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Is the Internet dumbing us down?

Andrew Keen wants to start an argument. And his new book “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture” shows that he knows how to do it.

Andrew Keen wants to start an argument.  And his new book “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture” shows that he knows how to do it.  A relentless attack on the beloved Web 2.0 touchstones of user generated content and “the wisdom of crowds,” Keen’s brief polemic is a strident one-sided, archly conservative view of how Internet culture is evolving — or, in his view, degenerating.  Even as it hits stores it has already been smartly dissected and thoroughly condemned by blogosphere luminaries ranging from Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis to Lawrence Lessig.

After such a drubbing, clearly no sensible Internet columnist should touch this book with a 10-foot pole. Yet it deserves a look for several reasons: Keen knows the technology and doesn’t make the purely technical blunders that usually discredit other doom-saying commentators. Keen is a fearless writer willing to take conservative positions in a field that’s overwhelmingly liberal. And finally, while Keen’s arguments are extreme and biased, they will also be heard — because they reflect real public concerns about the impact of the Internet, too often downplayed by the reigning digerati.

Keen’s original subtitle, simplified before publication, sums up his argument: How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values.  He looks at the various user-centered Web activities that epitomize Web 2.0 — YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, blogs, file-sharing and so forth — and ties these, variously, to loss of accuracy in news and information, the declining quality of music and video, the troubled economics of the content industries and even an erosion of original thinking (as students use Google to create “cut-and-paste” term papers).

Keen’s central thesis is that user-generated content and the disaggregation of information by search engines — reducing books, magazines and newspapers to mere collections of facts — damages both economics and quality.  His economic warning is the strongest element of the book: Keen worries that traditional media companies may be done in by the “cult of amateurs.”  While probably not due to “amateurs,” it is indeed the case that virtually all of the old-line content producers, from encyclopedias and record companies to television, newspapers and now even pornographers, are experiencing painful business pressures as the Internet absorbs and reorders media. 

Internet pundits often gleefully say that pampered Big Media is getting what it deserves, but the long-term social consequences may not be so humorous.  Keen points out that in the time it takes for the economics to work out many traditional media companies may lose important assets — such as their staff — or close down altogether.  And it’s not at all clear what would replace them.

What scares Keen is that some Web 2.0 enthusiasts argue that we no longer need traditional media companies — the Internet provides artists and writers their own means of distribution and promotion.  But publishers and record labels provide more than just distribution and promotion.  In a sense, they’re the venture capitalists of culture, advancing money so that a writer can take years to research a great book or a band can concentrate on creating a strong body of music.  Sure, there are lots of writers and bands who keep their day jobs and still create good work — but most of them wouldn’t mind an upfront check and some uninterrupted time.  Even the most faithful bunch of MySpace friends will probably never be able to offer them that.  

On the news front, Keen fears that a world of bloggers may replace traditional news organizations.  But few bloggers will ever be able to afford in-depth investigative reporting — the kind of long-term work with which the Washington Post recently uncovered the Veterans Administration scandal.  Top investigative reporters are usually remarkably focused and even obsessive individuals who want someone to pay them a salary, give them a desk and then let them loose.  And if they’re taking on big business, they also need a backer with some legal resources.  Finally, the public is still more comfortable with news that comes from trusted brand names.  So Keen’s worries about big media’s demise are probably excessive. But the challenge for the incumbents is to survive long enough to figure out exactly what their new role is. 

Keen’s other objection to the Web 2.0 world — the loss of quality — is really about the devaluation of the expert.  Keen argues that Wikipedia, which considers enthusiastic amateurs the equal of trained experts, is a step backward in the quality of knowledge.  It’s a point worth discussing: Wikipedia is brand new and its means of creation shouldn’t go unquestioned simply because it has climbed to the top of Google. That’s particularly true if it hastens the demise of traditional encyclopedias that have existed for hundreds of years. Keen mostly sputters about this, but it’s worth noting that the same concern was handled more deftly last year in Jaron Lanier’s online essay “Digital Maoism.”

Lanier, a widely-admired technologist best known for his pioneering work in virtual reality, is in a very different camp than Keen.  Yet Lanier also worries about the current enthusiasm for the “wisdom of crowds.”  Sometimes, he writes, crowds are smarter than individuals: “A large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.”  But other times the crowd is either useless or stupid: “Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania.”   Lanier ultimately points out how in many cases, collective wisdom is best harnessed by a personality or — gasp — expert.  The two approaches to knowledge, in other words, are not mutually exclusive: there is a middle way.

You wouldn’t know that from Keen’s book: after a relentlessly harsh and detailed picture of dire crisis, he offers only a handful of cursory solutions. In the end, Keen’s book is not about solutions, but rather about feeding the maw of American shout culture.  That phrase, of course, originated in old media — when political television talk-shows degenerated into shout-fests favoring extreme viewpoints expressed in short, loud sentences. But — right along with Web 2.0 — shout culture has found a secure home on the Internet.  Internet forums are famous for their lack of civility, but more distressing is how rarely they seem to produce meaningful discussions.

Keen’s book is ultimately a reminder that too often talk about the future of the Internet is also a hostage of shout culture: on one side the specter of a dumb-and-dumber dystopia devoid of quality, on the other a utopian vision in which amateurs fill the Web with free and meaningful content. Neither, of course, is really the future: we’ll end up in the middle, where certain good parts of the past may be lost but valuable new elements are gained.  A consideration of those trade-offs would be a truly worthwhile conversation — but also a long and complicated one, and chances are that in today’s shout culture, most people wouldn’t be able to hear it.  But it is one place that we crowds most certainly need all the wisdom we can get.