On August 16th, Stephen Colbert interviewed Andrew Keen, author of a new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture. Admittedly, I’m a little behind the rest of the blogosphere on this one, but only because I wanted to be more specific then just saying Keen is a senseless twit, and more specific I shall be.
Granted, Keen comes off like a complete idiot in the interview, like when he says “Even the Nazis didn’t put artists out of work.” That’s because they were too busy killing them along with everyone else. They also ransacked museums and destroyed piles of religious artwork. See this timeline for details. However, he does have his arguments, and I dare not dismiss them too casually in case, like a weed pulled without care, they survive to consume the garden we call the blogosphere.
Keen argues that the internet is destroying culture in three ways.
1. The internet makes it harder for artists to earn a living.
Keen says, “The problem with the internet is that it is making it increasingly difficult for artists to earn a living because everyone is stealing.”
As I’ve already described, there is no evidence whatsoever that downloading music (or movies or whatever) decreases the incomes of artists. Moreover, it is now far easier for talented artists to become known through myspace, social news sites, blogs and all the low cost viral marketing tricks that rely on network externalities rather than money to make someone famous. Once you’re famous, people will pay to go to your concerts, see your movies in theaters, buy your merchandise, etc. The internet has increased competition, and perhaps made it harder to become wealthy as an artist, but it has arguably made it easier to become known at least well enough to beat minimum wage.
2. The internet trivializes culture
Keen says “The internet is trivializing culture to such an extent that everyone is broadcasting, everyone is writing blogs, everyone is putting music on the web”
What he seemingly doesn’t understand is that before the internet, someone had to invest boatloads of money to get exposure for their art. Now, for less than $10 a month you can put your work online where quality (or at least likability) will gain you far more acclaim through social networks than advertising dollars. The internet doesn’t trivialize culture, it switches the success criterion from investment capital to quality.
Does anyone know how much money it costs to get as many hits on your site as you get from hitting the front page of Digg?
3. The internet does not ensure good journalism
Finally, Keen argues that bloggers are not objective because they cherry-pick facts, make stuff up, they’re anonymous. He says “I think we need objective, professional journalists who responsibly collect the news, rather than anonymous bloggers who are often in the pay of corporations, foreign governments, that’s the crises of this media.”
This is an interesting point. I have to agree that many bloggers cherry pick facts, make stuff up and do not report the news objectively or responsibly, but neither does the mainstream media! Has this guy ever watched CNN or Fox News? Has he ever read TIME? It’s perfectly fair to criticize the internet as a news medium because it lacks quality control. The reason this argument is bullshit is that there is no quality control in mainstream media either. One of the great services of bloggers in my opinion is blowing the whistle on biased, factually incorrect, or (in my case) bullshit stories in mainstream media.
And what is this about bloggers being anonymous? Anonymity lets people write things that might get them fired from work, put on the no-fly list or in some countries, killed. Clearly, anonymity is not all bad.
Keen is a dick
I try to resist personal attacks on this blog, but this time I can’t help it. Keen said that he loathes Wikipedia. What an evil bastard. Wikipedia, which rivals the encyclopedia for quality and is rivaled by nothing but the web itself for shear quantity of information has brought unfathomable amounts of knowledge to millions if not billions of people who could not otherwise afford it. Sure, if you live in North America you can visit your local library for much of the same stuff, but try that in Thailand, or D.R. Congo, or Sudan. Wikipedia opened the knowledge of humanity to anyone who could scrounge a donated third-hand PC and a dial-up internet connection. What’s to loathe?
Why does this guy want to maintain the divide between rich, powerful content producers and poor, powerless content consumers? Why does he want to silence opposing voices, to squash the dialogue the internet allows? Is he an evil bastard? Is he just stupid? Whatever the case, I’m having none of it.
You can see the Colbert/Keen interview here.