Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Thoughts on Andrew Keen, Part 1: Why an Age of Abundance Really is Better than an Age of Scarcity

Andrew Keen is the web's favorite whipping boy these days, and in some ways he has it coming. His latest book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, is an anti-all-things-Web 2.0 screed. Keen lambastes "Internet democracy" (specifically the Wiki model of collaborative creation) and decries the rising tide of user-generated everything. When you get right down to it, Keen's view of the world is unapologetically techno-conservative and culturally elitist. He's angry that there are fewer intermediaries minding the culture. As a result, he argues, "professional" media (by which he means to say "better" media) is giving way to "amateur" media (which he regards as synonymous with, well... crap).

Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere has fought back with a vengeance and called Keen every nasty name in the book. But the best and most level-headed critique of Keen's work is still this old essay by the ever-insightful Clay Shirky. Clay's response rightly concedes that Keen in correct in pointing out that some important things have been lost with the rise of the Internet. There certainly are fewer intermediaries filtering our culture for us, and that will sound like a great thing to many of us. But it's important to realize that some of those mediating forces serve a valuable role. Editors, for example, play an important, but often overlooked, role in terms of improving the quality of great deal of media content of all varieties (journalism, books, movies, music, etc). The blogosphere is becoming an editor-free zone, and at times it really shows. There are times when some particularly insulting things are said or silly mistakes are made that probably would have been corrected had a good editor been responsible for overseeing the final product.

On the other hand, the unfiltered Web 2.0 experience is wonderfully refreshing. Sometimes it's nice to see what the uninhibited exchange of ideas results in. Regardless, the bottom line is that the editing profession (broadly defined) is changing because of the Internet. That is undeniable. And other mediating forces or institutions are seeing their power or relative importance in the cultural creation process diminished as the Internet-spawned disintermediation continues unabated.

Will that create short term problems? Undeniably. But Keen thinks these developments are contributing to a sort of cultural catastrophe and that we are collectively much worse off because of this disintermediation and empowerment of the "amateur." This goes much too far in my opinion.

What Keen doesn't seem willing to tolerate is that when everyone has a voice, a lot more silly things are going to be said and heard. Back in the days before we all had our own soapboxes (websites, blogs, social networks, YouTube posts, etc.) we all had opinions, but we had few ways to get those opinions out. Now that the Internet has become the great leveler and given everyone the ability to be a one-person newspaper or broadcaster to the world, the dream of a more fully empowered citizenry is slowly becoming a reality. The upside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard. But the downside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard! That is, with the good comes some bad. There are wonderful contributions to culture and human communications being made by average Joes and Janes across the globe because of the Web. But let's face it, there's a lot of crap out there too. Cutting through the cultural clutter can been a real challenge, and even with the best search tools in the world at your disposal, it can still be difficult to find that diamond in the rough.

But aren't we better off as a society because of the opportunities now at our disposal? Isn't an age of media and cultural abundance--warts and all--still preferable to the age of scarcity which preceded it? Think about the big picture. As I pointed out in my recent City Journal essay on "The Media Cornucopia":

Throughout most of history, humans lived in a state of extreme information poverty. News traveled slowly, field to field, village to village. Even with the printing press's advent, information spread at a snail's pace. Few knew how to find printed materials, assuming that they even knew how to read. Today, by contrast, we live in a world of unprecedented media abundance that once would have been the stuff of science-fiction novels. We can increasingly obtain and consume whatever media we want, wherever and whenever we want: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the bewildering variety of material available on the Internet.

I think we are definitely better off because of this seismic shift in our communications and media environment. The human conversation is more diverse than ever before, and we have been empowered to experience the full range of culture and human creativity (for better and for worse!)

Moreover, the old mediating institutions aren't dead yet. There are still plenty of large-scale media operations and content creators / editors that are alive and well producing a wide variety of culture. It's just that they now face a lot more competition than ever before, and from sources of a very different nature (small-scale, independent, and wonderfully "amateur-ish.")

Finally, let's not forget that the age of scarcity and mediated culture that Keen seems to put on pedestal created a lot of crap too! Sure, the Internet era gave us Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and plenty of pathetic, time-wasting YouTube videos. But the age of media "professionalism" gave us "Three's Company," the Bay City Rollers, and "Killer Klowns from Outer Space." Each era produced its fair share of quality and crap. There's just more of both these days and that's what Keen doesn't seem willing to accept. But I'll take that deal any day over the limited choices of the bygone scarcity era he seems eager to reestablish.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:55 AM | Books & Book Reviews , Generic Rant , Mass Media