I read a very interesting book review today at the Academic Commons.

“Andrew Keen insists he is neither anti-technology nor anti-progress. Yet this veteran of the dot com era begins his recent book, The Cult of the Amateur…sounding much like a high-culture snob pooh-poohing the vulgar masses for having appropriated the Web as their own and, in the process, wreaking potential destruction on our economy, culture and values. “

Interestingly, the author of the review (Cheryl Casey) resisted the temptation to chuck the book, and dug deeper. In fact, I found much of what she describes from this ranty screed of a book to be extremely interesting.

For example, think of the whole female science blogger thing going on, and then read this:

“Web 2.0 vests the noble amateur with the power to define at whim what is legitimate knowledge. Keen observes that such knowledge generation amounts to digital narcissism: we broadcast ourselves on social networking sites, link to others who confirm our own views, and click on the same links that everybody else does because they are at the top of the search list.”

In other words, we choose to be with people like ourselves, and actively avoid things that don’t fit our world view. I don’t hang out at Fundamentalist chat rooms–I go to a skeptical forum. I’ve stopped reading one science blogger because I found his comments sexist.

“community and common conversation are threatened by our tendencies to seek information that mirrors our own biases and strong, but uninformed, opinions. Much of the time, laments Keen, we don’t even know from whom we are getting this information, which erodes the trust that is the foundation of community: ‘If our national conversation is carried out by anonymous self-obsessed people unwilling to reveal their real identities, then…community degenerates into anarchy’ (p. 80). “

Hey! As an anonymous, self-obsessed person, I resemble that remark!

As some involved in skepticism, I can also side with Keen when he laments the way in which actual expertise is easily displaced by anyone with a high Google rank.

“…the author asserts that when the work of talented professionals and intellectuals is undermined, we are left with an ear-splitting cacophony where any professional is just another voice among millions.”

The lies about Rachel Carson and DDT are a classic example–a few individuals with a political agenda have effectively blanketed the internet with their propaganda, while actual scientists are hardly present at all.

So, what does this mean for us, the internet users? Are we doomed to become a culture dominated by random information with no sources?

Unfortunately, neither Keen or his reviewer have a clear answer.
And don’t look at me for one!

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. I define at whim “legitimate knowledge” to be that sort of knowledge which is legitimized by rigorous empirico-rationalist investigation. So there.

    And as a fellow who writes under his own name, discusses his everyday life only when it strikes him as particularly amusing, and prefers to discuss the intellectual matters in which he has received formal training from one of the most renowned institutions in the world, I resent blanket generalizations.

  2. I didn’t like his book, but my opinion of him went up a notch when I saw him speak recently. He acknowledged what I thought was the book’s biggest weakness, which was that he romanticised old media, as if the film business was all about Truffaut and Godard, and everyone read the Guardian or New York Times.

    He can’t see the virtues of Web 2’s collaborative methods, which for instance enable a science amateur like me to access fascinating material through professionals like yourself and the people on the Science Blogs, but he does make a crucial point.

    When I think about the economics of the Internet, I’m struck by the way it could cut right through the whole corporate baggage train, and eliminate the need for factories to print papers and magazines in, presses to make CDs or DVDs, trucks and trains to move it all about, shops to sell them in – the whole caboodle. Gone would be the acres of pine forest replacing deciduous woodland. There would be less ugly new shops defacing our town centres, and less need for juggernauts to haul products to them. Our choice of journalist, and for that matter our choice of film-maker, author or musician, could come directly to us, wherever we are, at a fraction of the cost we currently pay.

    But having eliminated virtually all the costs except for the time and energy of the journalist or creative artist, we’ve yet to provide a decent mechanism to pay for the comparatively small sums of money involved, which means that the creatives are forced back into the arms of big business. That’s the problem he’s identified, and we do need to find solutions to it.

  3. That’s the problem Keen has identified? Hardly an original complaint. Eric Flint has been writing about such issues from a book-publishing standpoint for years.

    You know, the more I think about it, the less I am impressed by that whole “link to others who confirm our own views” thing. Thanks to the science blogging community, I know more about creationists, moon hoax proponents, HIV denialists and other fractured ceramics than I could ever discover on my own, even if I assiduously read the daily paper, watched CNN and patronized my local library on a regular basis. Somehow, against all expectations (or at least those based on a naive understanding) content with which I do not agree reaches me, via people who largely agree with me. All it takes is a mention of copyright bullying on Boing Boing, a single Slashdot item about corporate skullduggery, or a brief Pharyngula post about Intelligent Design, and thousands of people can read the words of people who dispute the readers’ views, all in the time it takes Andrew Keen to drink his grumpy tea.

