Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Lunch With Andrew

Cult of the Amateur author Andrew Keen joined us for lunch today at Mahalo andgave a little talk, followed by the most hostile Q&A session I have, personally, ever attended. Usually, Q&A sessions are fawning and ridiculous, which is why I try to avoid them. But not today. Today, my fellow Mahooligans and spectators who joined us through the magic of Ustream really let Keen have it, and held nothing back.

The full archived video (Fast-Forward to about 45 minutes in to get to the good stuff):

Here's the thing with Keen...It's almost impossible to take his arguments seriously on their face because they are poorly researched, frequently illogical and, in many cases, contradictory.

Here's but one example: Keen argues that the market, in many ways, determine whether or not items are culturally valuable. YouTube videos may be popular, but if no one is willing to pay for them, they cannot be considered truly merited pieces of art with any cultural significance.

That would seem to be an entirely Capitalist stance - the market determines all things, including aesthetics. Yet Keen is no capitalist; most of the time, he sounds more like a Socialist, arguing that the BBC represents something of an ideal news-gathering organization because it serves a public good without worrying purely about ratings and profits.

Is it possible to hold both of these notions in your head at once? I suppose...but it strikes me as a case of not following through your ideas to their logical conclusions.

Take anonymity. Keen's major case against blogs as journalism is the fact that some people blog anonymously, and therefore are not transparent or accountable. (Never mind the fact that the vast vast majority of notable, widely-read bloggers, at this point, use their own names, or at least don't go to great lengths to hide their true identities.) But how many articles in his beloved New York Times base their stories entirely on anonymous sources? It happens all the time.

Whenever someone would ask Keen about this sort of thing, he's squirm out of it by reverting to vague generalities. Well, he didn't mean all newspapers are good and all blogs are bad. Some blogs are great and some newspaper articles, like those written by Judy Miller in the lead-up to the Iraq War, are bunk, he'll say. I just mean that we need gatekeepers. Listening to him speak is like chasing your own tail - most of the time, I found myself agreeing with what he was saying, because it was impossible not to. Yes, sometimes Wikipedia is full of shit. Yes, a Harvard professor is smarter than a 14 year old. So what? The Internet still r00lz!

Then I had what Keen would probably call "an epiphany." (He's had several.)

I realized that he wasn't really taking his own argument particularly seriously.

It wasn't just his flip, tongue-in-cheek tone. Mahooligan Nicole really called Keen out on some factual errors in the book, and he essentially conceded the point, laughed it off and continued with the same argument he'd already been making. But that could just be a strategy for deflecting criticism.

No, I became convinced by his constant double-backs, his rhetorical dodges, his lack of any kind of real consistency. He's just lobbing bombs, being a contrarian for its own sake. He calls the book a "polemic," but that's really just a stand-in for "a bunch of Devil's Advocate arguments with which I don't necessarily agree."

A full 50% of the book, I'd say, is made up of moral arguments - the Internet is bad because it allows people to steal music and movies. And then you meet this guy and you realize, "this cocky British atheist doesn't give two shits about the ethics of people downloading the new Danity Kane single for free."

So the question becomes why he's making the argument in the first place.

I can think of three distinct possibilities, ranging from most to least cynical:

Intensely Cynical:

Keen thought this would be a good way to move some units. A book about how Web 2.0 sucks would have no competition amidst the glut of books about how Web 2.0 will revolutionize your brain. He'd maybe even get on "Colbert"!

I don't know...Maybe I'm naive, but this seems improbable to me somehow, the pure greedy thesis. First off, the book can't really have made him all that much money. If you really want to make some green in publishing, you don't write books for nerds about how all their nerdy websites aren't as awesome as they thought. You write spy or legal thrillers and romance novels in which bored, lonely housewives are swept off their feet by troubled, hunky strangers.

Also, if you just wrote a book to get rich, and then people criticized you and called your ideas dumb everywhere you went, you'd be pissed off. Keen's clearly having fun. Which leads me to Point #2:

Somewhat Cynical:

Keen's just kind of being funny, and only half-heartedly meant any of this stuff, and it has now been blown way out of proportion. In essence, after today, I totally think it's possible that Cult of the Amateur is tongue in cheek, that this whole dismissal of what's clearly the future of communication and media is a put-on.

Consider this portion of the presentation: Keen conceded his own status as an amateur. Then he told us he "would like" to be one of his precious elite gatekeepers deciding what is true and good and what is not anyway. Then, he told us there's no such thing as "Absolute Truth" in the first place. I mean...come can't tell me that's all meant seriously.

Not Particularly Cynical:

The final possibility: Keen doesn't really believe all the arguments he's making here, but he feels like someone has to make them, to dampen some of the reckless, utopian enthusiasm of the Internet community. Like the Web 2.0 William F. Buckley, he'll stand astride the Intert00bz yelling "Stop!"

I'm not sure which of these three I really believe...but it's got to be one of them. Because I can't imagine such a funny, seemingly intelligent guy would really present this case as the sum total of years of investigation and thought about the Web.


Evan said...

Another half-baked point he made was that the music industry is being destroyed by web 2.0. But the whole picture is that the current obsolete business model of the music business is being destroyed, while the industry itself is actually thriving.

I heard him talking to Conrad before lunch about how Americans take his book so seriously and don't understand that you can be half-joking when you say stuff. Take that for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

You've heard of the phrase, Don't kill the messenger, right?

That's my take on Keen.

I watched him yesterday, the first time I've seen him live. found that the _conversation(s)_ sparked from his ideas and views are more important than the inaccuracies in his argument.


Joe Taylor said...

I think most of what he says, he says just to get attention. He says things for the shock and awe. He is a different version of Bill O'Reilly

Jari_Ra said...

The problem in Andrew Keen's point of view is that the best "amateurs" actually do make money in the internet. Good bloggers can earn 10000$/month and even more. They make money through google adds, sponsors, affiliate links, etc... The point is that if you have enough people interested in what you are doing (writing a blog, making music) it is almost impossible to NOT to make money...

As always, CONTENT IS THE KING. Create good content and people will follow you and you will make money.

Sharkbait said...

I saw that Colbert show a while back. So damn funny! That dude is a DINOSAUR. RAWR.*

*NOT a sexy dinosaur.

GimmeDaWatch said...

I knew this guy was good when he said "Your real opportunity is to replace wikipedia". Umm, no dude, that's not opportunity that's delusion, and that's not remotely what mahalo is trying to do anyhow. Then he condescendingly asked if everyone knew what epiphany meant, then he gave the incorrect definition for epiphany. "A Religious conversion"? Uhhh, no. You gotta hand it to the limeys, though, they don't much mind criticism. Some sick part of them seems to almost masochistically revel in it. While he does bring up some interesting points in a couple of areas (mostly wrt the economic viability of publications like newspapers and magazines), his arguments are tragically flawed on a number of fronts. We have more news than ever on television, and 90% of it is either redundant or retarded or both. I don't know what his proposed solution is to alleviate any of these problems, or who these magical gatekeeping dorks are, but does he really think the NY Times, LA Times, or Wall Street Journal are shutting down anytime soon? I mean, if you want to start up a not for-profit publicly funded 24 hour News Network that doesn't rape me with a week straight of Jeremiah Wright video clips, I'm all for it.

rednikki said...

Ha! I'm a Mahooligan!

I was very frustrated by his talk. I'll probably post about the factual issues sometime this week.