The Cult of the Polemicist, Part One

(This is the first in a series of posts addressing Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur.)

It won’t hit bookstores until June 5, but Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur needs to be thoroughly addressed, at the risk of drawing attention to Mr. Keen’s rapacious craving for attention. Mr. Keen, a one-time “leading visionary in the audio business with almost ten years of experience as an entrepreneur, salesman and writer in the industry”, will be appearing on a panel with several other bloggers at The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, presumably railing against the apparent evils of the current Web climate that he describes in his book. Never mind that Keen prefers speculative broad brushes and tenuous examples, of which more anon, to support his “polemic about the destructive impact of the digital revolution on our culture, economy, and values.” Yeah, it’s all a bit melodramatic, but then, with Keen, one doesn’t expect a nuanced argument.

Keen’s arrogant posturing, which serves in lieu of a reasoned examination of the opposition, begins quite early in the book, on page 2, when he clinks glasses with a web “evangelist” at a Web 2.0 mixer curious about Keen’s book. The evangelist asks what it’s about, offering the perfectly reasonable assertion, “So it’s Huxley meets the digital age.” But, instead of informing this evangelist about his book’s details or even clarifying where he stands, Keen tells his readers that “I knew we were toasting the wrong Huxley,” boasting about T.H. Huxley’s infinite monkey theorem, but he doesn’t bother to let this “evangelist” in. Passive-aggressive arguments along these lines, it seems, are Keen’s specialty.

Apparently, Keen’s ontological tipping point arose because of O’Reilly Media. Keen tells us that, while attending FOO camp, an impromptu meeting of the minds arranged by O’Reilly, “I marched into camp a member of the cult; two days later, feeling queasy, I left an unbeliever.” What caused this apostasy? A mere word uttered by FOO campers, “democratization,” was enough to send Keen quietly raging against “the emptiness at the heart of our conversation.” Keen never investigates what this language might mean, and never stops to consider that general terms are often a place to initiate conversation. Instead, he insists that “[w]e weren’t just there to talk about new media; we were the new media. The event was a beta version of the Web 2.0 revolution, where Wikipedia met MySpace met YouTube.” Never mind that, according to John Battelle, reporting in CNN, there was no agenda at a January 2004 FOO camp until Friday night, “when the attendees made one up on the fly.” A 2005 ZDNet article observed that FOO Camp’s purpose is “to give anyone who wants to come a chance to be around likeminded people and, perhaps, come up with some great new ideas.” If Keen is objecting to the elite feel of FOO Camp (the event is invite-only), then I might understand where he’s coming from. But it is perfectly clear from all documentation that FOO Camp is a brainstorming session among carefully selected attendees — an elitist approach that is hardly the “infinite monkeys” exemplar that Keen is alluding to. In other words, instead of asking questions to understand the climate he’s in, Keen opts to remain an island, perhaps unaware of John Donne’s words on solipsistic temper tantrums.

It is from this example that Keen bemoans the “great seduction” of Web 2.0, suggesting that “the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” This premise would no doubt make Keen and the n+1 boys common allies, for Keen fails to cite any specific examples of these “superficial observations” and “shrill opinion.” Instead, Keen opts for online work representing an “undermining of truth,” pointing to “Al Gore’s Penguin Army” (which Keen misidentifies as “Al Gore’s Army of Penguins,” even though he claims that this is the “exact” title) rightly identifying it as a video originating from the DCI Group, an oil lobbying firm, as uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, representing disingenuous propaganda. But if YouTube represents an “undermining of truth” in toto, then what are we to make of this disturbing video of police brutality at UCLA from last year, which spawned protests and Los Angeles Times coverage? Surely, this demonstrates that the rise of technology is equally beneficial in bringing awareness to underreported issues.

Keen then takes blogs to task for being “vehicles for veiled corporate propaganda and deception” and for “becoming the battlefield on which public relations spin doctors are waging their propaganda war.” Well, that’s certainly news to this blogger. Again, Keen is more taken with the uniform notion that blogs are represented by a handful of blogs that have conducted questionable ethics. But if bloggers are all such shameless shills, why then have there been efforts to create codes of ethics? The issue of transparency and its concomitant criteria isn’t a new one. Why hasn’t Keen considered these efforts in his book (which was authored before the Kathy Sierra incident)? Surely, even accounting for Keen’s complaints, this represents a medium working to apply better standards to its form. Well, that’s where Keen’s ongoing postpartum wankage (his book is pregnant with hasty generalizations) comes to play, where a statement from Tim O’Reilly (see a pattern here?), instead of the code of conduct in question, becomes the launching point for a typical Keen tirade dismissing O’Reilly as “a libertarian spokesman for the NRA.”

