Karin Spaink on Wed, 9 Apr 2008 10:23:43 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Response to Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur' (lenghty)

For some nettimers, this might come a bit late, since Keen's book was  
published in 2007. However, the Dutch translation was published this  
week, and he was invited to Amsterdam to do a big lecture tonight. I  
was invited to be his opponent.

Later this week, I'll put the lecture on my blog - http://blogger.xs4all.nl/kspaink/ 

A bad case of nostalgia

Globaliseringslezing 8 april 2008: The Cult of the Amateur

Deciding upon the manner of my response to Mr Keen’s book required  
much, much more time than composing the response itself. It’s truly  
seductive to be scathing about the The Cult of the Amateur. Making an  
inventory of the book’s sloppy argumentation, its fallacious  
reasoning, its myopic stance, its uncritical praise of copyright, its  
unwitting foot soldiery of the entertainment industry, its selective  
choice of facts and its misquotations would be quite to the point –  
especially since Mr Keen accuses ‘today’s internet’ of being unwitting  
foot soldiers, sloppy, myopic, uncritical, selective,  
misrepresentative and fallacious.

             But I’d rather not. Many of these points have been raised  
elsewhere, and rather convincingly so – by amateurs and professionals  
alike, I might add. Instead, my endeavour will be to come up with a  
series of points that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere: the public  
and the private sphere, the press and impartiality, and commercials.

Keen argues that many blogs and most submissions on YouTube are trite.  
They are not artistic, they are not interesting, they are not worth  
anybody’s time. The net is gradually being filled with nonsense. Keen  
describes this development as narcissistic, and labels it the Cult of  
You: everybody is broadcasting themselves.

             He’s actually right. There is an abundance of nonsense,  
of non-artistic clips, of badly written prose, of dreary streams of  
photographs. Some people argue that this is a necessary by-product of  
the open structure of the internet, and that we need to suffer this  
for a few pearls to surface. As Clay Shirkey wrote in his review of  
Keen’s book: ‘…one of the many great things about the net is that  
talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this  
extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, [..] or to software  
[..] and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of  
poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold.  
Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased  

To which Keen counters: ‘In the same way that not everyone should be  
doctors or teachers or astronauts, not everyone should be an author.  
Most people do not have anything interesting to say.'[2]

             What both Keen and Shirkey disregard, is that we are  
witnessing the private going public. People increasingly use the  
internet to capture, comment upon and share their lives. And while I’m  
not always sure what to make of that, in itself there’s nothing new  
about the phenomenon, only about its scale. People have always kept  
diaries, wrote updates for their friends and family, made snapshots  
documenting their life. The manner in which they did so changed  
whenever technologies changed, but the urge to share has always been  
present. It is ridiculous to demand that people in general should shut  
up, as Keen does, even though sometimes the urge to share is really  

My parents’ generation poignantly remembers those long evenings during  
which they were forced to watch reels of slides of their friends’  
vacation; they remember groping desperately for polite comments to  
make while inwardly growing more bored with every passing picture. And  
I vividly remember the shock, when I was sixteen and paid my second or  
third visit to our new neighbours, upon being made to watch a video of  
Mrs Neighbour giving birth to their kid while the couple sat next to  
me, proudly pointing out details that I tried to ignore. ‘See, that’s  
the placenta,’ they said, helpfully and happily, while I was trying to  
not vomit.

             The good thing about this stuff being on the net is that  
you can easily click away when you happen to run into videos like  
this. The good thing about it being on the net is also that if you are  
interested what it entails to give birth, you can easily find videos  
like this and learn from them. Suddenly, witnessing somebody’s private  
life has become a choice, while before it was a social obligation.

The debate that Keen and Shirkey are conducting - whether these public  
expressions of private lives could carry some pearls, or it’s just a  
bunch of narcissistic monkeys hammering on their typepads – is simply  
misplaced. You don’t judge the drawings that your kid makes you by  
aesthetic criteria. The missive to family and friends that serves to  
update them about your vacation or your cancer treatment is not meant  
to compete for a Pulitzer, and should not be judged by its  
newsworthiness. The pictures of your new house are just that: pictures  
of your new house, and not intended to be of interest to others.

What is interesting – and that question merits a discussion of its own  
– is why people nowadays find it so easy – nay: so self-evident, so  
natural – to publish details of their life for all to see.

             One explanation is that people increasingly use their own  
private material (pictures, videos, blogs) as a means to find the like- 
minded. To find people who share their taste in politics, film, music,  
food, clothes, gardening, travelling, wine, cars, books; or to find  
people who are going through similar life events. People use one  
another’s private life to connect and to learn. In those cases, they  
are actually exploring the social fabric – and sometimes political  
dimensions –of their life. Indeed, that can only happen through a  
public process, which in turn makes a public place a logical and  
legitimate choice.

