The Cult of the Amateur: An Amateur Responds

So, as promised, my thoughts on Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur. I picked it up on Monday but didn’t get around to reading it until the end of the week. And it is a fun read – a polemic, without a huge amount of data, and the footnotes are virtually all newspaper/magazine articles. (I should also pay a little tribute to UK publishers Nicholas Brealey, as the paperback is a lovely production, in terms of cover, layout and typeface – perhaps they are trying to prove a point about book culture!)

Instead of trying to spin it all into a paragraph, here are my likes and dislikes (which may correlate with ‘bits I agree with’ and ‘bits that made me throw the book at the (non-existent) cat’). Better reviews are available (Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune), and Lessig has deconstructed the book (although I avoided rereading Lessig’s wiki in order to write my own notes without cribbing!)

Likes (Keen On These)

  • Keen comes out with a strong defence of journalists and journalism, and the professionalism of many writers and broadcasters. So it’s not just amateur-bashing – there is a positive side too! (It was useful to read these sections with Tony Blair‘s recent speech in mind, though).
  • Surprisingly, there is strong criticism of the role played by corporations and PR agencies in manipulating ‘user-created’ systems; he cites Wal-Mart (twice), Exxon and alcohol advertising as some of the worst offenders. This is, in my view, an overlooked point in the current state of Web/tech analysis; another day, we can speculate on the reasons for the reluctance. (These sections sit well with the arguments made in Heath and Potter’s The Rebel Sell) A related topic that is touched on is the manipulation of sites like Digg (where you can buy your way to the top) and even the silliness of Google-bombing.
  • A good overview of the use of the Internet by conspiracy nuts (and the high ranks reached – e.g. Loose Change, a video in the spirit of an entire well of green ink, is the ‘most viewed’ on Google Video despite having less connection with reality than any dreams of Wicklow winning the All-Ireland Football Championship do). The couple of paragraphs on ‘sock puppets’ and the manipulation/disruption of open systems is interesting too, and although he doesn’t go into it, of personal interest to me through past involvement in Indymedia.
  • There’s a lovely tribute to the original Tower Records and the role of the knowledgable sales assistant in music or book stores. Unfortunately, it’s undermined by a quick leap to a rehash of the IFPI line on music downloads (and what’s that got to do with ‘Today’s Internet’, anyway – wasn’t Napster years ago?)
  • I appreciated the attention paid to the role of search engines, data controllers and others; Google comes in for predictable criticism (and remember that the book was written before the current upping of the ante.
  • The final chapter, touching on things like Citizendium and the arguments against DRM, is quite positive (until it goes off the rails with porno-fears) and reminds us that Keen is in fact a modern techie, and not just a curmudgeon!
  • The Cult of the Amateur is a thought-provoking book – I wouldn’t be turning to it as evidence of anything other than the author’s views and concerns, but it is also useful as a starting-point for further discussion.

And inevitably, the dislikes (Not So Keen On These)

  • When I previewed the book, I said: A fun one is Keen saying that “every defunct record label and round of newspaper downsizing are a consequence of “free” user-generated Internet content—from Craigslist’s free advertising, to free music videos, to free encyclopedias, to free weblogs.” I hope (for his sake) that there is one hell of a footnote to that. And of course, there’s not. In fact, it’s much worse: the line “Every free listing on Craigslist means one less paid listing in a local newspaper” is manifestly incapable of being substantiated – and he uses it twice! I appreciate the point being made, but there’s no point in saying something so blatantly false (prove it yourself by listing something on Craigslist that you would never have put in a local paper!), and it undermines the intellectual force of what could be a useful argument.
  • This might sound silly, but Keen believes Kevin Kelly too easily. Kelly, the former editor of Wired, is the author of the landmark Scan This Book! article in the NYT Magazine (May 2006). It is one of the most interesting things I read last year. However, in criticising it, Keen is too quick to assume that Kelly’s vision is plausible – he falls over himself to say how terrible a future it portrays, without seriously questioning how likely the scenarios (or indeed the conclusions) are.
  • There’s a lot of unfair links drawn between ‘remix culture’, academic plagiarism and illegal downloading. All important topics, but you can’t correlate them simply by putting them on the same page. It doesn’t work that way. Not on a blog, and not on a book either.
  • There’s a heart-rendering portrayal of a young life destroyed by Internet gambling. Not sure how this differs from any other portrayal of addiction and mental health, though? Ditto for the discussion of virtual sexual misbehaviour and Second Life – someone needs to read up on their Mr Bungle!
  • In the context of copyright and remixing: “I can scarely conceive of Johann Sebastian Bach releasing a raw version of his Brandenburg concertos to be remixed or mashed up by his public. Or Mozart letting his listeners rewrite his operas and concertos“. Oh God. Where to start? How about the fact that copyright law didn’t exist when Bach wrote the Brandenburgs. Or the fact that Bach remixing is an awful lot of fun (try Walter/Wendy Carlos), and certainly predates the Internet. And Mozart operas are translated, rewritten, reinterpreted all the time. And what is a ‘raw version’, Andrew? You might recall that recordings didn’t exist at the time, so the only way to release music was by sheet music. And, um, isn’t that a raw version?????? (I would add that his parallel between the Barenaked Ladies allowing fans to remix and surgeons being replaced by amateurs is a little hyperbolic – much as I love the BNL, they are not normally responsible for life-or-death situations.
  • Keen goes off on a passionate rant about how COPA shouldn’t have been struck down (it was the ACLU’s fault) and the evils of Internet pornography and how it is corrupting our children. Well argued (even if I disagree), but it seems out of context with the rest of the book, and the anti-speech argument is a little too gung ho for someone who wants to save culture from the masses and gets excited over the role of the free press.
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2 thoughts on “The Cult of the Amateur: An Amateur Responds

  1. Half in one sitting (well, lying in bed), the other half in about an hour the following day, and then another hour doing more detailed notes. It has the style of a series of long Guardian articles, rather than legal prose. Let us know when the review is on!

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