Keen does have a point in suggesting that Wikipedia isn’t the experiment it’s cracked up to be, in the sense that this open communal structure has proven, at times, disastrous. (See the unfortunate case of John Seigenthaler, remarkably uncited in Keen’s polemic.) I can also partially agree with Keen’s concerns about blind faith in Google when he writes:

We pour our innermost secrets into this all-powerful search engine through the tens of millions of questions we enter daily. Google knows more about our habits, our interests, our desires than our friends, our loved ones, and our shrink combined.

The problem here, however, is the melodramatic second sentence. Keen’s premise, of Google knowing everything about our personal habits, presumes that every user is typing in queries that pertain to the most intimate feelings they are experiencing. A more judicious thinker might consider (as Keen does not) the case of Robert James Petrick, who was found guilty of first-degree murder after the prosecution entered into evidence what he had searched for on Google. (He had entered the terms “neck,” “snap,” and “break” before committing the murder.) But in a world in which the truly inveterate criminals can use Tor and FoxyProxy to hide their search terms, is this as much of an issue as Keen claims it to be? Further, Keen offers no hard evidence to support his idea that Google search terms are equal to the skeletons in our closet. He merely assumes that every individual is willing to type in their darkest secrets into a random engine and reveal things about themselves that they won’t reveal elsewhere. So we must assume that because Patrick typed in his search terms, this represents all users. This premise isn’t provable in a logical argument. Any statistics or logic student knows that this is a secundum quid proposition.

Keen then takes Lawrence Lessig, William Gibson, and EFF advocates to task for their cutting-and-pasting of technology, without, of course, mentioning the legal remedy of the cease-and-desist letter. He writes:

The value once placed on a book by a great author is being challenged by the dream of a collective hyperlinked community of authors who endlessly annotate and revise it, forever conversing with each other in a never-ending loop of self-references.

This is a quite ridiculous, for this assumes that books are now in the process of becoming extinct, or perhaps in danger of becoming extinct. The value is being challenged? We’re all still paying $24.95 for John Updike’s latest. A trip to any bookstore reveals thousands of books that are quite permanent and unsullied by annotations. And besides, what’s so wrong with scribbling or highlighting in the margins? Is Keen unfamiliar with H.J. Jackson’s charming book Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, in which Jackson pored through numerous books to detect the patterns of marginalia? To offer one example of marginalia’s benefits:

One of the rare cases I have been fortunate enough to find of a barely literate but, on the evidence, adult reader shows similar features. Listed in the Bibliography under “Wesley,” it is actually a heavily used collection of American and English sermons of the later eighteenth century. All the notes are in pencil and by the same uninformed hand. One or two notes in the body of text (“Salvation” as the subject of one of the sermons, for instance) indicate that the owner understood its contents, but practically all the writing is on the front and back flyleaves and endpapers and has nothing to do with the sermons. (19-20)

So we have here an example of the great “challenge” centuries before the Internet even existed: a sermon book in which notes were made to understand the contents, not unlike this Against the Day wiki, in which various individuals are trying to understand Pynchon’s mammoth novel, tracking its many references and coming together to understand Pynchon’s work in much the same way as the illiterate reader recognized “Salvation.” It is by no means foolproof, but the oblique connections might offer partial succor to a reader eager to look up Pynchon’s many references in a library.

Does not the wiki then represent the natural technological extension of marginalia? And what makes this “collective hyperlinked community” any different from the students who have, over the years, offered notes in the margins, sold their books back to campus bookstores, and in turn passed these books on to other students? Shall we slap them on the wrists too?

Keen then assaults Kevin Kelly’s “Scan This Book!” — that article cited and feared by John Updike — and deliberately misinterprets Kelly’s vision of “the liquid version” of books, paraphrasing, “In Kelly’s view, the act of cutting and pasting and linking and annotating a text is as important or more so than the writing of the book in the first place.”

But here’s what Kelly really wrote:

The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.

There’s a fundamental difference between one page “reading” another page and annotations being, in Keen’s decidedly unkeen comprehension, “as important or more so” than a book. Nowhere in the article does Kelly suggest that palpable books as we know it should disappear. And Keen fails to understand that Kelly is not advocating a replacement, but a version of a book that one may or may not choose to annotate as one wishes.

It is from this remarkably clumsy set of assertions that keen declares war on “the advent of the cult of the amateur,” as gleaned through blogs and presumably all those idiots who deign to come online to deconstruct Pynchon. He concludes that all this is “thereby distorting, if not outrightly corrupting, our national civic conversation.” This assumes that the “national civic conversation” is exclusively founded upon online activities. A July 2006 PEW/Internet study (PDF) would suggest otherwise. At last count, 57 million American adults are reading blogs. That’s quite an impressive number, but what of the other 200 million American adults who aren’t reading blogs? Again, Keen rides that happy secundum quid wagon.

Needless to say, I’m only up to page 31. And I have considerably more to say about the book’s balance. Stay tuned.

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