John's Reviews > The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen
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Keen founded Audiocafe.com and looked as if he might be one of the rich kids of the net before, in 2004, seeing the light. In this impassioned polemic, while obviously still retaining much of his enthusiasm for the good things that the net might prove to be, he warns us of all the aspects we prefer to ignore -- i.e., he tries to shake us out of our collective state of denial over the dangers not so much of digital piracy (although he has plenty to say on this) or the oceans of hardcore porn engulfing our children (plenty on that too) but of the very "democratization of knowledge" that we're supposed to accept as a good thing. As he points out repeatedly, there's a very good reason why human society grew to contain experts whom lay people (who might themselves be experts in other spheres) could consult on matters involving specialist knowledge: we do not rely on the wisdom of crowds if we need surgery to remove a brain tumour, so why do we expect it could serve us any better when we look up the Wikipedia entry on neurosurgery? Yet the existence of Wikipedia, with the often scanty and unreliable knowledge of its contributors and editors, is driving the companies that, employing an army of specialist writers and editors, produce (or used to produce) conventional encyclopedias; soon our culture will have entirely replaced reference works containing largely reliable content with a compendium filled to a great extent with amateur suppositions and, too often, deliberate falsifications but with the single benefit that it's easy to access and free.

It's not just Wikipedia, of course, that concerns Keen: Wikipedia is merely an example of how the internet is destroying knowledge: what it's offering is not so much a democratization as mob rule, with the mob very often having no more brains than a lynch mob. Keen was writing slightly too early to deal with the grievous effect that the internet-driven proliferation of misinformation, pseudoscience and claptrap concerning -- i.e., denying -- anthropogenic global warming is having on our decision-making; but he fingers all the elements of that fiasco: the oil-industry-funded astroturf groups that are everywhere, credited by hundreds of millions globally who have never so much as heard of sourcewatch.org or snopes.com; the tendency of too many of us to believe the voice that shouts loudest rather than the one that knows what it's talking about; the rapid decline of professional, responsible journalism, which has to be paid for, in the face of "citizen journalism" (i.e., amateur, often partisan or corrupt or ignorant or bigoted, fulminations), which is free; the perils of an overabundance of information sources (even if there wasn't the problem of there being nothing obvious to distinguish their relative reliability, especially if you've become so punch drunk from the bombardment of false information that your critical faculties are deadened); the fact that this tsunami of false information and untruth is not educating us but actually making us more ignorant -- yet, even in that state of ever-increasing stupidity, more convinced that our opinions are as good as anyone else's. The list could go on.

There's a very telling anecdote here about the world-renowned expert on global warming who tried to correct various errors of fact in the Wikipedia article on the subject. He was countered by a Wikipedia editor who, unconcerned by his own ignorance, criticized the expert harshly for constantly "pushing his own POV". When the expert took this higher up within the Wikipedia structure, he discovered to his horror that everyone supported this opinionated buffoon.

The destruction of common knowledge and the consequent deterioration of our civil and political discourse are not Keen's only subjects. He's concerned also with what could loosely be termed the arts. Sturgeon's Law, that 90% of everything is crap, applied to cultural material that had been selected and massaged by trained editors or their equivalents. With the "democratization of culture", with the internet offering an open mic night that never, ever ends, Sturgeon's 90% climbs almost exponentially. Consider: If you have 1000 books of which 100 are worth reading, the chances are (especially through recommendations by friends) you'll encounter much of the good stuff; but, if you have 100,000 books of which 200 have merit, it's quite likely that you and your friends may never encounter any of the good stuff. The internet (and other digital technology) having opened up the opportunity for anyone to "publish" their book, this is the situation we're confronting. And the knock-on effect of all this substitute culture -- the awful novels, the tuneless garage bands, etc. -- being available for free is that the businesses which used to filter out the garbage and find the good stuff for us are collapsing into bankruptcy, the expertise of their staff being permanently lost to our society. It's hard to feel much sympathy for the music industry, I know, after it treated consumers like shit for decades, but it did actually serve a useful purpose. And do we really want feature movies to vanish, leaving us with nothing but YouTube and reality TV to watch?

This book's not flawless -- it's often a bit repetitive -- but it's extraordinarily readable with lots of chewy anecdotal goodness, and its author has something of genuine importance to say: there are parts I'd dispute, but they're peripheral . . . and, anyway, it's one of the marks of a good book that it should make the reader think hard enough to formulate a counterargument. Even if you think everything's hunky-dory with the internet and the "democratization of knowledge" is a wunnerful, wunnerful thing -- in fact, especially if you think everything's hunky-dory with the internet and the "democratization of knowledge" is a wunnerful, wunnerful thing -- I'd give this book a try.

And every libertarian you know should be required to read the book's Chapter 3, "Truth and Lies", before opening their mouths yet again to lecture you on how freedom of speech is so important it should take precedence over all other considerations. Yes, obviously it's important; but at the moment it's being exploited by those who're stupid or actively malevolent, and some of its consequences -- like the campaign of AGW-denying falsehood -- may well destroy us.
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July 2, 2010 – Shelved

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