In a post a few weeks ago, I promised some thoughts about Andrew Keen’s polemic against “Web 2.0” culture, entitled, “The Cult of the Amateur.” Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has only recently become skeptical about the social impact of the Internet, takes as his jumping off point the famous T.H. Huxley image of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters. Huxley says the monkeys would eventually produce Hamlet. Keen says the Internet as we know it today is putting that claim to the test. But the results, according to Keen, are not encouraging. Far from elevating our culture, we Internet monkeys seem to be telling lies to each other on blogs and posting videos of ourselves in various states of undress on Youtube. No sign of Hamlet yet.
According to Keen,
At the heart of this infinite monkey experiment in self-publishing is the Internet diary, the ubiquitous blog. Blogging has become such a mania that a new blog is being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day. . . . Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they’ve undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary.
Keen also throws in some cautionary tales about online gambling, social networking sites, and digital piracy, but it is Youtube, blogs, and Wikipedia that come in for the lion’s share of the scorn. The charge against them all is that they permit amateurs to produce intellectual content that was formerly the province only of skilled professionals. This much is undeniable, and is in fact celebrated by many as a triumph of democratic principle. Keen, however, focuses on the dubious authenticity of what one finds on the web; even the glowing review of Keen’s book that induced the reader to buy it might have been written by Keen’s sock puppet. Moreover, Keen says the new, democratized, amateur product is only a very poor imitation of what the pros used to give us: Youtube videos are not Hamlet. Wikipedia is not the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I am predisposed to agree with Keen’s criticisms, consonant as they are with the themes of decline and fall that hold so much attraction for me. I have myself criticized Wikipedia for its intrinsic indifference to expertise or authority, and I can’t imagine why YouTube is so popular. But really, is it quite fair to begin assessing the effect of the Internet upon society now, barely a decade after Netscape popularized the browser? And while it is hard to argue with Keen’s selection of Shakespeare (and elsewhere, Bach) as exemplars of excellence, Keen’s argument seems to imply that such great works are the sort of thing the pros turn out all the time. This is quite false. One doesn’t have to be a monkey in order to fail to produce Hamlet; millions of very talented non-monkeys have spent their whole lives trying to equal Shakespeare without ever coming close. So the observation that modern Internet users have failed to produce Hamlet or anything of comparable genius in the last five years is not really much of a criticism.
For Keen, though, nothing less than the survival of our civilization is at stake:
What happens, you might ask, when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule?
The monkeys take over. Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.
Indeed, in a passage that perhaps reveals more about Keen’s value system than he intended, he writes,
[O]ur cultural standards and moral values are not all that are at stake. Gravest of all, the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows, and our movies are under assault as well. Newspapers and newsmagazines, one of the most reliable sources of information about the world we live in, are flailing, thanks to the proliferation of free blogs and sites like Craigslist that offer free classifieds, undermining paid ad placements.
In other words, it’s not just art and morality, but “gravest of all,” our economy — specifically one favored corner of it. Keen’s real beef is that we Internet monkeys are destroying the economic structures that make professional expertise in many fields possible. The widespread availability of Wikipedia makes it harder for Encyclopedia Britannica to survive; the migration of classified ads to Craigslist makes it harder for newpapers to survive; user-generated advertising makes it harder for professional advertising firms to survive. In a passage about a Frito-Lay contest to “discover” an amateur Doritos commercial, Keen writes,
According to the American Assocation of Advertising Agencies, the average professionaly produced thirty-second spot costs $381,000. Yet Frito-Lay paid a mere $10,000 to each of the five finalists in the competition, leaving $331,000 on the table. That’s $331,000 that wasn’t paid to professional filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors, and marketing companies — $331,000 sucked out of the economy.
I like to see both sides of things, but this is just wrong. That $331,000 wasn’t “sucked out of the economy,” it stayed with Frito-Lay. If there is any reason to suppose it did less good there than it would have if the pros had taken it, Keen fails to tell us what it is.
This is a recurrent problem, because as we have seen, so much of Keen’s argument is economic. I’m just an amateur economist, but it seems to me that most competent professionals in the field would at least consider the hypothesis that all we have here is garden-variety competition. Couldn’t it just possibly be that journalists, filmmakers, actors, and marketing executives are being replaced by amateurs not just because the amateurs are cheaper but because many of the professionals stink? Yet Keen never acknowledges this possibility. His harsh criticism of anonymity on the web without any comparably realistic assessment of modern journalism is illustrative:
It is deeply disturbing that in our filter-free Web 2.0 world, rumors and lies concocted by anonymous (and no doubt amateur) reporters are lent legitimacy and propagated by mainstream media channels.
But an important reason why bloggers can get away with anonymous lying and rumor-mongering is that it looks so very much like professional reporting. Monkey see, monkey do. I’m not the least bit offended by Keen’s overt elitism, but he simply never faces up to the fact that the elites don’t tap out Hamlet all that often, either.
It is, of course, possible that ignorance, egoism, bad taste, and mob rule will eventually overwhelm all that is beautiful and good about our civilization — not to mention, “gravest of all,” all that is profitable. But I doubt it. It seems to me far more likely that the widespread availability of extremely average content will simply force professionals to do better if they want to continue as professionals. It may give us fewer professionals, but not fewer Hamlets.