swept away?

Here's something I enjoyed seeing in today's Philadelphia Inquirer -- Glenn Reynolds' review of Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture" -- which sees the book as:

basically an extended paean to the lost Golden Age of middlebrow taste-makers and big-media megaphones, and an extended jeremiad against an age in which people are free to make up their own minds, and make their own contributions. Keen is even sad about the declining influence of small-scale taste-makers: He decries the absence of the "deeply knowledgeable Tower clerk" in the world of online record sales, and he seems to think that the musical snobs in the book (and film) High Fidelity were supposed to be appealing characters.

Keen's thesis is that talent is rare and that worthwhile products - whether we're talking about news reporting, music composition or filmmaking - can be produced only if that talent is nurtured at great length and filtered to a great extent. Only a long and expensive process of refinement can dispose of the common dross and produce the pure gold of quality work.

This argument would be more impressive if the "quality work" from the big media organizations he describes were, well, golden. Keen references Bach and the Beatles as examples of quality music, but when he complains about the music industry's current travails he doesn't note that today's record industry isn't giving us Bach and the Beatles - it's giving us Britney. Likewise, he blames Internet piracy for declining movie attendance when the cause appears to be elsewhere: a recent Zogby poll found that people are going to the movies less often because they think the films stink and, in a more literal way, so do the theaters.

I've never been impressed with Keen's arguments, and I've disputed them in a number of posts, so naturally I couldn't agree more with Glenn Reynolds.

Read the whole review.

My problem is that I'm old enough to have grown up in the "lost Golden Age of middlebrow taste-makers and big-media megaphones," and I always thought of mainstream media culture as glorifying mediocrity, and attempting to instill a numbing conformity to a certain lowest common denominator. (It helped me as a child that whenever I'd start to imagine that a program was good, my parents would correct my misperceptions, often by ridiculing the acting or the writing.) As I got older I watched less and less TV, and by the 1970s I was watching very little. Thus, I find myself largely out of touch with TV culture, and even on the Internet I'd rather read something than watch it on a video. (My first reaction when learning of an important video I should see is to try to find a transcript.) The blogosphere struck me as a wonderful new thing, as a true meritocracy where the cream would naturally rise to the top. The very antithesis of the "flattening of culture" of which Keen complains.

Keen has long struck me as blurring the vital distinction between aristocracy and meritocracy, and I think he has been blinded by an obsessive hatred of what he calls "amateurism." He forgets that in a meritocracy, talented amateurs (like James O. Hall) can rise to the top, and at some point they are no longer amateurs. But in an aristocracy where favoritism, nepotism, and money rule, there's no guarantee of quality.

Keen thinks "amateur" is a synonym for schlock, and in a February tirade about the degradation of Superbowl television commercials, he pointed a blaming finger at the Internet -- and at "American Idol":

....digital technology is undermining the wages of the American middle class. Web 2.0 technologies which enable amateurs to make dumbed-down replicas of professional work are particularly responsible for what Bhagwati calls the "tsumani" of downward pressure on wages created by new technology.

Amateur content on user-generated video sites such as Google's YouTube is undermining the value of professionally-made video content. American Idol now has an online competition called "American Idol Underground," which is making the traditional music A&R person redundant. HarperCollins is undermining the traditional role of literary agents by running online competitions to "discover" amateur writers. The result of all this democratization of media is fewer creative jobs and more amateurish books, movies, and music. And commercials, too.

Because of my decades-old aversion to television, I have never watched "American Idol" and I don't plan on watching it, because people whose judgment I trust have told me that it glorifies talentless hacks and lousy performers. Now, it strikes me that anyone with half a brain can tell the difference between someone who sings out of key and a good singer (the ears can tell the difference), but I recently attended an event which included a number of musical performances which were so unbelievably bad that I found myself wondering what could possibly be going on. And I was told that it's the "American Idolization" of culture.

Schlock performances are now OK. Even cool! Hey, I can remember karaoke. Isn't that the same thing? No, I was told. Karoake is a drunken, let-your-hair-down thing, the antithesis of a formal performance on stage. It is "American Idol" which has broken new ground by promoting as "legitimate entertainment" the sort of thing which Howard Stern used to play to impishly annoy the ears of his listeners.

Whose fault is "American Idol"? The blogosphere? The Internet? Keen apparently would have us believe that it is. Call me a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but I have a darker view.

I think it's a direct result of the same condescending aristocratic thinking which deliberately promulgates the dumbing down of education, the degradation of art, and the view that no one is better than anyone else (except those who deem themselves to be worthy of ruling over the rest of us). "American Idol" is, IMO, their way of degrading the culture while laughing all the way to the bank.

The tragedy here is that Keen doesn't seem to like what's happening any more than I do. But he paradoxically blames the people who have turned off their televisions and looked elsewhere. While I would agree with Keen if he saw the problem as the old aristocracy having grown decadent, what he is doing amounts to blaming decadence on the critics of decadence. Not only is this a fundamental error, but he compounds it with needless ad hominem attacks and even calls for censorship. (A classic example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.)

But I'm starting to rant here. It's ironic, because I agree with Glenn's conclusion that Keen "would be better served trying to come up with ways to make the new world better, than by ranting on behalf of a world that is now history." I often find myself ranting on behalf of a better world that is now history, even though I completely disagree with Keen's contention that the Internet has made it worse. New is not always an improvement, but old is not always better. The Internet, IMO, gives the champions of what is best about the old a fighting chance to preserve it.