A second explanation, and a slightly more pessimistic one, is that we  
simply have not managed to wrap our minds around the notion exactly  
how huge and how public the internet really is. We’re not yet used to  
thinking on such a grand scale; there is no precedent. Public places  
are often perceived as private or semi-private: my blog, our forum,  
our neighbourhood café. But gradually, social network sites are  
adjusting and are adding tools that allow users to define layers of  
intimacy: outsiders see hardly anything, acquaintances a bit more, and  
only to friends all is revealed.

              But you can’t demand that people just shut up unless  
they have something interesting to say. That’s tantamount to robbing  
them of the narrative of their own life.

Next, Keen argues that all these people broadcasting about themselves  
represents the fragmentation of our culture, and that we need experts  
and gatekeepers to show us what’s worthy, valuable, and true and what  
is not. I would argue that insisting on a uniformed or codified point  
of view is not only patronising, but worse: it kills culture.  Culture  
is never stable, nor is it something to be handed down by the few to  
the many. Culture is born of the clash of tradition and change, it  
grows and expands through public narratives and social conflicts, it  
is shaped by comments and clashes, and once it’s stable and preserved,  
it dies of undernourishment and poverty.

In some ways, The Cult of the Amateur reminded me of Allen Blooms book  
The Closing of the American Mind. In that 1987 bestseller, Bloom  
argued that pop culture was erasing high culture and that the effort  
of women and black people to have the literary and historical canon  
revised to include some of their experiences and milestones, was  
tantamount to dethroning good taste. But while Bloom saw social change  
as a war he was losing and chose sides, Keen regally disregards that  
there are, indeed, sides. In other words: Keen completely ignores the  
politics of culture and perceives culture as a monolith. What he calls  
fragmentation, I call social diversity. What he calls fragmentation, I  
call political argument. What he calls codification, I call cultural  
ostracizing and the smothering of dissent and diversity. What he calls  
trite, I call the fabric of other people’s daily life.

On to the second point: the press and impartiality. Keen holds the  
press in high esteem and applauds them as knowledgeable authorities  
with trained journalists in their employ and fact checkers at hand,  
who make responsible choices and cover the whole gamut. Thus, they  
have become institutes that have gained enough respect to get some  
special treatment: they are granted interviews with the high & mighty,  
they have their sources, they are granted impunity; all of which in  
turn improves their reporting.

             Again, Keen is absolutely right. However, he’s only right  
for a tiny part of the press and television news, and thus, he  
presents us with a highly idealised and romanticised description of  
the press. Many newspapers and news shows are simply sloppy, copy or  
parrot one another, broadcast stuff that’s just short of being gossip,  
consider news as an impure commodity (no longer good if touched by  
anybody else), are not impartial by a long stretch, publish press  
releases or syndicate news without any research, care less about truth  
than about sales, care more about sensationalism than about  
backgrounds or aftermaths, dress up ads as ‘infomercials’ or  
‘advertorials’, and consider tidbits about an actor divorcing (or  
maybe not) to be prime news. (Even respected newspapers occasionally  
fall for hypes, as we have recently seen in the Netherlands with all  
the Fitna bruha.) In short, many newspapers and news programs behave  
exactly as Keen claims that only bloggers do.

             Furthermore, his view of the press is unforgivably  
Western. With glee, Keen quotes a newspaper editor who states that the  
difference between newspapers and bloggers is that journalists , other  
than bloggers, are prepared to go to court – or to jail – for what  
they write. Never mind that quite a number of bloggers have been sued  
in Western countries for the news that they published and that Keen  
chooses to completely disregard them. (I do suggest however that he  
could do with a subscription to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s  
news feed and familiarise himself with my own ten-year lawsuit.)

With his outspoken approval of that editor’s statement, Keen shows a  
severe lack of understanding of the press and of the internet in  
struggling countries. In many Central European, North-African, Middle- 
East, Asian and South-American countries, newspapers are in cahoots  
with the government. If they weren’t, they couldn’t publish at all,  
and as it is, they are severely curtailed. In those countries is it  
bloggers who courageously escape censorship and find means to publish  
real news, and who often find themselves being persecuted or jailed,  
and sometimes worse, on account of that. Reporters Without Borders  
publish a yearly tally, and it’s a very uncomfortable picture that  
they paint: blogging can be fatal. Yet, even then – or perhaps  
especially then – people blog. Because they care enough about their  
country’s condition to tell the truth – albeit another kind of truth  
than the one that their governments cares to hear.

Next, Keen describes how newspapers are losing subscriptions and  
advertisements. Again, it’s the internet’s fault, according to Keen.  
Craigslist and Google now attract all the ads, and readers cancel  
their subscription because they can find the news on the net anyway,  
and hence have grown to believe that the news is or should be ‘free’.

