Critics · Culture · Internet · Knowledge Society · Media · Technology · Theory · Virtual Activism · Web 2.0

The Cult of the Expert

or One Monkey’s Random Clickity Clacking

It seems somewhat ironic that I went out and bought Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture”, a book dedicated to pricking the Web 2.0 bubble.  Why is this ironic?  Because I became aware of this book through the very channels that Mr. Keen seems to take issue with… that is, the blogosphere and citizen journalism.  I had no idea who Keen was until I read a weblogg-ed’s June 13th entry entitled “Web 2.0 as ‘Cultural and Intellectual Catastrophe’”  referring to Keen’s blog on the Britannica website, then I read an MSNBC story about his new book which I found through digg, then I realized that Keen himself is the keynotes speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 conference that I will be attending.

So everything that I read about the book beforehand was very harsh, including the comments left for Keen on his own blog.  But the title and the argument were provocative.  There are certainly a number of issues and criticisms one can have regarding Web 2.0, however I refused to believe that this was solely a criticism regarding the one thing that I see as being the MOST beneficial aspect of Web 2.0… it’s democratizing effects.  I had to read the book for myself and understand what Keen was trying to say.

A really interesting thing about this book is that I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the “facts” that Keen reports, in terms of how the Internet is undermining “truth” and “democratizing” media information and art.  However he approaches non-democratized versions of truth (that is, personal individualized truth) as invalid or somehow less true than the truth which is bestowed upon us from the Cult of the Expert.  His elitism shines through by referring to the Internet as perpetuating the “infinite monkey theorem” subtly suggesting that the majority of current Internet users are monkeys, clacking away at the keyboard, hysterically laughing and playing with themselves as they gibber and interact with the other monkey’s gibberish that surrounds them.

Keen’s view on the democratization of culture is that it is revolutionary and negative because it means fewer profits for big media… because it means less cultural control of the traditional hegemonic institutions and it means that the “monkeys” get to run the show.  He states that user-created content “sucks economic value” out of commodified culture. And I must agree with all of these “facts”.  However my reaction to all of these aspects of cultural democratization is… Woohoo! Bring on the Cultural Revolution!

It’s odd because Keen was an Web 2.0 insider at the beginning of the revolution.  He was all for democratization until he realized the very real potential it had to provoke fundamental change.  He states: “the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers.”  He seems to be afraid of all this user created content and market empowerment; viewing it as threatening the jobs of some of the highest paid elitist groups in our society… academics, journalists, editors, publishers, television, Hollywood; the bourgeois if I may evoke the ghost of my old friend Marx.  Essentially Keen is speaking out against post-modern culture and the notion of post-modern truth.

But as hard as he tries to convince me, the reader, that this is a bad thing… I just don’t draw the same conclusions as he does from the evidence he supplies. And can come up with counter-examples to his proofs.  For all of his railing about unsubstantiated subjective information, he in no way provides empirical evidence of a causal relationship between the rise in Web 2.0 technologies and the supposed decline of civility in our culture or accuracy in our information.  In fact, most empirical evidence which ties Web 2.0 technologies to the real world shows that the Internet actually reinforces and enhances community networks and social ties among people.

Keen presents the traditional (and current) authorities of information, those “cultural gatekeepers” as having provided Western, literate and leisure based societies with an ideal and satisfying culture.  Perhaps the message is “better stick with the predictable evil you know than go with the stupid ignorance you don’t”.  Somehow, someway, Keen appears to differentiate the quality of substance between dancing monkeys on YouTube and a television show like The OC.  There is an obvious disconnect throughout the whole book between the Internet and real life.  When was Millennial and Internet culture not critically bound up in the corporate-consumer-culture that constructed it?

Perhaps the most laughable (and frustrating) aspect of the book is the assumption of integrity in today’s media, particularly with regards to journalism.  He speaks to information unreliability and misinformation, the problem with amateurs offering their personal understandings of the world via the blog, and the false truths about the Web 2.0 collective consciousness.  He states that professional media is less likely to report falsity, and is more objective than Joe Blogger because there is an industry standard of practices and ethical conduct (It is interesting to note here that this very point is one which has been echoed in a critical academic discourse regarding why academic knowledge is more valuable and true than the truth perpetuated by the media).

What Keen neglects to account for is competitiveness in the 24-hour news cycle, where much hearsay and speculation is discussed as time allows for light to be shed on the facts of a Fast-Breaking News Situation.  Recall during the 2004 election, the infamous RatherGate debaucle.  Recall the wasted and panic-filled news day on January 31 2007 as CNN reported mysterious electronic devices being found across the Northeast which ended up being a promotion for one of it’s sister stations.

Keen frets over online anonymity and those who would easily fake their credentials.  Recall author James Frey and his memoir novel A Million Little Pieces.  Recall the 28 year deception of the Dean of Admissions at MIT. People have been, and will be faking credentials long before Web 2.0.

