Yes, I'm behind. Way behind. I was on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin last week, on a panel that followed a feature interview with author Andrew Keen talking about his controversial book, The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture. I was reminded of it when a friend asked me if I support, or not, the premise of Keen's book.
I responded by telling her that I unequivocally reject Andrew Keen's premise. Essentially, he sets up a strawman (strawperson?) argument that talent is scarce and must be appropriately nurtured through a series of sanctioned and authorized gatekeepers that comprise the various, interlinked hierarchies of knowledge (and culture) authority. Thus, publishers, boards of university regents, music companies, producers and the like serve to identify so-called raw talent, provide the resources to nurture that talent and expose it to appropriate opportunities, and develop that talent into those who ultimately contribute to the compendium of wisdom that we call knowledge, and to the larger culture in general. The entire enterprise is, and should be, governed by market forces that are so effective in determining merit, worth and value, dontcha know.
Among many other claims, Keen's primary claim is that the Internet, in its non-discriminating, supposedly egalitarian access-for-all that does away with traditional market forces, eliminates the ability to relatively assess what is of value to the culture and what is dross to be shucked off. What we are left with, according to Keen, is a morass of user-produced artefacts without any way of determining what is of value, so that base populism rules the day, creating the titular Cult of the Amateur.
This argument is problematic twenty-five ways to Sunday. I'll touch on three aspects, without getting deep into the critical (ie. power, voice, marginalization, control, resistance, exclusion) considerations that are probably the most troubling. Suffice it to say that whenever one has gatekeepers who get to decide what comprises knowledge and who has the opportunity to contribute, critical considerations allow us to readily identify the relations of power, from which one can assess the intrinsic values of the society in question.
First, Keen's argument is based on the assumption that the Internet eliminating authority is a new phenomenon. It's not. The generational rebellion against authority goes back 3000 years, and continues to replay regularly throughout the ages.
Second, his argument supposes that modernity (i.e., late 19th and 20th century) got this whole business of creating culture and knowledge right, and that we are at the pinnacle of our ability to produce cultural and knowledge artefacts. That is a type of arrogance that we have also seen over the past 3000 years - at every age, the privileged have assumed that they are at the zenith of advancement and enlightenment. And every time, they are wrong (and if you watch the Keen interview, you'll see precisely what I mean about privilege and arrogance).
Third, what Keen decries about the Internet has infested the traditional mass media, and arguably academic publishing. It is causing far more damage to the level of discourse, democratic participation, the evolution of the culture and the enlightenment of the masses (to be entirely arch about it) than the Internet is able to do, at least now and for the next decade or so. Although I half-facetiously claim that American Idol is indicative of the most profound cultural change to occur to Western society in nearly 150 years (since it flips mass media from being media FOR the masses to media BY the masses), it also extends and enhances populism to an extreme (which forces the reversal in mass media), obsolescing the very gatekeepers to which Keen would otherwise appeal. It also retrieves the old fashioned talent show - we used to have a TV show in Southern Ontario the '50s and '60s (which apparently ran through the 90s, too - who knew?) called Tiny Talent Time.
Finally, (and this is point four of three :) Keen ignores the entire issue of epochal break boundaries that is the foundation of McLuhan's work, and the Toronto School of Communication. In doing so, he ignores history and the (perhaps not so) simple realization that whenever we changed the dominant mode of communication in Western culture, all of its structural and founding institutions have gone into reversal, obsolescing (among other things) the former institutions that defined knowledge and knowledge authority. As we are now traversing the third cultural break boundary (a process that I claim takes about 300 years), we should expect to experience what appears to be a breakdown in knowledge and culture authority. But then again, as McLuhan observed, "breakdown is breakthrough."
The video with the panel I did about Keen's book is posted on TVO's site for The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Keen is interviewed for about 30 minutes - you'll get a good sense of the man from the interview - and then the panel starts.
[Technorati tags: andrew keen | cult of the amateur | knowledge | knowledge authority]