Emperor of the Amateurs

If you are looking for a real hoot, and have nothing enjoyable or worthwhile to do, consider spending an hour (no more) with Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.  Whatever you do, don’t buy it – you’re sure to find discarded copies lying around.  Mine, for example.

The premise of the book is that because “anyone” can publish “anything” on the web, it is massively dominated by “amateurs”.  In case you didn’t know, amateurs are uneducated (or self-educated), have no “professional” qualifications, and work in an un-vetted world (readers don't count for vetting purposes, since they're probably amateurs too).  Meanwhile, “professionals” are trustworthy, backed by big institutions, vetted by talent scouts and editors, objective and, well, professional.

Keen anoints himself a â€œprofessional” as the writer of this book.  A professional what?  He is certainly not a social scientist interested in the provable, given his penchant for ignoring all the facts that don’t support his tirade.  He has a remarkable lack of historical perspective, and obviously hasn’t read any of the important work on the theory of communication and its relationship to culture.

So in many ways, you can think of him as the “Emperor of the Amateurs”.  His book is proof that a man wholly unsuited to the task at hand, possessed of a self-serving hobby-horse, is able to serve up half-baked ideas that lack objectivity in the traditional media – no Web 2.0 required. 

“Anything that sells” has long attracted publishers, who in such cases have rarely shied away from uninformed comment unless they feared being sued.  It is incredible that Keens can just make this fact “disappear” while he peddles the purity of the physical book and the noble integrity of its publishers.  I respect publishers, by the way, and I've known a few:  as much as they love a great book, they also have to crank out some others that help pay the bills.   

Keens should grow up.  His book shows perfectly that anyone can get into print without a reasoned argument.  Perhaps his editor helped with his grammar.  But not with his logic or research.

On the other hand, if we accept his claim of professionalism, the results are even worse, since the book then shows that professionals can fill the printed media with repetitive drivel rivaling what any amateur, or even dozens of them, could do in the blogosphere.  So again, his argument proves itself to be untenable.

So why am I writing about this silly book?  Because Keen applies his ideological tractor to identity as well.

He virtually pulls his hair out because of the nefarious effects of anonymity and pseudonymity.  He sees them as allowing amateurs to say anything without fear of reprisal.  And worse, they allow  professionals (?) to pose as amateurs and get away with it!

Of course, there is no mention of the bothersome fact that the very word “pseudonym” came to us by way of the print medium, that pseudonyms were used by a number of great writers, or that in repressive regimes all dissent was promulgated pseudonymously.   Nor did this alter in any way people’s ability to discern the quality – or lack thereof – in the pamphlets and books that were published.

He despises amateurism in music, apparently unaware that it was the fathers of amateur musicians who fed and clothed most of the great composers.  It was long “de rigueur” that a young lady master some instrument, and this brought musicians into the elite circles, educating the elite to attend concerts and commission works. 

If he were not so ignorant about the history of music, Keen would know that in the last century, professional musicians looked with increasing horror upon the emergence of the record companies he loves so much – since the promotion of recorded music killed the ecosystem for live musicians. 

I agree with Keen that amateur musicians will now re-emerge, but I believe the effect will be to increase peoples’ appreciation of the subtleties that make great music.

The notion that printed and broadcast media could ever be “trusted” to be “objective” is hooey.  First of all, “objectivity” is a goal that requires constant effort, not a given.  Second, nothing can be looked at uncritically.  Call it Cartesian doubt.  But people need to strive for multiple sources, and follow those sources over time to understand their biases, regardless of the medium involved.

Keen whines that the web is full of rumors, again conveniently ignoring fact:  the world has always been full of rumor!  Has the elite Mr. Keen forgotten poor King Henry IV, or Rumor’s soliloquy, captured by Shakespeare at the beginning of the Second Part:

RUMOUR:   Open your ears; for which of you will stop The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?  I, from the orient to the drooping west, Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold The acts commenced on this ball of earth. Upon my tongues continual slanders ride, The which in every language I pronounce, Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. I speak of peace while covert emnity, Under the smile of safety, wounds the world; And who but Rumour, who but only I, Make fearful musters and prepar'd defence.

Gee, and Shakespeare wrote that before web 2.0, didn’t he?  Keen's naivity gets my goat.  Truth is created out of chaos as humankind’s highest achievement, not brought about through blind trust, censorship or social control.

It's also shocking to see Keen rail against citizen reporters, especially after the impact of the photos from Abu Ghraib prison or the video of the Rodney King beating.   

Here is a snippet from the Globe and Mail that says much about the matter:  

Mathew Ingram, Globe and Mail New Media reporter: How do you respond to people who accuse you of doing exactly what you say the blogosphere does — trolling for attention by concocting a mish-mash of poorly thought-out commentary, ad hominem arguments and outright falsehoods?

Andrew Keen: Mathew — 🙂 Have you actually read the book?

Michael Snider, Technology Editor: Andrew, thanks very much for your time today. Hope you can come back again. Any final thoughts?

This must surely be a defining moment in the art of understatement, served with a twist of Keen’s much beloved journalistic “objectivity”.  Mathew and Michael come through as professionals who are not afraid of “amateurs” – in fact they are probably relieved that people are learning to write again.  Readers who can write would appreciate that Mathew’s silence says more about Keen than words could have.

It would be unfair to conclude without remarking that there is one good thing about Keen’s work – it puts the relationship between culture and the web on the table.  But before venturing further into these waters, people really must read the work of Harold Innis and Marshal McLuhan – for a start.

Meanwhile, Andrew Keen should be found guilty of wasting the world’s trees on this sad little treatise.  As punishment he should be required to read Innis’ “The Bias of Communications and Monopolies of Power” (1951) every week for a year – out loud to his editor and publisher.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.