Polyandrous political paradigm?

In a comment the other day, Justin complained that I was "too nice" to an anonymous anti-gay commenter who thought homosexuals should be imprisoned.

Being nice is one of my shortcomings, and it may eventually be my undoing. As a matter of fact, it may have already been my undoing (as I failed big time in a business venture based on naively altruistic assumptions about success). So, undone as I am by niceness, I'm now going to undo myself again by being nice to Andrew Keen -- a man who many people would not consider nice. He's not threatening to kill or imprison homosexuals. In fact, he's mainly getting attention right now because of a couple of articles in the Weekly Standard and on CBS News -- one attacking the new Internet utopia and the other attacking Glenn Reynolds' An Army of Davids in similar fashion.

Calling An Army of Davids a "utopian manifesto," Keen claims that Glenn Reynolds has been seduced:

In many ways, Reynolds has been seduced by the ideal of amateurism.
To which David M replies that Glenn was,
seduced by, well, me. But he's not even my type.
At this stage in my life, the "type" I'm most concerned with is Movable Type, and trust me, it's no utopia to figure it out.

But attacking utopias is what Keen is all about. That's because he sees himself as a victim of utopia.

....I came willingly to the Bay Area, the set for Vertigo, as a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley. There, I fell under the spell of the political anthropologist Ken Jowitt whose glitteringly original reading of modern history contrasted with the facile utopianism of the typical political “scientist”.

After Berkeley, I shifted coasts and taught modern history and politics, Jowitt-style, at Tufts, Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts. Another coast, another great seduction. Alongside my academic teaching, I developed a parallel career as a popular cultural critic. And it was as a journalist that, in the early Nineties, I “discovered” the Internet, the greatest seduction since the dream of world communism. Rushing back to the Bay Area, now known as Silicon Valley, I founded a website called Audiocafe.com and, securing investment from Intel and SAP, built it into an early paragon of the online revolution. I became an uncle Reuben of the Internet upheaval, a true believer in the historical inevitability of online community, commerce and content.

Then, in April 2000, I woke up. Audiocafe crashed, Silicon Valley crashed, Wall Street crashed. The narrative had the hallmarks of classic Hitchcock, as cruel and inevitable as the plot of Vertigo. Real life interfered with the dream, the blond turned into the brunette and the lights came back on. Amerika.

OK, folks, get out the handkerchiefs, because here comes Eric's "too nice" part.

I sympathize with Keen. No really, I do. That's because I too was a failure. I started a nightclub called Thunder Bay in Berkeley, California. By all appearances, it was a huge success. We held rave parties with thousands of people, we had gay nights, lesbian square dancing nights, biker nights, punk rock nights. Two bars with four bartender stations, laser light shows, an incredibly cool interior, on a good night we'd have over a thousand people. (One rave drew as many as 5,000.) San Francisco columnist Herb Caen -- a giant in journalism who IMHO has to be called the world's first blogger -- gave us two favorable mentions in his column. (No easy thing, trust me). We won a Bay Guardian Best of the Bay award in 1993 ("Best Place to Go Dancing in Black"). Among other things, we were one of the birthplaces of the Goth movement in the San Francisco Bay Area (the House of Usher started at Thunder Bay).

Blah blah blah. It's all in the increasingly distant past.

The bottom line (as I've said before) was that despite the huge crowds, we couldn't pay the rent. 7500 square feet is a lot of space, and it wasn't cheap then, and isn't cheap now. The kids didn't drink enough.

As Keen and I both realize, utopia alone does not pay the rent. While the patrons screamed that the "community" should be preserved (by the government, if necessary!), Thunder Bay crashed. And I crashed too. The doors closed in March of 1994, and if they hadn't been, the taxing authorities would have padlocked them.

I don't know if my failure was on as large a level as Keen's, but I do know what it is like to experience failure. I was stuck owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it took years to get over it.

I think I've learned from my mistakes, and one of the things I learned is that nice guys shouldn't run nightclubs. To run a nightclub you have to be a little bit of an ass. I don't like being an ass, so I am unlikely to venture back into that type of business. But you never know.

What I absolutely will not do is behave like a Prophet of Doom, and project my experiences onto other people who had nothing to do with my failures. I am not here to warn anyone about utopias. I am deeply suspicious about utopian thinking, and much as I'd love to see them happen, I am skeptical about things like life extension, and I've said so.

