May 31, 2007 ·
Tomorrow is the official on-sale date for Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur,” but the book is already getting lots of attention. Keen, a writer, and failed Internet entrepreneur, spends 200 pages attacking the rise of the “amateur” and the harm — economic, social, cultural and political — these amateurs will cause. Without “standards,” without “taste,” without “institutions” to “filter” good from bad, true from false, the Internet, Keen argues, is destined to destroy us.
There’s much in the book that even we amateur-o-philes should think about. How can we build trust into the structures of knowledge the Internet is enabling (Wikipedia, blogs, etc.)? How can make sure the contribution adds to understanding rather than confuses it? These are hard questions. And as is true of Wikipedia at each moment of every day — there is more work to be done.
But what is puzzling about this book is that it purports to be a book attacking the sloppiness, error and ignorance of the Internet, yet it itself is shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance. It tells us that without institutions, and standards, to signal what we can trust (like the institution (Doubleday) that decided to print his book), we won’t know what’s true and what’s false. But the book itself is riddled with falsity — from simple errors of fact, to gross misreadings of arguments, to the most basic errors of economics.
So how could it be that a book criticizing the Internet — because the product of a standardless process where nothing is “vetted for accuracy” (as he says of Wikipedia) — could itself be so mistaken, when it, presumably, has been “vetted for accuracy” and was only selected for publication because it passed the high standards of truth imposed by its publisher — Doubleday?
And then it hit me: Keen is our generation’s greatest self-parodist. His book is not a criticism of the Internet. Like the article in Nature comparing Wikipedia and Britannica, the real argument of Keen’s book is that traditional media and publishing is just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Here’s a book — Keen’s — that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors. Keen’s obvious point is to show those with a blind faith in the traditional system that it can be just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Indeed, one might say even worse, since the Internet doesn’t primp itself with the pretense that its words are promised to be true.
So lighten up on poor Mr. Keen, folks. He is an ally. His work will help us all understand the limits in accuracy, taste, judgment, and understanding shot through all of our systems of knowledge. The lesson he teaches is one we should all learn — to read and think critically, whether reading the product of the “monkeys” (as Keen likens contributors to the Internet to be) or books published by presses such as Doubleday.
I’ve outlined some of these errors in the Extended Entry below. I’ve also placed that enumeration on a wiki, and I invite everyone to help construct the The Keen Reader — listing and demonstrating the errors in his book, so others can see quite clearly just how brilliant a self-parody this book is.
The Least Important (Lessig) Fallacy
I expect this is true with anyone whose work is described by others, but I had a pretty clear sense of the care and accuracy of Keen’s book early on, when he wrote this about my own work:
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. (p24)
I take it Keen means “misappropriation,” because while I do “laud the appropriation of intellectual property” in the sense that I support, for example, the legal licensing of creative work by others, so does Keen. So his claim is that I praise what some call “piracy.”
This is a claim too ridiculous to have to rebut. I certainly have argued in favor of changing the way copyright law functions. But I never have “laud[ed]” “piracy.” See, e.g., Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture 10, 18, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 139, 255 (2004) (describing “piracy” as “wrong”). Only the most careless of readers could make such a claim.
Likewise, midway through the book, Keen writes:
Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig argues that “legal sharing” and “reuse” of intellectual property is a social benefit. In fact, … Lessig wants to replace what he calls our “Read-Only” Internet with a “Read-Write” Internet, where we can “remix” and “mashup” all content indiscriminately. Lessig, misguided as he is, suggests that digital content—whether it be a song, a video, a short story, or a photograph—should be commonly owned for the benefit of everyone. What Lessig fails to acknowledge is that most of the content being shared—no matter how many times it has been linked, cross-linked, annotated, and copied—was composed or written by someone from the sweat of their creative brow and the disciplined use of their talent. (p144)
Let’s unpack this a bit:
(1) “Lessig argues that “legal sharing” and “reuse” of intellectual property is a social benefit.”
