16 November 2007

The Agenda on Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur

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.

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Harold Jarche said...

I was reminded of the cult of the expert recently when expert police officers used a taser and killed an unarmed man at the Vancouver airport. Also, an Ontario expert coroner, who supposedly had peer review of his work, was found to have been incompetent in his findings of infant homicide. He is now facing an investigation. However, no one questions the system of experts that protected him for years.

Yup, we need more experts.

Mark Federman said...

Indeed, you've captured one of the major problems with proxy authority, and especially when it comes to proxy authority being used in combination with credentialing.

The nice thing about the BAH world (for those who believe in BAH) is that the system itself is protected, because the people are replaceable and expendable. And, the system can create mechanisms to camouflage its own shortcomings, like referring any controversial matter to another system, after which it would be inappropriate to really delve into the matter at hand (because, say, it's before the courts).

Little wonder that I chose the acronym that I did, eh?

McLuhan's comments about the amateur and professional are also apropos here, I think: "Professionalism merges the individual in to 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." (from The Medium is the Massage)

Harold Jarche said...

Yes, the amateur can afford to lose, and is therefore open to criticism as part of his or her development.

I'm reminded of the Pro-Am Movement, which seems to be growing in our UCaPP world.

Robin said...

Interesting post. This same tension between expert and amateur is in high relief at the moment in the library industry. Librarians have traditionally set themselves up as the gatekeepers of knowledge, though that role is less evident today when compared to the closed stacks of yesteryear, when the librarian mediated the very act of requesting a book. The internet has opened the door to amateurs, and the amateurs have flooded in, creating tools that allow them to navigate both new and old information landscapes (tagging, wikis, social bookmarking, librarything, etc.). There is a new generation of librarians that are now trying to find ways to incorporate this 'amateur' spirit into the rigid and very formal classification schemes and software that have defined the profession for over a century. It'll be an interesting process to observe.

jonhusband said...

BRAVO ! One of the best refutings / rebuttals of the material coming from this puffed-up and self-important fellow (I typically dislike passing judgments on others in public as I have just done but Keen invites it like few people I have seen).

And it quite galls me that he has gotten so much press and profile for this argument precisely because he got someone to publish, in a book, much of what underpins the fears and anxieties of many people who have not taken the time or expended some of the mental and philosophical energy that i think is necessary and useful to understand what is going on with the Internet ... though to be clear and fair I should not lay claim to any truths. I have my opinions, and I work at informing them, but that's all.

Jon Husband