March 11, 2008  ·  Lessig

At the Stanford “Legal Futures” conference last weekend, I joined a panel with author Andrew Keen titled “The Future of Professional Media.” I hadn’t planned to be on a panel with Andrew, but the conference had a FOO structure, and when I left the night before, he was the only one on the panel. Being a good host, I signed up so he wouldn’t be alone (smile…).

As I’ve written here before, I’ve always been unsure about whether Keen is a know-nothing, or the greatest self-parodist of our time. For while his book, The Cult of the Amateur, is a tirade against “amateur culture” — ridiculing its sloppiness, errors, and lack of standards — the book itself is riddled with sloppy, basic errors that betray either an oblivious author or a publisher without standards. And thus the self-parody: demonstrating “professional” media can be as bad as the bad of the “amateur” media.

People who knew Keen, however, told me my self-parody theory was bunk. That Keen wasn’t a brilliant anything; that his book was simply sloppy. Yet his latest missive again makes me wonder — are we all just missing the extraordinary comic genius in this failed Internet entrepreneur?

Here’s the clue: My criticism of Keen’s book Saturday tracked the criticism above. I read a series of quotes from the book to support my claim that the book was full of simple, basic errors. Among the passages I quoted was this:

In a twisted kind of Alice in Wonderland, down-the-rabbit-hole logic, Silicon Valley visionaries such as Stanford law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and cyberpunk William Gibson laud the appropriation of intellectual property.

I asked Keen if he had ever read anything I had written. He said he had. I asked him to name one instance where I had ever “laud[ed] the appropriation of intellectual property.” He sat silently. I pressed. He had no answer. He could name no instance of my “laud[ing] the appropriation of intellectual property” because that’s not my schtick. Indeed, as I repeatedly insisted in Free Culture (see pages 10, 18, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 139, 255), what others call “piracy” I was emphatically not writing to defend. Indeed, I criticized it as “wrong.”

Now whether mine is a sensible view or not, or a view consistent with the Free Culture Movement or not, is an argument had on this page many times. But the Keen-relevant point is that my claim was a claim about a fact. He alleges I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” I claim I do not. That’s a true/false claim. And so in the tradition of the professional truth-seeker, so threatened, Keen believes, by the wisdom-of-the-crowds Internet, one would think that the disagreement would be resolved by someone actually reading something, or at least providing some citation. No doubt it was unfair to call Keen out on stage. He didn’t come with his notes. Why would I expect him to be able to identify anything in my work at all? But after the conference, perhaps. Maybe then Keen could defend the assertion that I flatly denied.

And indeed, he now has — but the interesting (self-parody point) is how.

In a blog post, Keen again charges me with lauding the appropriation of intellectual property. But what’s the source for his renewed charge? Did Keen go back to the books? Or back to his notes? Does he offer a quote, or a passage to exemplify this defining feature of my work?

No. The truth of this matter for Keen is resolved by asking a bunch of people at the conference whether in fact I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” They said I did. And that resolves it for Keen.

That’s right: the truth comes from the wisdom of the crowd. These unnamed sources confirm it for Keen. And that’s all the confirmation he needs. No need to actually read anything. The crowds have spoken. And now this “professional” trusts the crowds.

I have no doubt that many believe I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” That’s in part because people like Keen say I do, and on balance because most people (sensibly) have better things to do than to struggle through the turgid prose of an academic.

But the relevant point here is this: any author who aspired to the high standards that Keen is so keen to laud would suss the truth of this matter the old fashioned way — by reading a book (or two). Were Keen to do that, he’d see that most of the wry humor in his blog post misses the mark because I don’t in fact hold the views that he holds me up to (I have nothing against professional media content; I love Hollywood movies; and I have never doubted the significance of professional media: my praise of amateurs is not a criticism of the professional). What his writing instead demonstrates is something only the most cynical would believe — that the aim of this “professional” writer (and his publisher) has little to do with the truth, much more to do with selling books.

Good luck in that, Andrew.