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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Internet Ruining Our Culture?

Andrew Keen wants to start an argument. And his new book “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture” shows that he knows how to do it. A relentless attack on the beloved Web 2.0 touchstones of user generated content and “the wisdom of crowds,” Keen’s brief polemic is a strident one-sided, archly conservative view of how Internet culture is evolving — or, in his view, degenerating. Even as it hits stores it has already been smartly dissected and thoroughly condemned by blogosphere luminaries ranging from Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis to Lawrence Lessig.

After such a drubbing, clearly no sensible Internet columnist should touch this book with a 10-foot pole. Yet it deserves a look for several reasons: Keen knows the technology and doesn’t make the purely technical blunders that usually discredit other doom-saying commentators. Keen is a fearless writer willing to take conservative positions in a field that’s overwhelmingly liberal. And finally, while Keen’s arguments are extreme and biased, they will also be heard — because they reflect real public concerns about the impact of the Internet, too often downplayed by the reigning digerati.

Keen’s original subtitle, simplified before publication, sums up his argument: How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. He looks at the various user-centered Web activities that epitomize Web 2.0 — YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, blogs, file-sharing and so forth — and ties these, variously, to loss of accuracy in news and information, the declining quality of music and video, the troubled economics of the content industries and even an erosion of original thinking (as students use Google to create “cut-and-paste” term papers).


Keen’s central thesis is that user-generated content and the disaggregation of information by search engines — reducing books, magazines and newspapers to mere collections of facts — damages both economics and quality. His economic warning is the strongest element of the book: Keen worries that traditional media companies may be done in by the “cult of amateurs.” While probably not due to “amateurs,” it is indeed the case that virtually all of the old-line content producers, from encyclopedias and record companies to television, newspapers and now even pornographers, are experiencing painful business pressures as the Internet absorbs and reorders media.

Internet pundits often gleefully say that pampered Big Media is getting what it deserves, but the long-term social consequences may not be so humorous. Keen points out that in the time it takes for the economics to work out many traditional media companies may lose important assets — such as their staff — or close down altogether. And it’s not at all clear what would replace them.

Posted by Ajay :: 9:49 AM :: 0 comments

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