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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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.