But the last thing I would do is to try to begrudge the success of others. Even less would I want to thwart them. Yet thwarting others' attempts at success (what he calls utopian "seduction" is Andrew Keen's goal:

now there is a new great seduction in Silicon Valley. Today, the trinitarianism of digital community, commerce and content goes under the name of “Web 2.0”. The new democratizing technologies are blogs, wikis, social networking sites and podcasts. But I’ve changed. I am now an outsider on the inside, revealing the great seduction and warning of its grave cultural consequences.
Grave cultural consequences? I'm almost tempted to say I've heard such talk before, but again, I'm trying to be nice. I would suggest to Keen, though, that others might say the same thing about some of his activities, like involvement with rap music.

Of course, by relating the above story of my business failure, I am running afoul of something Keen condemned last weekend (in Berkeley of all places), when he derisively asked,

"What is the value of sharing your experiences?"
I don't know. Maybe readers might learn something from my experiences. Maybe not.

What is the value of Keen sharing his?

He certainly has no problem doing precisely that:

In addition to being an aspiring Terry Gross, I am also a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and impresario. I founded Audiocafe.com in 1996 and built it into a cacophonous, generously funded digital media business. In 2000, I was the Executive Producer of MB5: The Festival for New Media Visionaries, the legendary show that captured the most lucid prophesies and worst hubris of the Nineties Internet mania. Since 2000, I’ve played executive roles at a number of high profile, venture backed technology companies including Pulse 3D, Santa Cruz Networks, Jazziz Digital and Pure Depth, where I currently direct the company’s global strategic sales.
Well that's just peachy! How would he like it if I came along and told him that unless people spend money on it, it'll never pay the rent? Is that my business? Should I lecture him about cultural consequences?

Perhaps I am taking this character too seriously, perhaps not. But I can relate to his failure, and I understand his bitterness. (I try not to be bitter, but it has a way of creeping up on me sometimes, and I try to combat it with humor when I can.)

And while I'm trying not to be too judgmental, I have to say that in Keen's case, bitterness it is. My impression of the man is that he's extremely bitter, and he sees of himself as an unheralded, unrecognized leader of a utopia that never came to pass. Right now, I think he resents the blogosphere like hell. And he bitterly resents advocates of the future ("cybernetic totalists") for essentially stealing his show. In addition to writing for the Weekly Standard, he's holding a series of conferences in San Francisco devoted to attacking both "citizen journalists" as well as "cybernetic totalists." Here was last night's show:

Schmootopia 3: The War Against Expertise

Is there something intrinsically untrustworthy about big media and honest about "citizen journalists", bloggers and podcasters? If not, then why are so many American technophiles infatuated with the ideal of the amateur?

on Thursday, March 23 2005 at 6:30pm

Coming next month, he's planning to indict the utopia's religious fringe:
Schmootopia 4: Transcendence and the Mind

The extreme fringe of today's technology utopians shares much in common with the Evangelical Christians: the belief that a rapture is imminent, and that a select few shall be chosen, and catapulted forward to enjoy the future.

But such wild fantasies are shared by more than just a fringe, and the consequences of the technologists' hazy and hopeful belief systems pose problems for us all. Jaron Lanier described how the "cybernetic totalists", anticipating a fusion of biology and technology, consistently devalue subjectivity and real human experience. Nicholas Carr, in his essay "The Amorality of Web 2.0", describes how transcendence has become a tick box item for new internet projects.

Our fourth panel examines the gnostic, religious and eschatological dimensions of techno utopianism.

on Thursday, April 20 2005 at 6:30pm

Dang! I just knew there had to be gnostic, religious and eschatological dimensions behind all that Tennessee-based techno utopianism that the InstaRapture Pollyanna hippie guy is promoting!

I mean, look at this alarmingly amateurish pose:

Alarming_glenn_photo.jpg

Pollyanna Schmollyanna!

(As for the name of the above San Francisco tribunals -- "Schmootopia" -- I think it may derive from "Utopia Schmootopia" which seems to have been uttered by a professor in 1998.)

Pollyannaism aside, I'm about as much of an expert on utopia bashers as I am on utopias, so I don't know what explains the thinking of Lanier, although I can see from his background that he's no slouch. Might it be that extreme form of hippie NeoLuddism which fears the loss of the soul? I can't get too excited about that either; I lost too many souls to AIDS, and nearly lost my own in the process. (I understand Keen's bitterness and even despair, but I have to say that I prefer the Pollyanna approach.)

