The Cult of the Amateur

If you’re looking for a thoughtful discussion of amateurs vs. experts in the world of Web 2.0, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur isn’t it. It starts out as a rant against amateurism, which Keen equates with incompetence. Obviously, this is a fallacious argument. (The book is a series of those.)

Not only that, but he doesn’t even agree with his own argument. For example, it’s highly doubtful that any of the record store sales clerks that he reveres were professional musicologists. Rather, they were knowledgeable amateurs who took sales positions at record stores because they liked music! The book is full of conflicting arguments like this. Keen protests that he’s not a Luddite but his concerns say otherwise. On one hand, he derides high schoolers editing Wikipedia. On the other, he reveres the same high schooler when he’s working in an indie record store. The only possible conclusion: his issue is not with an amateur music lover showing off his knowledge but with that knowledge being shown off online.

He considers the average person to be an idiot who can’t tell a personal blog from CNN or the NY Times and who is therefore constantly in peril of conflating Joe Blow’s opinions with those of professional journalists. Not only is this ridiculous (ok, there are probably some people who are just that dumb, but it’s obviously not true for the majority of people), but while he criticizes the bias of the amateur, he is completely uncritical of the bias of the professional. Ahem. As I think is pretty clear to the average person sitting at home watching cable news, just because someone is getting paid to talk about news on TV doesn’t make them unbiased.

He argues that buying music from Tower Records (now-defunct music store) = good! Buying music from iTunes = bad. Renting movies from Blockbuster? Good! Netflix? Bad. The hell? I mean, if his actual concern is people “stealing” intellectual property, then he shouldn’t have a preference where or how they obtain it, as long as they do in fact pay for it. He also makes such a big deal about people buying singles on iTunes, like singles are some kind of online invention (!) that’s an affront to musicians. With arguments like these, he betrays his own bias as someone who simply doesn’t want people to buy stuff online.

He is pro-corporation, expecting readers to feel bad for mega-corporations such as Disney. Seriously? Disney? The same Disney that is pretty much single-handedly responsible for crazy copyright extensions? Right.

We must keep content creators and content consumers separate, he argues. Really? Really? Give me a break. Elitist much? Sure, there’s a lot of crap online. Sure, there are legitimate issues with respect to content creation and how creators should be compensated (believe me, this is an issue I’m interested in), but the idea that only a certain class of people are allowed to create and everyone else should just sit down and shut up and consume? [censored]

Why does Jane Doe posting how-to-crochet tutorials on YouTube or John Smith blogging about the exploits of his family bother him so much? If he’s not interested in these things, he doesn’t have to “consume” them. But it seems to bother him that they exist. Or rather, that he knows they exist. Because average people have always created things, they just weren’t so visible to the elites. His big issue seems to be that he is forced to acknowledge their presence. And, of course, that their presence (content) might be competition for his.

Do I think that, if someone is an expert, their views on their subject of expertise should be given more weight than that of non-expert? Sure. But what makes someone an “expert”? Credentials? Paid employment? Being knowledgeable about a subject? Being skilled at something? What Keen seems to miss is that a) a person can be both an amateur and an expert on a subject, b) not all professionals are experts (i.e. a person might hold a paid position, but not be very knowledgeable or skilled), c) people can obtain knowledge & skills through means other than formal education & employment, and most importantly: d) every professional starts out as an amateur. You don’t get good at something by passively “consuming.” You get good by trying, doing, creating, learning, experimenting. Yeesh.

Oh wait. He didn’t actually miss that because in his acknowledgments at the end of the book he actually admits that he, writing his first book, is an amateur. So, it’s ok that he (an amateur) writes a book putting down amateurs (as well as the general population), but it’s not ok that other amateurs write (or make videos or whatever) about subjects they’re interested in? How can he not see that he’s doing exactly what he doesn’t want others to do? What makes him so special?

Finally, perhaps a bigger problem than anything I’ve discussed here is, after a few chapters, Keen veers wildly off-topic, digressing into discussions of such things as IP theft, privacy, identity theft, online gambling, online porn, and parental controls. I guess he ran out of things to say to support his stated thesis. Overall, it’s a shallow and flawed argument. Disappointing.