    Scientists quote creationists all the time.

    “Why, what big blockquotes you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood.

    “The better to fisk you with, my dear!” howled PZ Myers.

  4. Blake: I am imagining PZ with a big frilly bonnet, which is highly amusing :)

    I think there are different flavors of skeptics. Some of them like to go to the homeopathic boards and hang out (they even go into the political forums at JREF!).

    That just isn’t me. I really do avoid sites that make me upset, simply because I get so much of that IRL. I probably shouldn’t be so conflict averse, but I also probably shouldn’t have eaten all that cookie dough this evening either.

    I’m afraid I lean toward the path of least resistance in all things.

  5. Hello again.
    Re: hanging out with someone like ourselves? I subscribe to the WordPress “random” feed (where I first found you) just for that reason.
    I stopped all RSS feeds from my industry because of the A list compulsion you cite.

  6. Sure, skeptics come in all flavors. (That sounds worse than I meant; oh, well.) My own “style” and what I choose to write about depends upon my mood of the day and a considerable amount of random chance — say, if I see a creationist blog linking to me, or something like that. The interesting thing is that we can all benefit from the people who dive into the dark waters, as long as they live to come back and tell the tale.

  7. One of the things that I really like about life in cyberspace is that it affords me the opportunity to examine points of view that differ from my own in ways that don’t make me upset. On most controversial issues, I can find voices out there who express opinions radically different from my own, but who do so in a manner that is articulate and respectful of disagreement. They may not convince me, but they are an excellent resource for learning about viewpoints that differ, often radically from my own. The challenge can be wading through mind-numbing idiocy that makes my head explode while I’m seeking the reasonable voices. But I go back to some of the same resources again and again for information.

  8. About the possible reduced environmental costs that Jon E. touches on: I don’t see technology as actually reducing environmental economic costs, as you still have factories making the rather toxic resource dependent computer. And, of course, the huge issue of where all our used and obsolete computers are trashed. (I do agree that magazines will probably be phased away but I still don’t see anyone reading books on a computer)

    An interesting article here on some of these issues (focused on higher ed mainly, though):

    Click to access s98pg49.pdf

    by C.A. Bowers on “The Paradox of Technology: What’s Gained and Lost?”

  9. I was reading Orac’s post today where he dissects the hype around the acupuncture/back pain story, and it sort of relates to this.
    On the one hand, we have someone pointing out that the media totally missed the point of the study–the sham treatments worked as well as the “real” ones.

    But who reads Orac’s blog? A bunch of scientists and scientifically-minded folks.

    I am torn between enjoying the internet’s wonderful ability to democratize knowledge, and lamenting its annoying ability to broadcast dreck. I really do think there are communities that revolve around small areas of knowledge, and information is very fragmented.

  10. Better a voice “crying in the wilderness” than no voice at all, I’d say.

  11. Oh, I agree.

    Maybe I’m just freaking out at how behind I am in my life, and reading, and projecting?

  12. It sucks to be behind in one’s projecting, I agree. (-:

  13. Wait a minute, let me get this straight…he’s basically saying:

    “People are only going to be interested in the things that they are interested in.”

    Someone get this guy a Nobel Prize!!!

  14. Andrew Keen

    I read a new book.The cult of the amateur.Author is a berk. The cult of the amateur is a bestselling book about how the internet is destroying today’s culture. I used the British slang insult, berk, because he’s a native

  15. Actually shane, I think that’s only half of his complaint. Mostly he’s complaining that “experts” are being drowned out. It’s both annoyingly elitist and…um…kinda true.

    And blake: :D Yeah, I really need a break. When one’s grammar goes, can the rest be far behind?

  16. […] La question principale qu’il convient de se poser face à une information nouvelle est, bien évidemment, “de qui provient-elle?”. La multiplication des possibilités de s’exprimer sur internet (ce que je trouve absolument bénéfique, mais non sans dangers) conduit tout le monde à pouvoir exprimer ses opinions et sa vision des choses. Et concernant l’information scientifique, Bug girl’s se posait l’autre jour une question fondamentale : Internet va-t-il causer notre perte à tous? […]

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