As to Nicholas Carr, like Keen he drips with loathing for "amateurism":

The Internet is changing the economics of creative work - or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture - and it's doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it's created by amateurs rather than professionals, it's free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we've recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can't imagine anything more frightening.
Elsewhere, Carr agrees with Keen and says that blogs will "destroy culture."
As I've thought about the watery philosophy and the powerful technology that dovetail so neatly in Web 2.0, I've become fearful that we're building a machine that will, to great and general applause, destroy culture. Keen gets close to the heart of the matter: "If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural 'flattening.'" In the end we're left with nothing more than "the flat noise of opinion - Socrates's nightmare."
Huh?

I don't mind it when people have their own opinions, but when they drag in the ancients, I'm always made to feel as if I should pay attention, and that's really annoying, so I have to confess that this guy is challenging my ability to be nice. Anyway, I don't have all day to write this blog post, so I'm deferring to Dennis on Socrates. Dennis is, after all, a classical scholar -- something I suspect Keen is not.

Good job, Dennis!

(And may the gods forgive me for being such a classical amateur!)

With the gods' permission, I should probably add that I like Socrates, and common sense suggests that the image of him as a classical voice against the blogosphere is preposterous. How could Socrates, stonecutter and self-proclaimed gadfly who hassled pompous Athenian aristocrats in the marketplace, be against blogging? How could man who said, "Those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable" be against "amateurism"?

What bothers me is not so much that Keen is invoking Socrates against the blogosphere. It's that he's doing it with the help of CBS and the Weekly Standard. Whether this is a form of high-level trolling or an astute attack combining elements of the communitarian left and the communitarian right remains to be see. Considering some of the other stuff Keen says (more on that later), it could be argued that calling him a "troll" is almost too kind.

Again, maybe I'm being too nice.

Ed Driscoll understands Keen's point, but likens his message to putting the genie back in the bottle:

....you can't put the genie back in the bottle: the mass media began to splinter in the 1970s with the birth of cable TV and the first dial-up computer bulletin board systems. It's only going to continue, and accelerate.

Sadly, that means less and less shared culture. But would you like to go back to the alternative? Three TV networks, one or two big city newspapers, a handful of music radio stations, no viable talk radio, no Internet, no blogs, no fun.

No thanks.

I agree, and I think the vast majority of us amateurs (and maybe a number of professionals) would say "No thanks."

The problem is that "back to the alternative" is precisely where Keen and his Luddites want us to go. And it is here that I lose sympathy with Keen. Bitterness does not excuse intolerance like this:

Yes, the artist has nailed it, Martin Luther style, with this anonymous manifesto. It’s a much more direct critique of technology than my vertiginous 11 Unfashionable Thoughts. It should be nailed on the cubicle wall of every Silicon Valley software engineer who has been seduced by Google-like nonsense about technology “doing no evil.”

Perhaps the San Francisco artist should drive down 101 to Mountain View and nail it, Martin Luther style, on the front door of the Google office. Martin Luther 2.0. The only problem is that, here in Silicon Valley, where The Law of Forgetting is the only game in town, nobody can remember Martin Luther 1.0. No, grand historical gesture here is pointless. Better to slap the manifesto on the blogosphere. Anonymously. Just as Martin Luther would probably do, if he happened to reappear now, almost five hundred years after the Edict of Worms, in our brave new Web 2.0 world.

Lest anyone think Keen is content with the grandoise gesture of being Martin Luther nailing his manifesto to the blogosphere, a simple click on the "unfashionable" reveals an apparently serious call for outright censorship:
9. As always, today’s pornography reveals tomorrow’s media. The future of general media content, the place culture is going, is Voyeurweb.com: the convergence of self-authored shamelessness, narcissism and vulgarity. . . a perfect case for censorship. As Edmund Burke reminds us, we have a responsibility to protect people from their worst impulses. If people aren’t able to censor their worst instincts, then they need to be censored by others wiser and more disciplined than themselves.
At the risk of sounding like a right wing nut, aren't words like that a little chilling to the American concept of freedom?

Or is "freedom" just another utopian word to be disdained and placed in quotes by Andrew Keen? I know, I know, I'm supposed to be nice. But how far do I go with this niceness routine? Should I bend over backwards and say that because Keen is British, we must recognize that he hails from a different cultural tradition than our own? I think not. I know it isn't nice to say this, but I think calls for censorship are despicable. And if Keen is serious and not just a high-level troll, I think his calls for censorship are more despicable than the Islamic variety.

