I had a chance to listen to Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur, last Tue at the RSA. I haven’t yet read the book, but judging from the excerpts chosen and read out by the author himself at the event, I would put his book on the one end of an imaginary shelf in my head, with James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Pierre Lévy’s L’intelligence collective and Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture on the far opposite end. To me, the discussion between gloomy Keen (if not grumpy!) and Tim Montgomerie, with us the audience taking on either side, was a UK/US version of the D-War debate in many senses. Keen was very worried about “the dumbing down of culture” owing to this whole Web 2.0 fever. He said the Web 2.0 phenomenon is an indication of a bigger crisis of cultural authority. (I guess this makes him the US equivalent of Professor Jin in the D-War debate. 🙂 )
The one-and-a-half-hour session turned out to be, as well predicted by the Chair, such a heated debate. I understand that in general Keen’s argument is not loved by everyone. He has been called many things including “a failed Web 1.0 entrepreneur”, “a blog-hating blogger”, “control freak”, and even a digital Nazi. Despite all his judgemental comments regarding YouTube and MySpace made there I don’t agree with, I wouldn’t say he was “trashing online amateurs just to sell his book”, like some in the audience accused him of. I kind of saw his point when he asked the audience why there is no such thing as citizen surgeons or citizen chefs but only citizen journalists. 😀 Yes, he simply genuinely believes in professional training and gate-keeping. To him, the argument of the ‘potential’ of online amateurism is a 21C version of the infinite monkey theorem. In other words, we will never find the next Pavarotti from YouTube narcissists. Through this lens of his, producing and publishing media content is way too easy in this Web 2.0 era. Professional journalists with hard-earned knowledge no longer have privileges that they deserve. And people are not willing to pay money and respect for cultural products. How appalling[!].
I would still need more to be convinced than the infinite monkey metaphor though. So what does he want exactly? Would he rather amateurs not have cyberspaces, like Elton John wants the Internet closed down? I must admit I expected more sophistication from the author than “poor countries have rosy ideas about the Internet because they haven’t experienced online porn and gambling yet” or “kids brought up to Web 2.0 culture wouldn’t be able to tell advertising from actual content like we do in the old media where there are clear commercial breaks“. I think I will stick with Ronda Hauben’s take on this matter for now, which is that it’s not about amateurs replacing professionals but it is an extension of who is able to contribute to what is considered as media content. (Keen would probably never see this post, but I guess this makes me to him “an IP commie” [Apparently he once called Lawrence Lessig one] who doesn’t have enough online experience.)
BTW, my absolute personal favourite moment this time was when, in the Q&A session, a managing director from the Britannica defended Wikipedia while Keen was tearing it down. I am glad I was there. 😛