Keen claims that “This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft and stifling creativity.”
He states that the advent of Web 2.0 will result in “less culture less reliable news and a chaos of useless information.”  It’s hard to blame Web 2.0 for the chaos of useless information.  Recall the dedicated top of the hour news time dedicated to Anna Nicole-Smith and Paris Hilton.  Just sit back and try to count the amount of irrelevant and useless information we are fed on an hourly basis by traditional media.

I’d say that the undermining of the currently consented to version of truth actually enhances the quality of civil public discourse.  It brings more perspectives to the table, amateur perspectives from those monkeys on the street that actually keep this current system running.  Besides, bad information is presented to us every day.  It’s even published in our books and newspapers and encyclopedias, it is flashed on a ticker scrolling at the bottom of our television set, it is reinforced by our music and movies.  Yet it is Web 2.0 technologies that are threatening the integrity of knowledge and wisdom in our society?  At least if someone publishes something false on Wiki it can be rectified immediately… rather than having to wait 6 months for an errata to be published and mailed out to all of Britannica’s customers.  If a journalist writes a biased piece, critics can immediately comment as to how that piece is biased. Immediacy of correction and connection between reader and disseminator of information are things that can assist in clarifying the mis and disinformation that threatens the civil public discourse.

Regarding plagiarism and intellectual property theft… cutting, pasting and passing off as your own is a problem.  It is sleazy and it sucks.  Perhaps if educators offered students original curriculum to be analyzed, plagiarism wouldn’t be such a widespread problem.  I am somewhat against the notion of intellectual property mostly because as the amount of information produced increases the harder it becomes to decipher “original” versions of that information or idea.  It’s a bad idea to let lawyers and lobbyists decide who owns the rights to what information and ideas.  And I can’t even begin to imagine how giving monkeys tools and technology to produce and collaborate their own culture can stifle creativity.  I think monkey culture might be pretty cool.

Keen is right, Web 2.0 is changing our culture and value systems, but change is not necessarily bad.  Culture evolves alongside of technology… and revolutionary technology changes our daily realities.  When we started driving cars, we had to adapt our infrastructure and our daily life changed.  We were able to live outside the communities where we worked.  Blacksmiths probably had a tough go of it back then as their livelihoods were threatened by this new technology.  But did we say “stop driving cars because these Blacksmiths might be put out of a jobs”?

I agree with Keen when he says that as a society we are “easily seduced, corrupted, and led astray.”  But I believe that in most cases this happens through the very institutions that we are supposed to bestow our blind trust in.  While he makes some really good arguments and addresses a lot of issues that need to be thought about and brought into the public discourse on the matter (especially those in the chapter titled “1984 (version 2.0)”); what he doesn’t seem to see (or he does see it and thinks it’s irrelevant) is that the very culture and value system that he wishes to preserve or save from the unruly cultural chaos of Web 2.0, is the main perpetrator of the cacophony in and of itself.  Celebrity culture, the pursuit of money wealth and fame, the sense of entitlement that exists in advanced post-industrial societies, these are all things that make Myspace and blogspot so popular.  They are all the things that drive the culture of narcissism.  So is he for it or against it… this reader is left confused.

The integrity of information and fragmentation of our inundated collective consciousness is something that we should be concerned about.  We are moving from a top-down to a bottom-up societal epistemology and culture and the network that is the Internet is dragging us there whether we like it or not.  It has a life of its own now and is more powerful than any of us really want to admit.

Those who are feeling most threatened and vulnerable to it right know are those who stand to lose the greatest in terms of power, status and authority.  It seems to me that if those traditional gatekeepers of our knowledge, information and culture continue to oppose it… and become distant from it… they are only going to make themselves more irrelevant to it as it continues to grow and live.

While he raises some valid points regarding the need for a critical understanding of information and deciphering truth, I personally find it hard to blame Web 2.0 for the perpetuation of mis- and disinformation wars.  Whether it be for personal, political or private gain.  And I don’t believe that regulating it is the proper approach to harnessing it.  Because implying that regulation of the Social Web is possible and desirable, does not respect the organic nature of it.

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11 thoughts on “The Cult of the Expert

  1. Hey Charlene,
    Hang in there with the non-smoking.
    I just have to wonder at someone who thinks that people sharing info is a cause for concern. Only a facist would have that kind of attitude. And as far as gatekeepers, I’ve seen so many slap-shots go thru that the whole notion seems absurd. The filters put on the media have one thing in mind; keeping the advertizers. that’s the bottom line and it’s nothing new. this guy Keen is just another whore with attitude. thanks for the link and best regards.
    neil

  2. good points…
    good luck on quitting smoking. Im always battling back n forth between non smoking/smoking. I find drinking is the main trigger, because of the low inhibition factor. I havvn’t had time to read everything but you & dave are moving to europe, you for school?

  3. Given that Keen is talking along with charlie Leadbetter at the York web 2.0 event it would be great if you would contribute/link some of this to the conference blog. I will do it if you like…thanks for your interest in the event.

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