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Friday, August 10, 2007


The Devil Wears Prada, For Nerds

Book Review: Andrew Keen, ‘The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy’ (2007)

Andrew Keen has been described by one UK technology journalist as being the possible “Martin Luther” of the Internet counter-reformation. Yet that statement, like the majority of the content in Keen’s recently released book, The Cult of the Amateur, is over-exaggerated. If Keen is to be believed, then the end of culture is nigh and the Internet, Web 2.0, bloggers, noble amateurs, YouTube, Jimmy Wales, MySpace, lonelygirl15, Google, and Wikipedia, are to blame. To Keen, Web 2.0 is a classic example of the “infinite monkey theorem”, where, if you put unlimited monkeys in front of unlimited typewriters, one of the monkeys will eventually produce Hamlet. On the Internet, everyone is a monkey, except, of course, Keen.

Keen ‘confesses’ early on in the book that he pursued the dotcom dream, and that he is “an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool-Aid and resigned his membership from the cult” (pp. 11-12). These experiences make him different from the average Internet-user. Over the next 200 pages, Keen provides the reader with colourful, creative, you’ve-probably-heard-them-somewhere-before examples of why Web 2.0 will be the death of creativity and culture. The majority of these examples are, perhaps not surprisingly and disappointingly, United States-focussed. According to Keen, although the Internet has been praised for its democratic underpinnings and the fact that anyone can create their very own Hyde Park soap-box, these features are resulting in the depreciation of the importance and value of ‘experts’ and the impact of traditional media outlets.

I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to tackle everything in The Cult of the Amateur, so I just want to highlight one point. One of the issues that Keen finds most bothersome about Web 2.0 is the fact that individuals are able to remain anonymous, and therefore they will not be held accountable for what they say. Aliases, therefore, are just plain wrong. Keen states that

“Some argue that Web 2.0, and the blogosphere in particular, represents a return
to the vibrant democratic intellectual culture of the eighteen-century London
coffeehouse. But Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell didn’t hide
behind aliases by debating one another.” (at p. 80)
This is true, but in a number of other cases, individuals have used aliases, or pen names, and no one has thought the less of them for doing so. George Eliot is a classic example; Mary Ann Evans knew that it was unlikely her novels would be taken seriously if publishers or readers knew she was a women, so she chose to publish her novels under an alias instead. Similarly, Emily Bronte, who penned arguably one of the most important novels in English literature, also wrote under the name Ellis Bell. Keen spends the majority of the novel espousing the traditional means of cultural creation but, until very recently, many women were forced to use an alias in order to be considered the equivalent of their male peers in this dominant system. Further, throughout The Cult of the Amateur, Keen repeatedly refers to the dystopian nightmare that exists in the fictional novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. But Keen fails to point out that Orwell was in fact an alias, a pen name for Eric Arthur Blair.

It is understandable that, on the Internet, an individual may not feel comfortable publicising their name and therefore chooses to use an alias. It is also a shame that individuals use aliases when they are encouraging non-legitimate conduct (for example, defaming another individual). Most importantly, however, let’s remember that aliases are not an Internet-based phenomenon.

There is more that could be said about The Cult of the Amateur: somebody needs to defend Jimmy Wales, and explain why people lie about their age offline too, just like lonelygirl15. However, in conclusion, if you don’t like what Keen is saying about your web, Web 2.0, don’t get mad: get blogging. One day one of us bloggers is bound to stumble into saying something brilliant! Now, where have Pigsy and Sandy gone....?

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Blogger Catherine Bond said:
International readers may not be aware that Australia is due for a Federal election, which is being hotly contested between John Howard, our Prime Minister for a very long time, and Kevin Rudd. Both Rudd and Howard are using the Internet, including YouTube, to alert voters to their policies. Michelle Grattan has an opinion piece in today's online Sydney Morning Herald that discusses Howard's and Rudd's use of the Internet as a political tool, and the broader ramifications of such conduct in light of Keen's 'The Cult of the Amateur', which can be viewed at:
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