True enough. “Legal sharing” (as opposed to “illegal sharing”) is a social benefit. Reuse of IP is also a social benefit. Does Keen think the opposite? Should we ban “legal sharing”? And should a song only be “used” once?
(2) “In fact, … Lessig wants to replace what he calls our “Read-Only” Internet with a “Read-Write” Internet, where we can “remix” and “mashup” all content indiscriminately.”
Not true enough. I have no desire to “replace” “our Read-Only Internet” with anything. As I try to say every time I talk about it, the RO Internet is valuable and good. I do praise the rise — or more accurately, the revival — of a RW culture, sure. But “indiscriminately”? Who ever argues for “indiscriminate” use? Certainly the examples I use and praise are quite discriminate in their “remix” of culture. That’s why they are so good.
(3) “Lessig, misguided as he is, suggests that digital content—whether it be a song, a video, a short story, or a photograph—should be commonly owned for the benefit of everyone.”
First, I was very disappointed that in the published version of Keen’s book, he changed this quote from what it was originally. Originally, I was not only “misguided” but “dangerous.”
But second, again, come on. No where do I argue that “digital content … should be commonly owned.” This is about as ignorant a summary of my work as one could proffer. I defend again and again (against copyright abolitionists) the value and importance of copyright. I argue that copyright must be preserved, even in a digital age. Even the Creative Commons project doesn’t argue that works be “commonly owned.” CC gives copyright owners the ability to exercise their rights, not common rights.
(4) “What Lessig fails to acknowledge is that most of the content being shared—no matter how many times it has been linked, cross-linked, annotated, and copied—was composed or written by someone from the sweat of their creative brow and the disciplined use of their talent.”
Another brilliant example of Keen’s self-parody. If you read this quickly, you might think that Keen is saying that an author creates wholly on his own, without building upon the work of others. But read again, and this time carefully: Note the pronoun “their.” Keen’s talking about the collective process that creativity always is. That at least is the charitable way to read the sentence. Otherwise, you’d have to say Keen doesn’t know basic grammar.
But misunderstanding my work isn’t much of a sin. Many brilliant sorts do that all the time (read, for example, the exams from classes I teach. Talk about a humbling experience…). The significant errors in Keen’s book are elsewhere.
I outline some of them here:
The “value” fallacy
Keen has a less than keen understanding of economic value. Indeed, the sort of understanding that would fail first year economics. See, for example, his attack on Google. As he writes,
Take Google, for example, the economic paragon of a truly successful Web 2.0 media company. With a market cap of approximately $150 billion, the Silicon Valley company took in $6.139 billion in revenue and $1.465 billion in profits in 2005. Telling is the fact that unlike companies such as Time Warner or Disney that create and produce movies, music, magazines, and television, Google is a parasite; it creates no content of its own. (p135)
In terms of value creation, there is nothing there apart from its links. (p135)
Why stop at Google? Why not attack, for example, the creators of phone books. They too are simply “parasites” “creat[ing] no content of [their] own.” But this argument is ridiculous. “Value” is created in both cases by improving the efficiency of access to others, or to their material. Efficiency is value.
The efficiency fallacy
Much like the previous error, Keen systematically ignores dynamic efficiency in favor of static loss. So, for example, he writes,
“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune.” (p27)
And as he continues:
Of course, every free listing on Craigslist means one less paid listing in a local newspaper. Every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for a professionally researched and edited encyclopedia such as Britannica. Every free music or video upload is one less sale of a CD or DVD, meaning one less royalty for the artist who created it. (p29)
There are at least three obvious errors here. First, Keen is apparently lumping two obviously legal changes (Craigslist and Wikipedia) with one not so legal (“free music or video upload”) though of course, not all “free music” or “video uploads” are illegal.
Second, not even the RIAA suggests that there is a 1 to 1 substitution between “free” and “paid.”
But third, and most significant, Keen writes as if there is an economic loss when people get to do things more efficiently. As if there is a reason for a policy maker to be concerned when, for example, the costs of some activity drop because society has found a way to do the same activity more efficiently. He points, for example, in the context of printed books, to the many people who have earned a living from that lumber-ware. He asks: ” Isn’t this a model worth preserving?” (p115)
Again, econ 101: Thousands used to work to support circuit switched networks. Many fewer are needed to run packet switched networks. Does that mean we should ban the Internet in order to “preserve” circuit switched telephone networks? Every new and more efficient technology displaces less efficient economies before them. How many of those should we “preserve”?
Or perhaps, my favorite quote. Again, remember, this is in a book attacking the Internet for its lack of truth and failure of “balance”:
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. (p27)
Every? Really? It’s the sort of claim that would earn a freshman essay a D.
The wiki fallacy
Keen spends a great deal of time attacking Wikipedia, and its founder, Jimmy Wales. As Keen writes, “Wikipedia … is almost single-handedly killing the traditional information business.” (p127-8). I take it not even Wales would exaggerate the importance of Wikipedia like this. And again, implicit in Keen’s argument is the efficiency fallacy mentioned above.
But the real error here is betrayed in the following:
Since Wikipedia’s birth, more than fifteen thousand contributors have created nearly three million entries in over a hundred different languages—none of them edited or vetted for accuracy (p4).
“None of them edited or vetted for accuracy”? On one level, of course, this is absurdly false. Wikipedia is constantly edited, and attributions constantly vetted for accuracy. Indeed, for many of the articles, the level of editing and vetting is vastly greater than any article published in any encyclopedia ever.
But on a different level, what Keen must mean is that it is not “edited” or “vetted” by experts. Or exclusively by experts (for again, experts certainly participate in Wikipedia). This is related to Keen’s obsession (indeed, I’m sure if he has one, his shrink must have a field day with this obsession) with “experts” and makers of “taste.” So central is this to Keen’s argument, it deserves its own heading.
The Expert Fallacy
The most pronounced theme throughout the book is the faith in the “experts” of the non-Internet world. Consider some sample quotes:
But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture that is blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. (p2)
Because democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. (p15)
Yes, a number of Web 2.0 start-ups such as Pandora.com, Goombah.com, and Moodlogic.com are building artificially intelligent engines that supposedly can automatically tell us what music or movies we will like. But artificial intelligence is a poor substitute for taste. (p.32)
Recently, Jurgen Habermas, one of Europe’s most influential social thinkers, spoke about the threat Web 2.0 poses to intellectual life in the West.” The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.” (p55)
But what these online stores don’t have is the deeply knowledgeable buying choices depend upon the anonymous Amazon.com reviewer—a very poor substitute for “the bodily encounters” that Tower once offered.(p132)
When media companies flounder, employees and executives lose their jobs and shareholders lose their investments. But all the rest of us lose out, too, as the quality of programming is compromised. (p124-25)
Keen is particularly harsh about the effects on democracy:
The downside of all this “democracy,” which the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson described as the “greatest outburst of mass exhibitionism in human history” is the integrity of our political discourse. (p54)
The YouTubification of politics is a threat to civic culture. It infantilizes the political process, silencing public discourse and leaving the future of government up to thirty-second video clips shot by camcorder-wielding amateurs with political agendas.(p 68)
Or consider one final favorite:
“News aggregating sites like Digg or Reddit or Rojo, which rely on the collective behavior of other users, also limit our access to fair and balanced information.” (p93).
Ok, let’s take this in reverse order. How exactly is someone “limit[ed]” from access to “fair and balanced” (I assume Keen got permission to use Fox’s trademark here) by the presence of a ranking system? Does USA Today’s ranking of movies limit my access to films its reviewers don’t like?
Or on politics: The Internet is challenging “the integrity of our political discourse”? This assumes a fact not in evidence — namely the “integrity of our political discourse.” Is FOX News part of that discourse? Were the Swift Boat Veterans the product of the Internet?
Or on taste generally: No doubt, public intellectuals like Habermas are not happy with the rise of competition for the attention the public gives to his words. Ah, for the good old days, when a handful of writers got to tell the world how to think. How sad it is that those writers now must compete with blogs.
But whether victims of competition are happy or not doesn’t determine the quality of the competition. In my view, there’s little evidence of “taste” in the product of “media companies.” Do I get to publish a book with Doubleday now that I’ve observed I don’t like what media companies produce?
The argument about taste is either ridiculous or banal. Who is Keen to define what “taste” is. And if he isn’t doing that, then yes, of course, there are millions of places in which society choses things that I, or others, don’t like. Let’s start with democracy. Is that an argument against democracy?
(And really: did Keen ever go into a Tower Records and ask for a recommendation about a Mahler symphony? Or about anything? No doubt, there were some great people at Tower Records. But on average?)
The “Piracy” fallacy
A couple notes about a familiar fallacy: Keen writes:
Thanks to the rampant digital piracy spawned by file-sharing technology, sales of recorded music dropped over 20 percent between 2000 and 2006 (p8)
Sloppy: what percentage of the 20% is because of “piracy”?
At the iTunes price of 99 cents a song, the 20 billion digital songs stolen in a single year adds up to an annual bill of $19.99 billion, one and half times more than the entire $12.27 billion revenue of the US sound recording industry in 2005. That’s $19.99 billion stolen annually from artists, labels, distributors, and record stores. (p106)
Wildly exaggerated: Not even the RIAA uses retail prices to estimate the losses from “piracy”
Over the last 10 years, the listening hours of eighteen to twenty-four year olds have dropped 21 percent. (p123)
Sloppy: what percentage of the 21% is because of “piracy”?
What author reading any of the works written recently about this question could be so sloppy?
The Amateur Fallacy
The final fallacy I’m going to take the time to enumerate is perhaps the most amazing. Here is a book about “amateurs”. And here is how Keen defines the term “amateur”:
The traditional meaning of the word “amateur” is very clear. An amateur is a hobbyist, knowledgeable or otherwise, someone who does not make a living from his or her field of interest, a layperson, lacking credentials, a dabbler. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Hell is full of amateur musicians,” but that was before Web 2.0. Today, Shaw’s hell would have broadband access and would be overrun with bloggers and podcasters. (p36)
This is a very distinctive view of the “amateur.” It is not, however, quite the “traditional meaning of the word.” The OED defines an amateur as follows:
1. One who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.; 2. a. One who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker. b. Often prefixed (in apposition) to another designation, as amateur painter, amateur gardener.; 3. a. Hence attrib. almost adj. Done by amateurs. Cf. amateur gardener with amateur gardening.; b. Used disparagingly. Cf. sense 2.
Keen’s thus relying upon not the “traditional meaning” (which I agree is “clear”), but on a “sometimes used disparaging” meaning. No doubt that meaning is also clear. But it is far from the ordinary sense of the word, and indeed, far from its origin, which is one who does what he does for the love of what he does, and not for the money.
It is an interesting fact about what our culture has become that we can so quickly be led away from this original meaning to the disparaging. Shaw notwithstanding, it was not always so obvious that an amateur should be belittled. Consider, for example, the words of John Phillip Sousa. In an essay criticizing the rise of “mechanical music,” Sousa laments the lost of capacity in ordinary citizens to create and share music:
“This wide love for the art springs from the singing school, secular or sacred; from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people. There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world, and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers who have patiently taught the children and inculcated a love for music throughout the various communities. [And when machines produce music?] And what is the result? The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes with-out the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely… The tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant.” Sousa, The Menace of Mechanical Music, Appleton’s Magazine 9 (1906).
Sousa is lamenting exactly the dynamic that Keen is praising — the loss of “amateurism” from our culture. And I take it Keen would be praising what Sousa laments — the disappearance of this amateur culture.
I’m with Sousa on this, and quite against Keen. I think it is a great thing when amateurs create, even if the thing they create is not as great as what the professional creates. I want my kids to write. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop reading Hemingway and read only what they write. What Keen misses is the value to a culture that comes from developing the capacity to create — independent of the quality created. That doesn’t mean we should not criticize works created badly (such as, for example, Keen’s book, at least if you don’t adopt the self-parody interpretation of it). But it does mean you’re missing the point if you simply compare the average blog to the NY Times.