers as the beginning of the end for the press. For Keen, free ad sites, such as Craigslist, are not merely competing for advertising revenue, but undermining one of the pillars of democracy. He’s equally doomstruck about the fate of music and movies that are falling prey to internet pirates and amateur Spielbergs.

It’s heady stuff, and certainly, Keen’s book shines a light on the battle for hearts, minds and eyeballs. Like shifting tectonic plates, the powerful forces of free speech and creativity are slamming against the mighty concepts of authority and trust, with seismic consequences. But while it’s well-written, the book’s querulous tone and overwhelming pessimism makes its message hard to digest.

For one thing, Keen shows too much faith in traditional media. On an almost daily basis, the reliability of broadcasters, newspapers and publishers is being called into question. Misquotes, technical errors and downright untruths have been exposed at such lofty organs as the BBC and The New York Times. For all their expertise and connections, traditional media sadly fail to live up to the standards Keen assigns to them.

On the other hand, he’s almost churlish in his disregard for the beneficial aspects of Web 2.0. Only in the final chapter does he acknowledge the success of newspapers, movies and music in adapting to the new technologies, and he entirely fails to mention the huge shot in the arm that an online presence has given small bookseller in the face of the mighty chains.

What Keen regards as catastrophic, others may regard rather differently. It’s hard to shed any tears for music megacorporations that failed to prepare for the future. And the idea that a student video on YouTube might sound the death knell for the careers of Adam Sanderson and Jack Black is strangely comforting.

Reaction to Keen’s book among the citizens of cyberspace has been nothing short of incandescent. “Technophobic douchebag” is one of the milder insults hurled in his direction. His references to "monkeys" and “denizens of the cyberswamp” have only fuelled their fury, but Keen himself seems to relish his role as self-appointed cultural crusader. During one interview he referred to himself as “the antichrist of Silicon Valley.”

Perhaps that’s why the book is so one-sided. Keen is intelligent enough to know that traditional media are not infallible. But to acknowledge this would diminish the controversy – and the publicity. Balanced views don’t win headlines. And so, he continues to the end, insisting that Web 2.0 is a victory of the clueless over the studious, the bland leading the blind, the end of the world wide web as we know it.

For my part, I believe it’s wise to evaluate whatever is being consumed, whether it’s nachos or news, on paper or online. And while I agree with Keen that much of the content on the Internet is regurgitated pap, I think there’s always room for another thoughtful book review by one more amateur scribbler. Even this one.

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