             However, newspapers have been going down in circulation  
ever since the 1980’s, and for the bigger part, they lost their  
readership to television. At the time, newspapers tackled the problem  
by focusing on their ad revenues – to the point where they created  
specialised supplements and weekend magazines in order to garnish more  
commercial space – and by devoting pages to more frivolous subjects  
such as life-style-news, in the hopes of regaining some readers.  That  
is to say: newspapers countered their crisis by becoming less newsy  
and by moving away from their core business.

              Keen also conveniently forgets that commercial  
television has cannibalised public channels. He ignores that some  
newspapers have been heavily subsidised by their owners not for the  
love of quality news but in order to kill off a competing paper and  
thus to get a bigger piece of the market. He fails to mention how  
newspapers that were loved by their readers were robbed of their  
identity because their owner ‘reshuffled’ some titles. He disregards  
that groups of newspapers have been bought and resold by venture  
capitalists looking for a quick buck, leaving the papers bleeding – as  
happened in the Netherlands.

In other words: their crisis has a longer standing and is much wider  
than Keen cares to admit, and its roots far precede the advent of the  
internet. And while Keen is rightly worried over the newspapers’  
dwindling circulation in as far as it equates the downfall of  
investigative journalism, he fails to see that alas, that pitfall has  
perhaps more to do with the rise of commercial television and its  
perceived ‘free’ dissipation of news than with the rise of the  
internet or of Web 2.0.

We might want to discuss ads here. Keen regards commercials as the  
breath of life of the press, radio and television. But the main reason  
that I have completely given up on radio and almost stopped watching  
television is that I can no longer stand the barrage of ads. In  
newspapers, you can just flip the page or toss out the supplement, but  
in broadcasting media, you can’t. You have to suffer them. Everything  
that you’re trying listen to or watch and immerse yourself in, is  
being poisoned by yelling people trying to sell you something that you  
don’t want or need. By and large, it feels like broadcasting media are  
using content as a mere wrapping for ads.

I’m not the only one who’s quite fed up. Hence the immense popularity  
of TiVo for television and of ad blockers in web browsers, and I’m  
quite sure that some people’s habit of downloading episodes of series  
(whether on BitTorrent or on iTunes) or of waiting for the DVD  
release, can at least be partially explained by the fact that in these  
formats, the program comes ad-free. Oh, the relief. No ads. Unhampered  
content. At last. Mr Keen, making money by selling ad space is not a  
media-saving strategy. It’s its nemesis. (It’s helpful to note that in  
the Netherlands, box office numbers rose after cinemas dropped the ads.)

             If the printed press wants to reconsider its role and  
place – and I certainly hope that it will – it should place more  
weight on its content and its readership, less on ads. And while we’re  
at it: if they move to the internet, which many in the end will to do,  
they can cut on printing and distribution costs, thereby freeing a  
considerable part of their budget. Money that can be used to pay  
journalists and editors with. Yes, parts of the newspaper industry  
will suffer and people will lose their jobs – from paper producers and  
printers to newspaper delivery boys.

But we don’t lament the implementation of printing technology because  
it put scribes out of work. We did however decry the implied loss of  
authority: suddenly, everybody could read what the bible said and form  
their own opinion about its content, instead of having to patiently  
wait for the priest to give his selection, his interpretation, his  
guidance and his verdict. Printing created the wish to become  
literate; literacy created choice and dissent. And I’m quite sure that  
when the first novels were printed, some people complained that this  
was not what we had invented that wonderful technology for.

Yes, we are losing gatekeepers. We actually have been doing so for  
centuries. Almost invariably, that was a terribly useful and  
liberating development. Indeed, sometimes – but usually for brief  
periods only – we were confused, at times frighteningly so. These  
changes have certainly not always been uniformly positive, but unlike  
Keen, I don’t think for one second that any technology has made us  
dumber per se or has robbed us of our culture. We tend to turn any and  
all communication technology into a means of cultural production, with  
or without our being paid to do so, and Keens self-professed nostalgia  
is just that: a bad case of nostalgia.

Karin Spaink

April 7, 2008

[1] Clay Shirkey: ‘What are we going to say about “The Cult of the  
Amateur”?’, many.corante.com/archives/2007/05/24/ 

[2] David Smith, ‘Enough! The Briton who is challenging the web’s  
endless cacophony’, The Guardian, 29 april 2007, ww.guardian.co.uk/ 

- K -

Exactly when did meeting people become so complicated? Once upon a  
time you went for a walk in the park and hooked up. Now you need high- 
speed access and an advanced degree in photo retouching.
   - Columnist Brent Ledger in Toronto's Xtra!, Feb. 6 2003

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org