Not a review of Cult of the Amateur

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Months ago I set out to read Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen, Doubleday 2007. I want to review this book but I can't because it makes me so angry I can't finish it. I fling it across the room and leave it for weeks before I try again. So far I've made to page 19. I can't recall when I last read such an irrationally emotive, ill-informed, unbalanced diatribe. I even include here my own writings. What makes it worse is that my own opinions are not that far from the author's - I should be a cheerleader. But he just talks crap.

It should be a hilarious book because it defeats its own argument. If the internet provides a platform for the opinionated to push unreasonable positions based on unresearched drivel, then this book is the same, delivered using traditional print media. It is not the medium that corrupts the message - books are capable of exactly what this one accuses the internet, and it is itself a prime example.

Of course the book also accuses the internet of corrupting the nation's youth, much the same accusation that equally hysterical writers in the past threw at playstations, video games, video, arcade games, tv, pinball, pool, cars, motorbikes and for all I know Monopoly, card games and chess. The book doesn't corrupt with vice (ooooh vice) but it does corrupt with something worse: emotive text, bad information and fuzzy thinking.

As Clive James would say (The Dreaming Swimmer, Clive James, Jonathan Cape 1992) this is yet another " version of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book which in the US gets published every five years or so, with predictable press reaction... It is an open question whether the worst game show is more culturally damaging than, say, gladatorial game shows were for Augustan Rome or bear-bating for Elizabethan England... My younger daughter loves [game shows], and I cannot see how that passion is destroying her character, her reading skills or her reason."

As I say, I can't get past the first twenty pages without yelling at nearly every one of them, so I can't speak for the rest of the book. Nor will I as I have no intention of finishing this bilge. It has all the classics of similar button-pushing prejudiced sensationalist trash. We have:

  • The absurd linear extrapolation of a trend: "fifty-three million blogs on the internet and this number is doubling every six months.. there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion", ignoring that in the unliklely event of this coming true the average blog will have about four readers.
  • The totally unsubstantiated generalisation about the younger generation: "These days, kids can't tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on". Given that the world's three objective professional journalists account for about .05% of the world's journalism, most kids have never seen objective professional journalism anyway. But I think they are a lot more savvy than the patronising Mr Keen gives them credit for... or at least they are no more gullible than the bulk of their elders, who continue to lap up the New Age, alternative medicine, women's magazines and television. The destruction of the collective intellect has been going on a lot longer than just this millenium, and it orginates not in media but in the hijack of western education systems by post-modernist idiots.
  • Ignorantly false information: "Since Wikipedia's birth...three million entries... none of them edited or vetted for accuracy" ...wrong... "...a more trusted source for news than the CNN or BBC Web sites" it isn't
  • Emotive abusive diatribes: "Youtube eclipses even the blogs in the inanity and absurdity of its content. Nothing seems too too prosaic or narcissic for these videographer monkeys"
  • Selective anecdotal examples that are not representative of the far greater typical body: " hugely popular video called "the Easter Bunny Hates You" showed... A few other favourite subjects include..."
  • Illogical non-sequiteurs: "...people are buying less music too. thanks to the rampant digital piracy...sales dropped.." They are just buying less you idiot: they are probably listening more, thanks to the integration of the internet and the iPod. "Disney for example announced 650 job cuts..." How a decline in Disney's business represents a decline in public intelligence is beyond me.

There is more, way too much more. These examples came from just a few pages. It is crap. Don't read it. I didn't.

(For a demolition of this twaddle far superior to my humble effort here, see Lessig)


More criticism

More from Citizendium

its argument is unfortunately weakened by the fact that Keen is so over-the-top and presents more of a caricature of a position than carefully-reasoned discourse. The book is often well written, and presents many thought-provoking arguments and entertaining factoids, but it is also full of non-sequiturs, simplistic narratives, and outright inaccuracies

Have we become a Read Write world?

I saw a presentation on Ted.Com about the changing world of copyrights....I can look up the exact reference if needed.

But the content was intriguing. The premise is that since approximately 1930 onwards for entertainment we have lived in a read only world. People consume their entertainment (and by extrapoloation research) as written. That is, they buy the movie, nbook or watch television as created. It is a passive read only environment.
However, with the advent of Youtube and other sharing environments, we have moved back to a read write world. Escpecially the youth are viewing movies, advertisements, pop culture as something they participate in, modify and adapt. (See editted versions of Star Wars sans Jar Jar etc, or viral commercials)

The point is that the world has changed; information is veiwed as being maleable. People are becoming participants in how the message is shaped.

lowest common denominator

My issue with Keen is with how badly he wrote the book and his absurd apocalyptic conclusion. I actually broadly agree that the quality of the result of such a read-write product tends towards the lowest common denominator and lower quality. The Wikipedia entry on ITIL shows that right now. Does a public hacking of Star Wars result in a better movie? Even if it is better, is that the point? What about the artistic vision of the creator?

I see the value of participatory content being in gathering a collectivist view, not in the finished result. For example, I've been critical of OGC for not doing something along those lines when developing ITIL V3 in order to get broad input and a clearer view of consensus, but I wouldn't for a moment suggest they publish the result. The expert editors and the review process are as essential as the collective input.

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