Death by Amateurs?

Last weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine has declared this the Amateur’s Hour, an era when unpaid hobbyists can edit breaking news, design space technology for NASA, and predict the end of the world. That last article is clearly an outlier, but the first two raise an interesting point—are we getting better service from processes like Wikipedia than we did from traditional, top-down hierarchies?

This is a debate that’s been going on for the past couple of years under the guise of Web 2.0, culminating in the “You” economy announced with much fanfare by Time Magazine last December. In that debate, the battle lines are clearly drawn between the YouTube-using, Google Map-mashing enthusiasts and the skeptics, like aJaron Lanier, who predicts a form of Digital Maoism. In that version of the argument, bloggers are either citizen journalists or incompetent muckrakers clogging the pores of the body politic.

Now the debate seems to have moved into a wider circle—the realm of the amateur versus the professional, with or without the internet. Major outfits from Netflix to NASA have been trying to outsource some of their trickiest problems to the general public, which is as bizarre as it is exciting. Andrew Keen, arguably the most Web 2.0-enabled critic of Web 2.0, is well-placed to combat the Times coverage with his new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture, which he describes as a polemic against all of the monkeys with typewriters and webcams (that is, us) the Internet has now unleashed upon civilization.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that “real culture” is drowning in a sea of YouTube. If there’s one thing we’re trying to do at Open Culture, it’s to harness Web 2.0 technologies to bring you the best stuff there is: top-notch content from universities, cultural programs and online media around the world. The fact that it might be created by anyone, for anyone doesn’t necessarily make it bad or good—our job as a Web 2.0 filter is to sort that out for you and offer our best suggestions.

Keen’s self-promotional energy is an excellent example of how technology can enhance the great conversation. He’s arguing his case everywhere from Google’s HQ (watch here on YouTube) to the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. A multiplicity of viewpoints creates debate, and debate is generally a good thing. If there’s one lesson to be learned from “real culture” it’s that life’s great questions don’t have neat or satisfying answers. Interesting conversation is about the best we can hope for, so why not invite more people to join in?


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