Books

The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

Glenn Harlan Reynolds
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

An extended paean to the lost Golden Age of middlebrow taste-makers and big-media megaphones, and an extended jeremiad against an age in which people are free to make up their own minds, and make their own contributions.


The Cult of the Amateur

Publisher: Doubleday
Subtitle: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture
Author: Andrew Keen
Price: $22.95
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0385520808
US publication date: 2007-06
Amazon

Andrew Keen is an unhappy man. Where once the consumers of news and entertainment knew their role -- to lap up what their betters in the news and entertainment industries produced -- now the consumers are becoming producers, while the producers are making less money, and enjoying less prestige.

That's the theme of Keen's new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, which is basically an extended paean to the lost Golden Age of middlebrow taste-makers and big-media megaphones, and an extended jeremiad against an age in which people are free to make up their own minds, and make their own contributions. Keen is even sad about the declining influence of small-scale taste-makers: He decries the absence of the "deeply knowledgeable Tower clerk" in the world of online record sales, and he seems to think that the musical snobs in the book (and film) High Fidelity were supposed to be appealing characters.

Keen's thesis is that talent is rare and that worthwhile products -- whether we're talking about news reporting, music composition or filmmaking -- can be produced only if that talent is nurtured at great length and filtered to a great extent. Only a long and expensive process of refinement can dispose of the common dross and produce the pure gold of quality work.

This argument would be more impressive if the "quality work" from the big media organizations he describes were, well, golden. Keen references Bach and the Beatles as examples of quality music, but when he complains about the music industry's current travails he doesn't note that today's record industry isn't giving us Bach and the Beatles -- it's giving us Britney. Likewise, he blames Internet piracy for declining movie attendance when the cause appears to be elsewhere: a recent Zogby poll found that people are going to the movies less often because they think the films stink and, in a more literal way, so do the theaters.

Likewise, Keen decries the decline of the news business, invoking Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, without mentioning that today's top newscasters include Dan "Forged Documents" Rather, Katie Couric and Geraldo Rivera. A lesser breed, by any standard. Keen even complains about declining radio listenership leading to financial problems for Clear Channel broadcasting -- a chain many people regard as having ruined radio in America through its imposition of rigid formatting and too many commercials. What Keen sees as a tragedy, many will see as just desserts.

And that's the story of Keen's elites overall. The Golden Age of mass culture didn't end just because the Internet let people do their own thing. It ended because people looked at the low -- and steadily declining -- quality of mass-marketed television, radio, news, films, and music and concluded that they could do better. And they are often right, not necessarily because the amateur productions are so terrific (though sometimes they are), but because the big media productions are so often dreadful.

Like U.S. car companies in the 1970s, the television networks, movie and record studios, newspapers, and radio stations grew comfortable in their protected positions, and forgot how (or just didn't bother) to make good products. Now their market shares are declining, as people find substitutes. And while people in the 1970s had to look to Japan or Germany for substitute cars, they have only to look to the Internet for substitute sources of news and entertainment -- sources that are often, Keen's assertions notwithstanding, just as good as their traditional versions. (Amateur embedded bloggers such as Michael Yon, Michael Totten, Bill Roggio or Bill Ardolino, for example, are producing some of the very best reporting from Iraq, supported by ads on their blogs and donations from their readers, not by big media organizations.)

I'll skip over Keen's extended Grandpa-Simpson-like rant regarding the dangers of Internet porn and gambling to note that once the hysteria subsides he manages to make a few points that are actually correct. As Keen finally admits, the technology is here to stay, and we have to learn to deal with it. There are dangers: Internet content can be less trustworthy, and is probably more susceptible to gaming by interested parties than is traditional publishing. But the Internet also responds quickly to abuse: Keen mentions the famous "miserable failure" googlebomb aimed at President Bush, but in fact Google has revised its algorithms to make googlebombs drastically less effective, and that one is now history. The learning curve on the Internet is steep. Perhaps Keen will figure that out by his next book.

Power corrupts. Big media power corrupted big media, which is why the institutions Keen mourns have lost their preeminent positions in American society. No doubt "little media" power will corrupt the blogosphere and other amateur pursuits to some degree, though the diffusion of power there will likely make that corruption less potent. Regardless, Keen -- since he admits that the new world is here to stay -- would be better served trying to come up with ways to make the new world better, than by ranting on behalf of a world that is now history.

___

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at Instapundit.com.

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