The Cult of the Amateur: A Short Review (and a Free Book)

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;” “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.

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Comments (3)
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  • Tim says:

    Thanks for the offer but I don’t need to read the book. I’ve lis­tened to sev­er­al pod­cast inter­views with Keen and from them received enough of his “hyper­bol­ic rhetoric”.

    His argu­ments are very sim­plis­tic, attempt­ing to toss all “ama­teur” web con­tent pro­duc­ers in the same trash bin. On the oth­er end of things, Keel idol­izes all “pro­fes­sion­al” con­tent pro­duc­ers as if they are all of equal high qual­i­ty.

    Thanks also for recy­cling your copy. I’d hate to have some­one else pay him more mon­ey for his ideas.

  • Jae says:

    Talk about ‘polemic’ …

  • Alex says:

    “the pro­fes­sion­al is being replaced by the ama­teur… the Har­vard pro­fes­sor by the unschooled pop­u­lace;”… with the amount of under 22 year olds with con­sid­er­able fol­low­ings on social media, who pon­tif­i­cate their opin­ions about any top­ic — and the huge amount of peo­ple who take their opin­ions as facts — I don’t under­stand how that is not a seri­ous prob­lem?

    Savant syn­drome notwith­stand­ing, what pos­si­ble qual­i­fi­ca­tions and/or life expe­ri­ence can these hordes of pos­ing, bare­ly-out-of-ado­les­cence par­rots have to val­i­date their opin­ions and war­rant such fol­low­ing?

    On the oth­er hand, the more ill-informed peo­ple there are, the greater the chance of suc­cess for the ones not so ill-informed.

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