Bill Whittle's recent essays (especially about The Remnant and the Ejectia!) shine as a perfect example.

To deride such work as "amateurism" is to commit a grievous error.


What I'm trying to avoid here is another rant against Keen as an iconoclastic Luddite ranting against the future. I've done it before, and ranting only begets ranting.

So I'll just say that Keen sweeps with too broad a broom.

UPDATE (06/11/07): Considering the way other bloggers feel about him (as well as the tenor of my earlier posts), it may be that I've been too kind to Andrew Keen in this post.

Terry Heaton describes Keen's book as "a whining, outrageous and defensive fantasy based on sweeping generalizations, falsehoods, paranoia and a form of condescension so pissy that it blinds the author to anything resembling reality," while Dan Gillmor calls it "shabby," "dishonest," loaded with "falsehoods and demagoguery," "blatant misrepresentations" and "inadequate reporting."

Via Glenn Reynolds, who will only go so far as to venture that he doesn't "think the book is being well-received."


It's now a rainy Monday morning and I had little time for blogging over the weekend --- three circumstances which can usually be depended on to make me feel nasty and get my bile going.

And on top of that I look very guilty -- as if I am not doing my job as a blogger! I mean, what's going on with me? I've totally savaged Keen in the past. What is my defense for having been such a damned bleeding heart fuzzy-wuzzy liberal in this post?

In my defense, I will say this: I neither bought nor read Keen's book, and I don't plan to!

Do I really have to spend money on "whining, outrageous and defensive fantasy based on sweeping generalizations, falsehoods, paranoia and a form of condescension so pissy that it blinds the author to anything resembling reality"? No way! I trust these reviewers to tell me how deeply disturbing it is, and it made them suffer. True, they suffered on my behalf, and for that I am grateful, as Heaton makes clear that the book is a "tough read":

I'm serious when I say the book is a tough read. It's tough, because the mind's search for substance is always confronted by extremism, emotion and haughty disdain for anybody who doesn't meet his professional "standards" or think as he thinks. I can't count the number of "Holy Craps" I uttered while working my way through the pages. And I think this is a big problem for a man who's trying to ask some legitimate questions.
It made me wince just to read about the book.

The problem is that I'm just not enough of a masochist to pay money for more.

Besides, there are plenty of shabby, dishonest, loaded-with-falsehoods-and demagoguery, blatant misrepresentations and inadequate reporting to be found which can be experienced for nothing!

So, I think Glenn is right to say the book is not being "well-received."

Probably understatement in my case, for it isn't being received here at all.

posted by Eric on 06.10.07 at 10:29 AM


It's nice to know I'm not the only one who prefers transcripts to video or audio clips, and who hasn't watched "entertainment" TV in ages. I watch Fox and the documentary channels when I watch TV at all, which isn't often.

NB: I currently have two pit bull mixes, really love them, and am seriously happy I don't live in California where wonderful dogs like Samson and Frank will soon be impossible.

Empire1   ·  June 10, 2007 6:53 PM

Thanks. Nice to know I'm not alone in my TV habits.

California is busy ruining what's left of their state.

Eric Scheie   ·  June 10, 2007 7:32 PM


Count me in on by-passing what passes for entertainment on "mainstream" TV

I've never watched AI, though I've overheard much of the conversations of co-workers who do. At least at the beginning it really was an updated version of "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour", with the prospect finding "undiscovered talent". It is/was part of the American experience that anyone with talent can make it. Even past the "nurturers" with their own agendas.

The Gong Show of the 70's turned it on its ear... IMHO, mocking everything the innocent talent show stood for.

re: CA...yep. :::sigh::: and I love my home state.

Darleen   ·  June 10, 2007 7:41 PM

Amateurism was originally an aristocratic conceit. Its last gasp was the Olympics, which only recently has allowed itself to be sullied by grubby lower class people who have to engage in sports for money.

triticale   ·  June 10, 2007 9:34 PM

If there was no cult of the amateur would Keen even get published? A professional does not fret about gaining a measure of success in his field after all.

On California's mandated dog mutilation law: There will be lawsuits. Expect it to get overturned on property rights grounds.

Alan Kellogg   ·  June 11, 2007 1:41 AM

Correction: A professional does not fret about others gaining a measure of success in his field after all.

Alan Kellogg   ·  June 11, 2007 1:43 AM

A while ago, my wife and I decided to no longer go to the chain restaurants that all have the same deserts. We now choose between a bunch of local restaurants that put more thought into their offerings including desserts.

In Ontario, pit bulls are already banned, but that law is being fought in the courts. In "tolerant" Canada, I don't expect this to be overturned by something like property rights. Sadly, that is not in the Charter of Rights.

I rarely watch TV. I don't mind a few programs now and then, but I usually put in movies instead. Now, if only I had time to watch more movies. I am indeed often on the Internet, but it is just a tool. Don't blame the tv shows like idol. Blame the people that allow themselves to get suckered into thinking these offerings are above the waste of time level. Too many people dwell on things that don't matter.

John M Reynolds

jmrSudbury   ·  June 11, 2007 10:32 AM

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