Fortunately, we live in a country with a First Amendment, where the "amateurs" Keen so hates are actually permitted to write online diaries.

Like mine. I've been blogging for nearly three years. It's a ton of work, and a thankless task much of the time. I knew full well when I started that there were "millions and millions of blogs," but I was tickled pink to see that I was soon getting five, then ten readers a day! And yes, it grew over the years, but only because I posted every damned day no matter how awful I felt. Some utopia! Fact is, I was an amateur. I still am an amateur. For that reason (and for my additional crime of being part of a "utopia" of which I'm skeptical), Keen (and, I assume, other proud "elitists") would claim a right to silence me.

I think Keen's tortured call for censorship is a strange if quite logical product of his frustration. He has to realize that what happened to the Dotcom boom simply cannot (and thus will not) happen to the blogosphere, because the Dotcom boom consisted of hype fueled by money, while the blogosphere consists of individuals writing diaries. The blogosphere isn't dependent on money; only on writing, and people who want to write. There’s no way to stop anyone who wants to write from writing. Except of course, by censorship. (Or by the physical destruction of the Internet, which is a pretty remote possibility.)

For now, Keen is playing the game of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," while he works to build his coalition of assorted left-wing and right-wing communitarian Luddites. The call for censorship is of course an extreme form of intolerance, and it is quite similar to what we saw in the case of clamor for censorship after the publication of the Mohammad cartoons. Except it's worse. The difference is that Keen and his ilk should know better.

What was that about grave cultural consequences?

Or are calls for censorship simply matters of cultural taste?

Is that it? Did someone put Andrew Keen (a man I'd never heard of until quote recently) in charge of taste? I've enjoyed quoting the Roman maxim "de gustibus non est disputandum" (in matters of taste there can be no disagreement). But that ancient wisdom would seem to be lost on Keen:

The digital utopian much heralded "democratization" of media will have a destructive impact upon culture, particularly upon criticism. "Good taste" is, by definition, undemocratic. Taste resides with an elite of cultural critics able to determine, on behalf of the public, the value of a work-of-art. The digital utopia seeks to flatten this elite into an ochlocracy. The danger, therefore, is that the future will be tasteless.
The future will be tasteless?

Look, I know we cannot all agree on what constitutes good taste. But isn't the question of whether an "elite of cultural critics" should be "able to determine, on behalf of the public, the value of a work-of-art" at least debatable?

Numerous other bloggers have of course weighed in, including Samizdata's Philip Chaston who concludes,

It must be such a chore to be one voice amongst many.
(Yes it is. And my nice side is almost tempted to welcome Keen to the club of many voices, except that he no more wants to be a welcome voice than does your typical troll. Unlike trolls, however, Keen does not seek attention for its own sake. As Dennis confirms, he promotes his own form of Utopian Elitism.)

Jeff Jarvis also has thoughts on Keen's view of culture:
Traditional, controlled, centralized, elitist media that gave us The Beverly Hillbillies and Oliver Stone movies and Oprah and monopoly newspapers and Mary Higgins Clark books on the successful end… and unread literature on the unsuccessful end.
If the official arbiters of taste are right, we amateurs ought to defer to the life experiences of Nobel Prize winners like Elfriede Jelinek, among whose notable quotes is the following mouthful:
This dog, language, which is supposed to protect me, that’s why I have him, after all, is now snapping at my heels. My protector wants to bite me. My only protector against being described, language, which, conversely, exists to describe something else, that I am not -- that is why I cover so much paper -- my only protector is turning against me.

ELFRIEDE JELINEK, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 7, 2004

(She ought to check out John Zerzan, who proposes abolishing language.)

Tasteless future? Flattening of culture? I think we're already there, and it isn't the blogosphere's fault. Except I don't claim to be an arbiter of taste.

Mick Stockinger looks at art and culture, and characterizes Keen's view as "total unmitigated crap":

what [Keen] is really saying is that we should consider the ethical implications of the Marxist, flower-child future he draws for us. A future where the artistic and cultural acheivements of the masters are lost or fall on the deaf ears of narcissistic cultural morons.

Total unmitigated crap.

I really should be more sympathetic to the argument as someone with an appreciation for the value of tradition and the continuity provided by society's institutions, but this isn't a cheer for the barbarians to conquer Rome. Its the simple recognition that Keen doesn't know what he is talking about.

