Thursday, September 6, 2007

Clearing away the cobwebs

6 Sep 2007, ST

Andrew Keen's The Cult Of The Amateur is a refreshingly brusque critique of how culture is being cannibalised in the brave new Internet world

By Ong Sor Fern, culturevulture

I HAVE never, nor will I ever, read blogs.

Yes, I am an information snob. I prefer my writing to come in published formats: newspapers, magazines and books. As someone who grew up on a hearty diet of old media, I trust these established systems of delivering information simply because there is quality control.

When I read a newspaper, I can be assured that the journalist is subject to a code of ethics, his work has been audited by editors and his sources verified. Ditto a magazine and a book.

Blogs, however, are a Wild West frontier, a welter of undifferentiated information that blends fact with opinion with merry disregard for consequences.

No doubt there are intelligent bloggers out there. But trying to find them is akin to looking for a single brainy needle in an exceedingly large and, mostly dumb, haystack.

I am no Luddite. But I do regard the current enthusiasm for Web 2.0, the so-called second generation of Web-based communities, with a jaundiced eye.

This is partly because I have seen the Web mushroom from its early days, when there was a much better signal to noise ratio, to its current state of mostly deafening white noise.

And it is also partly because as someone in the media business, I have been taught to assess information with an eagle eye, so I value the quality, not just the quantity, of information.

So it was with relish that I devoured Andrew Keen's book The Cult Of The Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture And Assaulting Our Economy.

The book is a much-needed wake-up call for all those who think that Web 2.0, where Google, YouTube and Facebook are worth billions of dollars even though they produce no content, promises a new utopia.

Keen, an Englishman based in the United States, is a self-declared apostate. He was a technopreneur during Silicon Valley's first Internet boom. So his perspective is not that of some lofty old media Cassandra perched on the outside, but a clear-eyed insider who has thought long and hard about the industry.

The book is not perfect by any means. Some parts are a bit repetitive and his tone occasionally totters dangerously close to hysteria, especially when he rails on about morality and the Web.

He is also focused solely on the US, so his book does not deal with the impact of the Web on other countries around the globe.

But the most intriguing central tenet of his argument is that Web 2.0 is killing culture creation through its celebration of the 'noble amateur'.

The idea that anyone can be a writer/artist/critic is a seductive one, as Keen concedes. But the grim reality, he points out, is closer to 19th-century evolutionary biologist T.H. Huxley's infinite monkey theorem.

The theory states that if you provide an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters, one will eventually produce a masterpiece to rival William Shakespeare.

The problem is, of course, trying to find that one talented monkey amidst the cacophony.

While Web 2.0 businesses are busy building more typewriters for more monkeys, it is also tearing down the infrastructure that used to support the William Shakespeares.

The idea of intellectual property, which Keen points out has sustained culture creation in Western civilisation for 200 years by paying people for their creative output, has been pulverised in the new information age.

Students plagiarise chunks of writing for their essays. People steal music and movies online. So-called citizen journalists do armchair reporting by cobbling together tidbits from legitimate websites.

Such disregard for intellectual property has already resulted in the collapse of the American music industry and a drastic nose-dive in circulation for American newspapers, whose readership are deserting old sources of information for the illusory 'variety' offered free online.

While Keen lambasts new media for indiscriminate destruction of old media structures, his book, in focusing so tightly on the negative aspects of new media, also seems in danger of committing the same sin of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But it is rescued by a last chapter, in which he lists the Web ventures which manage to find an economically sustainable middle road between the technological promise of the new Web and old-fashioned products.

Of course, my love of old media could be seen as springing from vested interest. After all, I work in the print media, about as old school as you can get.

But I am not simply a producer of content. I am also a consumer of content. As such, I also have a vested interest in finding trustworthy sources of content, produced with integrity and accountability, because such content contributes to the cultural discourse of society.

I think the world will be a very much poorer place if newspapers, magazines and books were to be replaced by Web 2.0's drastically shorter and much more populist forms of writing.

Old media has to find ways of adapting to the new platform before the new media completely cannibalises the old to the detriment of everyone in the culture industry. That much everybody agrees on.

But I think that just as old media businesses need to adapt, consumers of culture need to draw a line in the sand. They have to commit to paying for legitimate content, because if there is anything Web 2.0 has proven, it is that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

In that, the brave new world of Web 2.0 looks pretty much like the old world. The new divide, it seems, will be between those who can afford to pay for the correct sort of information, and those who cannot.


# Andrew Keen's The Cult Of The Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture And Assaulting Our Economy (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 228 pages, $29.40 w/o GST) is available at Kinokuniya Book Stores.

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