19 August 2007

Weinberger on Keen's Cult of the Amateur

Over at Huffington Post, David Weinberger provides a very sympathetic and insightful reading of Andrew Keen’s recent polemic, The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture. As Weinberger explains Keen’s argument:
Our Western tradition has developed an "ecosystem" for developing talent (a scarce resource) and disseminating its fruit. … This ecosystem depends on an economic system that rewards the nurturers, the polishers, and the disseminators. … The ecosystem not only develops talent, it guides the masses to talent's works, and steers the masses away from that which has no merit … This is not just about the arts. We have an ecosystem also for producing and "polishing" knowledge.

This is Keen’s essential argument for professionalism over amateurism that is to be sorted out by the market, and by extension, the argument for credentialism. In other words, Keen is a modernist (that is, situated squarely in the early 20th century) and a capitalist. Weinberger listens carefully to Keen’s case, and ignores the obvious egregious examples of how the so-called democratization of access is trivializing culture into yet one more cute cat trick. Instead, Weinberger identifies the important distinction that is emerging between the modernist cult of market-sanctioned professionalism and the contemporary phenomenon of what might be described as referent authority:
Keen assumes that the replacement ecosystem has to be commercial. That's why he sees the world of talent divided between professionals and amateurs, whereas the real distinctions are the sliding, multi-dimensional scales of good and bad, worthy and unworthy, means-nothing-to-me and touches me. So, Keen spends a chapter trying to refute the economics of the Long Tail as championed in Chris Anderson's book of that name, as if that were the only alternative economic model. He thus misses the most fundamental phenomenon of the Web: The explosion of new ways to nurture, disseminate and discover talent -- including the collaborative economics that Yochai Benkler definitively expounds in The Wealth of Networks. Some of these new processes are formal and familiar, including sites like this one that have editors and editorial processes and the Public Library of Science that peer reviews its articles. Some are collaborative, such as Wikipedia, where a roughhouse of mentoring teaches people how to contribute well. Others use crowd-pleasing as a criterion that teaches one how to shape one's works. Some pay in money and some pay in other forms of social compensation. As a result, the quality and reliability of the works that are created vary. But we quickly learn how to find the works with the qualities we're after, for that is a requirement for the survival of the sites that are offering us these works.

Keen has confused talent with that which the modern ecosystem publishes. The modern ecosystem takes the economic strictures within which it operates as strictures on talent itself. With the removal of those strictures, talent is able to emerge that otherwise would be lost. The result is a much broader ecosystem in which the works of talent are spread across multiple gradients.

From where I sit, Keen would do well to augment his argument with a little history. He makes the all-too-common mistake of observing a moment in time, and concluding that this is all there is. Or, put another way, he is completely fascinated by figure, and ignores the ground, or context, in which all that he observes makes sense. Indeed, what Keen observes of our admittedly confusing time does not make sense, especially to an avowed modernist capitalist. His examples of the average Internet aficionado’s compulsion to seek out the trivial, the mundane, the banal and the profane apparently do demonstrate the value and importance of professionals in helping us sort through the dross to identify the gold. But, as I argue here (relative to research and knowledge production), here (in considerably more depth), and here (in audio form), this cultural race to the bottom will soon pass – and much like the swallowed peach pit, it will feel painful working its way through.

Western society has been in this predicament before – in fact, twice before. It takes time for fundamental changes in the dominant way in which we communicate and engage with each other to work through the culture. By my reckoning, we’re only just past the half-way point in the current transition. This means that the effects of the slow changes that have been working over our society for the past 163 years or so have recently become noticeable by everyone, and that the rate of apparent change – that which we notice – will seem to accelerate over the next four or five generations. As our societal institutions – education, commerce, politics, religion – evolve to adapt to these new conditions of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity, so too will our cultural aspects and social sensibilities and values evolve.

Let me give the final word, and perhaps definitive answer to Keen, to “the master”:
Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules (sic) of society. The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and to specialize, to accept uncritically the groundrules of the environment. The groundrules proved by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly and unaware. The “expert” is the man who stays put. (Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage)

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