New rule: Books that are short on good ideas should only get short reviews. And so that’s what we’re serving up today — a short review of Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World is Assaulting Our Culture.
Keen’s argument can essentially be boiled down to this: Web 2.0 has brought us blogs, Youtube-style video, Wikipedia and other platforms that promote user-generated content, and it’s all killing our Culture. Hacks are now cranking out “an endless digital forest of mediocrity;” “the professional is being replaced by the amateur… the Harvard professor by the unschooled populace;” “kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com;” “every posting is just another person’s version of the truth;” with the net result being that in “today’s culture of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show.” Using his own words, that’s the gist of Keen’s argument.
You’d think that by positioning himself as the defender of high culture and cultural authority, Keen would uphold his end of the bargain. That is, you’d expect him to offer us a nuanced, carefully-crafted look at the uses and abuses of Web 2.0. But that is not what you get here. Missing the mark, The Cult of the Amateur is long on hyperbolic rhetoric (see above) and short on subtle thinking and balance. It stretches out arguments that ought to fill a 15 page article to 215 pages, and reiterates the same points again and again. (Although targeted to the business community, the book places no premium on efficiency.) And then you have sprinkled in various dilettantish references to philosophers (Marx, Rousseau, Habermas, etc.), coupled with sloppy readings of other contemporary media observers.
The ultimate irony is that Keen’s polemic against amateur content comes off as strangely amateurish. It’s mostly operating at the same level as the very blogosphere he’s attacking. And this impression only gets confirmed by his admission in the acknowledgments: “I confess that, as a writer, I remain a bit of an amateur. This is my first book, and I’m still learning the craft of this complex business.” Apparently, the divide between traditional media and digital media, between high culture and low culture, is not as real and impermeable as Keen would have us believe.
If anyone wants my copy of Keen’s book, just let me know. I will send it anywhere in the US at book rate. But be warned that it has some illegible marginalia, and my kid doodled on one page (page 40), unbeknownst to me. But think of it this way: You get what you don’t pay for. Our email address is in the banner above. First come, first served.