To put it succinctly, the new enabling technologies aren't about pulling down the exceptional until its all just one uniform landscape of mediocrity--its about news ways to discover excellence.

Its not about Marxism, its about Americanism, about the possibility for self-realization by the individual without the limiting factors of class. In fact, every single on of the thinkers Keen cites came from a culture that more fully exploited the human resources at their disposal than any other of their day. I submit that Lenardo da Vinci wasn't the creation of renaissance Italy, but that renaissance Italy was the creation of da Vinci and thousands and hundreds of thousands of exceptional people like him.

Quality shines through. Art always has a way of leading culture, but the idea of elitist cultural critics leading art is belied by the innumerable van Goghs whose art managed to prevail despite and not because of officially sanctioned art.

I'm struggling to be nice, folks, but I have to ask, is there any way to get this Andrew Keen to loosen up?

Here's his picture:

Keen2.jpg

He doesn't look terribly happy to me. (Well, at least the background isn't black. That's progress....)

In fairness to him, I imagine I wouldn't be too happy either. Not if I thought I was a victim of utopian seduction and spent my time trying to cobble together a coalition of conservative scolds plus sour old hippie Luddites. Hell, I'd probably feel like issuing a call for censorship too.

You know what? I think Andrew could use a touch of the Pollyanna (well, maybe altered slightly to reflect the sophisticated seductionism of the utopian 1990s).

PollyAndrew2.jpg

Just trying to be nice.

(I hope no one thinks I have bad taste.)


UPDATE: Justin has told me that he thinks Keen "looks like he's getting his yearly prostate exam." (Sorry Justin, but that's not nice.)

posted by Eric on 03.24.06 at 02:24 PM










Comments

He looks like Andrew Dice Clay's sidekick.

Harkonnendog   ·  March 24, 2006 8:29 PM

Bravo.

I've experienced more than one serious business failure. My dreams of being self-employed are all but dashed forever, a subject of endless depression for me.

I'm not foolish enough to think that this is some great lesson that the masses should despair and turn away from their dreams. It has led me to believe that excessive worship of capitalism, capitalism, nothing but capitalism is a problem, and that gee, there is a place for a government safety net after all, but most sensible people never thought otherwise (I wasn't always sensible, and am not always now).

It has always been like this, as long as I can remember: new technologies empower more people, and some predict it will make the world a worse place.

Well it's arguable that everything involves a tradeoff and we might occasionally want to look back at what we've lost and think about recouping it somehow. But that's no excuse for putting on the sandwichboard and making with the "the end is nigh!" nonsense.

Anybody who's not a blinkered fool can see that despite the predictions that television would get worse and worse, as were common in the 1980s when it became obvious that cable TV would eventually become ubiquitous, were total nonsense. There's more wonderful stuff on television today than ever. The explosion of mass-market paperback books did indeed mean there was a lot more trash published between two covers... and a lot more gold.

My general maxim is an extension of Sturgeon's Law. Sturgeons law is that 98% of everything is crap. Esmay's extension: more crap is a sign of more gold to be found in them thar hills of crap.

(IF I were being really gross I'd say it meant more chewy peanuts in the crap, but you know, I'm not that crass.)

You know the bottom line is, he's full of crap, and he's not going to get what he wants. On the other hand, it's entirely possible he'll inspire some of the elitists who agree with him to try experiments in aggregating elite works that are better than what the "amateurs" do... which by golly is how this is supposed to work.

By the way, have I ever mentioned my theory that if you get paid to do something, even if it's not much, you're no longer an amateur, and have a right to consider yourself at least "semi-pro?" I don't think you've been an amateur for a long while now, Eric. ;-)

Dean Esmay   ·  March 25, 2006 5:27 AM

Thanks Dean! I'm reminded of that old saying "Failure instructs." But you have to be willing to allow it, which Keen is not. He's not merely projecting his failure onto others, he's using it as an excuse to prevent the success of others.

I'm glad to hear you say that "he's full of crap, and he's not going to get what he wants," especially if what he wants is censorship. I do think he is speaking for a lot of people who share his contempt for free speech. Unlike him, the others are too cowardly to come right out and say it.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 25, 2006 12:15 PM

TJ, I'd almost forgotten about the Diceman.

Gee, you're almost as mean as Justin....

Eric Scheie   ·  March 25, 2006 12:15 PM

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