Intellectual kleptomania

<strong>The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Econ

American values are under attack; culture is on the cusp; truth itself may not be strong enough to bat away the onslaught. So thinks Andrew Keen, a (failed) digital media entrepreneur, (amateur) journalist and general harbinger of Web 2.0-related doom. While so many of Keen's contemporaries have been busy lauding the democratisation of creativity brought about by the craze for user-generated content, Keen merely perceives a cacophony of gibberish, a moronic generation of cutters and pasters hammering away under the "law of digital Darwinism".

Once a peddler of "the original internet dream" ("I almost became rich"), Keen has since turned self-styled apostate (though he can't resist a spot of blogging). His main argument is simple: "The more self-created content that gets dumped on to the internet, the harder it becomes to distinguish the good from the bad - and to make money on any of it." Add to that the web's dependence on advertising, not to mention our increasingly indulged cravings for gambling, porn and malign gossip, and we find ourselves at the gates of digital hell.

Many of Keen's gripes in The Cult of the Amateur are reasonable; but, like his target, they dissolve in a miasma of polemical generalisation and frenzied verbiage. There is no irony in his use of phrases such as "deviant instincts", "intellectual kleptomaniacs" and "the disappearance of truth". It is as though postmodernism, let alone poststructuralism, never happened. Sometimes his soundbites are deeply amusing in their unintended perversity. I particularly liked the reference to Jorge Luis Borges, rendered simply as "a half-blind Argentine" (one who - Keen would have done well to remember - claimed that "to speak is to fall into tautology").

Nor are Keen's arguments particularly original. He refers in his notes to Nicholas Carr's 2005 essay "The Amorality of Web 2.0", in which the "cult of the amateur" slogan was coined. Many of Keen's most salient points are covered by this article; and he is hardly the first to have synthesised a wider selection of statistics and examples in making the case for the prosecution.

All of this is frustrating, because Keen's cause is (generally) commendable. A certain half-blind Argentine once envisaged a Babelish single volume of "infinitely thin leaves" containing all of the world's (mis)information. Such things, in the story, caused suicides. Keen refers to the Borges essay behind this short story, "The Total Library", and investigates the barrage of uninformed blogs, malevolent splogs (spam blogs) and insidious flogs (blogs that claim to be independent but are actually in the pay of sponsors). He cites a fake posting by the neo-Nazi NPD on the German version of YouTube, which appeared to be a clip from a respected news show reporting NPD electoral success. He highlights the dangers of click fraud and touches (hyperbolically) on the horrors of surveillance culture. He outlines his concerns over bloggers' lack of accountability, mass digital larceny and the dangers of venerating the wiki. (Will we soon be re-editing the endings of classics before drowning in a sea of "liquid" literature?)

The Los Angeles Times recently shrunk in size, dispensing most notably with its books section, which is now folded into the opinion part of the paper. Similar cutbacks have occurred at the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, Time, Newsweek and, in Canada, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. The trend will surely come to the UK soon. With so much content free online, with print advertising revenue shrinking and the listings market cannibalised by sites such as Craigslist, the newspaper industry is undoubtedly suffering. People are getting used to not paying and, as Carr argued, "free trumps quality all the time". Amateurs are indeed saturating the market, diverting readers from the experts.

In Keen's brief "solutions" chapter, the hysteria abates. It is not quite as bad as it seems - and Keen knows it. The techies have been one step ahead of commerce, but companies and governments are catching up. Improved policing of sites, strategic partnerships between news organs and aggregates, tighter copyright laws and edicts such as the US Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 are all in place and set to proliferate. Newspapers are fast becoming more web-savvy, and fashionable blogs such as the Huffington Post have begun to hire professional journalists.

Keen might not like to admit it, but culture has long been at the mercy of advertisers, and swamped with popular rubbish. And for all the fallacious, inward-looking jabber, there is more good writing out there than ever before (Keen's own blog has its merits). Keen rightly questions the dominance of companies such as Google and MySpace, but simultaneously balks at the anarchic freedom that the internet gives consumers. "Amateurish . . . send-ups of popular commercials are rarely flattering," he whines. Sometimes he seems most concerned about big business.

Web 2.0 is certainly changing culture; it is destroying many of our old assumptions. Paul Simon, whose worries are enthusiastically embraced by Keen, likens it to a forest fire. But in this, Simon finds room for optimism: "Maybe a fire is what's needed for vigorous new growth."

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits