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David Weinberger

David Weinberger

Posted: August 16, 2007 06:23 PM

Andrew Keen's Best Case


Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, is a media heat-seeking missile. How could they not feature an author -- a former dot-com guy no less -- who says that the Internet is killing our culture, as his subtitle puts it? Even better, the culture the Internet is supposedly killing is the mass media's presented in its best light -- the home of poetry, opera and fine journalism.

The problem is that, although his conclusion is strong, Keen's actual argument is obscure. In his book and talks -- to his credit, he has been on a debate tour, taking the best shots of defenders of the Webby way of life -- Keen is so eager to show that the Internet is killing our culture that he dredges up every Net problem he can. After he's thrown against the wall most of the known varieties of pasta, from elbow macaroni to spinach linguine, we're left with a big soggy pile on the floor, and just a few bits that have stuck.

Keen has stated in public that his book is a polemic. Nothing wrong with that -- except that in his zeal he irresponsibly misrepresents the ideas of people like Dan Gillmor and Larry Lessig. But, Keen's is an undisciplined polemic. He hurts his own argument by indiscriminately waggling his finger at everything bad he can find on the Web. As a result, you can come out of the book or a talk thinking that Keen is arguing the Web is filled with nothing but lies, boasts, porn and trivialities. The conversation then follows a predictable course. We respond by listing some of the more remarkable sites on the Web, and by arguing with his characterization of this or that site -- BoingBoing or Wikipedia, for example -- as without merit. Then we start to list all the Britney- and Paris-based mainstream tabloid newspapers and the "Who Wants to Have Sex with a Supermodel" TV shows.

That's the wrong rabbit hole to jump down. Clearly, Keen doesn't think all of the Web and all blogs are bad. After all, he writes a blog. And no sane person could argue that every single Web site is nothing but trash. Keen, in his rush to amass every anti-Web argument he can, leaves himself open to that interpretation, but it's the weakest way to take his argument.

Probably because my own book [PLUG ALERT] Everything Is Miscellaneous points to some positive effects the Internet is having on the authority traditionally vested in those who have filtered and organized our ideas and works, I've been asked to debate Andrew a few times. (You can read an extended email debate here, and see a video here.) As a result, I think I now see the actual argument Keen is making, one that explains some of his puzzling pronouncements, such as his fear that Web 2.0 is leading us back to the Middle Ages.

I'm not entirely sure that I'm unearthing what his book says or what, afterwards, Keen thinks it should have said. This is my attempt to reconstruct his argument sympathetically based on his book and discussions.

His argument has two parts. First, there's his positive depiction of the traditional situation, which he refers to as "modernity," as in "I am a modernist."

1.1 mark hopkins Our Western tradition has developed an "ecosystem" for developing talent (a scarce resource) and disseminating its fruit. Without nurturing, talent is generally worthless. The modern ecosystem includes talent scouts who discover the talent, teachers and editors who develop it, and organizations that make the masses aware of these works.

1.2 This ecosystem depends on an economic system that rewards the nurturers, the polishers, and the disseminators. (Because there's money involved, Keen thinks of this as a system that produces professionals.)

1.3 The existing ecosystem works. Talent is discovered and polished. Great works are brought into being. The masses are given maximal access.

1.4 The ecosystem not only develops talent, it guides the masses to talent's works, and steers the masses away from that which has no merit (if only because that without merit does not make it through the ecosystem).

1.5 This is not just about the arts. We have an ecosystem also for producing and "polishing" knowledge.

1.6 The ecosystem therefore democratizes culture in a meaningful way, by enabling the development of worthwhile cultural and intellectual works, making those works broadly accessible, and guiding the masses to them.

The second half of his argument points to the failure of the Web, and of Web 2.0 in particular. (He seems to mean by "Web 2.0" the Web in which anyone can participate as a creator; to me that is simply the Web.)

Keen's argument against the Web is simple:

2.1 Culture is moving onto the Web. It's where the masses spend their time.

2.2 Talent is scarce. It needs to be found by scouts and developed by editors. That is, it needs an ecosystem like the modern media's.

2.3 The Web has provided no alternative ecosystem for turning talent into polished works.

2.4 The Web therefore has produced nothing that has a value equivalent to what's produced by the traditional ecosystem.

2.5 Even if it has (and Keen seems ambivalent about this point -- he told me in conversation that he can't imagine the Web has produced anything of the sustained quality as a book by Christopher Hitchens, after whom Keen seems to model himself), the masses are not given the guidance they need to find it. So, while Web digerati may be having a grand time wallowing in high culture, the masses are left with works that are worse than what they had in the mainstream.

2.6 This includes not just cultural works, but also ideas, knowledge and information.

2.7 Therefore, the Web is anti-democratic: Fewer valuable works are produced because there's no ecosystem for their production, and without the experts and authorities to guide them, the masses are stuck randomly poking around YouTube for videos of happy cat accidents. Thus, the Web is rolling back modernity's affordance of mass access to the best of culture -- and may, Keen fears, result in the restoration of a feudal class system when it comes to culture and knowledge.

2.8 The digerati don't recognize this state of affairs, says Keen, because they are Web experts by definition, and thus can find what is of value on the Web.

That, I believe is Keen's best case.

We should, as the estimable Clay Shirky suggests, take Keen's challenge seriously.

At it's most general, Keen's question is: What are we giving up as we make this cultural transition? That is an important question, and Keen is far from the first to raise it, either in general or about particular Web artifacts. But, to take Keen seriously means to take Keen's particular argument seriously.

There is truth, of course, in the first half of Keen's argument. He's right that the traditional ecosystem develops talent and disseminates its work. He's right that the ecosystem results in a pretty steady diet of valuable works; he points to the New York Times hardcover non-fiction bestsellers list, and, yup, there's lots of good stuff on it. He's right that the era of mass communications has meant that the masses (his term, although he is aware that it's politically incorrect) have access to our culture's great works. No, not everyone can afford box seats at the Met, but compared to the pre-modern period, the access is indeed mass.

But, it's not enough to point out that the modern ecosystem produces some gems. The modern mass ecosystem produces some gems and a whole lot of crap. As Keen acknowledges frequently in public, his book is overly optimistic about what comes out of the media ecosystem -- all those cries of "Britney!" and "Paris!" have apparently gotten to him.

That the ecosystem produces gems also doesn't tell us that it produces as many gems as it could. For example, one could say that the medieval educational system was an ecosystem that turned out scholars of undisputed brilliance. True, but think how much better off we are now that our universities accept "riffraff" such as women, the poor, and the non-white.

The real question is comparative. The hidden premise of Keen's first argument is that the modern ecosystem is the best or only way to nurture talent and provide mass access to its works. If that were the case, then any change would necessarily be a degradation. But Keen not only hasn't shown that, we all know too much about mass media -- how much more do you know about Paris Hilton than you want to? -- to believe it for an instant.

Unfortunately, the comparative question is really really hard to address. Ignore those who say the Web is nothing but a utopia -- Keen sometimes argues against that view, but that's a strawperson -- and we'll also ignore those who say that mass media is a dystopia that produces absolutely nothing of value. That way we can ignore the "Oh yeah? How about The Sopranos?" vs. the "Oh yeah? How about Wikipedia?" dueling banjos. Are the masses better off with the Web when it comes to knowledge and culture? And is the level of culture and knowledge itself improved by the Web? And since these are impossibly knotty questions -- cultural transitions alter the very values by which culture is judged -- we should ask them within the context of Keen's argument.

So, let's look at Keen's argument against the Web.

The key is 2.2: Talent is scarce and thus needs something like the traditional ecosystem to be found, refined and made accessible.

I've twice made the mistake of telling Keen that he has a Romantic view of talent, and he has twice corrected me. He does not believe in genius. On the contrary, he believes that talent needs to be nurtured and refined if it is to produce anything worthwhile. Cheerleaders for the Web are the ones who believe talent just needs a way to express itself, Keen says, with justice. Nevertheless, I think Keen's argument goes wrong on this issue.

a. Keen's right (in my view) that talent does require refinement, education, training, editing and mentoring to achieve its full potential. (We'll skip Mozart.) But, the traditional channels for doing so are not necessarily the only ones.

b. No one that I know of is calling for the closing of all the traditional institutions that nurture talent. The art schools are going to stay open. Publishers are going to continue to publish works that they have selected and edited, even as those works move onto the Web as their primary medium. Now, Keen is right that some institutions are indeed threatened by the Web. Newspapers are struggling. If they start to fail, the craft of journalism may suffer, as Keen fears. Likewise, the recording industry is obviously at risk in the new ecosystem, although I find it harder to make a positive case for value of the recording industry. But, Keen's point is hardly news. And it is far from clear that the craft of journalism and the craft of music (and sound engineering) will fail as their traditional institutions fail

c. During the discussion at Supernova, Brad Templeton [LINK] made a crucial point. Canada's hockey players kick the U.S.'s asses (Canadian Templeton asserted) even though the U.S. has ten times Canada's population, not because Canada set out to develop the talent of hockey playing. Rather, Canadian parents strap skates on their kids' feet because hockey is a fun sport lots of Canadians play. So -- to continue using Templeton's example -- in ten years, the general quality of YouTubes will improve because so many kids are making videos, they'll mentor each other and learn from each other, teaching sites will emerge, high schools will start teaching how to create videos...because YouTubing is a fun sport lots of kids play. The point is that talent isn't distributed the way gem stones are distributed in soil. Rather, talent emerges into an ecosystem that values that talent. The means for refining talent likewise emerge. The top-down model that says worthwhile works can only emerge if the finite set of those with talent go through settled institutions does not describe how talent emerges even in the traditional ecosystem.

d. Keen draws too strict a line between works of talent and everything else. This line is an artifact of the economics of paper: Since it's expensive to produce works in the traditional economy, we only produce a relative handful. Publication strictly differentiates worthy works from the unworthy. But, when it is suddenly and astoundingly easy to publish works, we lose that artificial line. The short story that couldn't make it through the publishing gates -- and for short stories these days that gate is about the size of the eye of a needle -- may still have some value. A story may appeal greatly to a small audience. It may be moving even if the grammar is poor. It may be of historic or sociological importance. Talent is not either/or. Art is not either/or. Rejection slips are either/or.

e. Keen assumes that the replacement ecosystem has to be commercial. That's why he sees the world of talent divided between professionals and amateurs, whereas the real distinctions are the sliding, multi-dimensional scales of good and bad, worthy and unworthy, means-nothing-to-me and touches me. So, Keen spends a chapter trying to refute the economics of the Long Tail as championed in Chris Anderson's book of that name, as if that were the only alternative economic model. He thus misses the most fundamental phenomenon of the Web: The explosion of new ways to nurture, disseminate and discover talent -- including the collaborative economics that Yochai Benkler definitively expounds in The Wealth of Networks. Some of these new processes are formal and familiar, including sites like this one that have editors and editorial processes and the Public Library of Science that peer reviews its articles. Some are collaborative, such as Wikipedia, where a roughhouse of mentoring teaches people how to contribute well. Others use crowd-pleasing as a criterion that teaches one how to shape one's works. Some pay in money and some pay in other forms of social compensation. As a result, the quality and reliability of the works that are created vary. But we quickly learn how to find the works with the qualities we're after, for that is a requirement for the survival of the sites that are offering us these works.

Keen has confused talent with that which the modern ecosystem publishes. The modern ecosystem takes the economic strictures within which it operates as strictures on talent itself. With the removal of those strictures, talent is able to emerge that otherwise would be lost. The result is a much broader ecosystem in which the works of talent are spread across multiple gradients.

But that leads us to Keen's last challenge: How are we going to replace the system by which authorities lead the masses to the works worth attending to? Keen looks out across the Web and sees a flat sea of crap, although he does admit there are occasional tiny islands of merit too far for most of us to swim to.

Yes, looked at from the top down, and ignoring the topology of links -- a predictable clustering around heavily linked-to sites, as documented by Albert- Laszlo Barabasi and Shirky -- the Web may seem like an undifferentiated sea, but we never see it top down. That's because the history of innovation on the Web has been driven largely by our need to find what's interesting, important, beautiful, pleasurable, funny or just so annoying that you have to read it to believe someone would actually post it. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web so that we could easily create a clustered architecture, not a flat one, in which pages recommend other pages and explain why they are doing so. Tagging and social networks are only the most recent tools we've given ourselves for keeping the Web from being flat. Because of the Web's scale -- a result of the ease with which we can add to it unconstrained by the economics of paper -- we are always going to be inventing new ways to find what's of value. The Web isn't flat. It's lumpy. And it's just going to keep getting lumpier.

I think that's one reason so many of us find Keen's book frustrating. It's like reading an argument against democracy that keeps pointing at how many people there are and how much they disagree with one another. That's not an argument against democracy. That's the problem democracy was invented to solve. Likewise, the Web was invented to solve the problem of scale. The difference from democracy is that the Web just keeps growing and we keep inventing new ways to keep it lumpy.

Keen's best case largely fails. It's strongest at pointing to the strengths of the modern ecology. Some institutions that have nurtured talent are likely to go bankrupt. We do not yet have replacements for some of them, and it's possible that for some of them, no economic model will emerge that will enable them to continue. But that's simply to say what we all already know: The music publishers are failing, newspapers are at risk, book publishing and Hollywood blockblusters may be next. Keen is right to focus our attention on what we may lose. But, it will be different in each case. The replacement for the music studios may be new ways to share music, the replacement for newspapers may be a handful of news syndicates and lots of edited feeds, the replacement for weekly opera broadcasts may be continual feeds of out of copyright recordings. We don't yet know because we haven't finished invented them. And beyond directing our attention to the fact that our institutions are in transition -- a fact only hermits haven't yet gotten -- Keen's best case does not steer us toward a clearer understanding of the situation or its possibilities. Worse, Keen's worst case -- the pasta he flings indiscriminately -- makes it harder, not easier, to have the discussion we need to be having.

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