Monday, September 03, 2007

Cult Following, Part One

Okay, users and musers, it's time for another Virtualpolitik book review. And this time it's a double-header, with the more recent The Cult of the Amateur going up against a tried-and-true classic, The Cult of Information.

As you can see above, Keen made a bad showing on the Colbert Report, in which he compares Web 2.0 to the Third Reich and claims "even the Nazis didn't put artists out of work." Keen goes on to assert that if no one "pays" for art then it must not have any aesthetic value. Colbert points out to Keen that the Presidency has been a much greater source of influential misinformation than distributed networks.

Ironically, Keen also sent his book tour spam to the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity, which prompted outrage about Keen's use of their online community for his anti-Web 2.0 self-promotion in a thread called "Spammer de la Silicon Valley." At the same time the iDC's own Trebor Scholz has put together a much more thoughtful critique in his course syllabus on The Social Web, which asks "Is it feasible to live ethical, meaningful lives in the context of the Social Web today?"

It is precisely these kinds of serious questions about digital sociality that Keen avoids in his light read on file-sharing culture. Much of it just repurposes the rhetoric of criminality already in the mainstream media in which the Internet is merely a conduit of the Seven Deadly Sins. (Unlike our government, at least Keen doesn't equate it with terrorism as well.)

I'm certainly leery of many aspects of Web 2.0, but Keen's book is supremely illogical at a number of critical junctures. He's right that the word "democratization" is often misapplied to networked social media that are sometimes callow get-rich-quick schemes, and that search engine technology presents an insidious threat to privacy. And the final chapter on "solutions," with the exception of the call for greater regulation, is not an entirely stupid call for hybrid print-Internet initiatives.

At one point he moralizes about how "Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell didn't hide between aliases while debating one another." Of course, lots of great literature was written under a pseudonym, particularly -- as Bitch PhD's Tedra Osell has pointed out -- literature written by women. What about Sor Juana, George Sand, George Eliot, or the Brontë sisters who wrote under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? It's noticeable, actually, how little of the "great art" that Keen declares to be in danger is written by women.

His claims about the threats to the academy are also problematic. He bemoans the status of Encyclopedia Britannica, but doesn't acknowledge that the decline of encyclopedic writing by academics has as much to do with tenure and reward systems that no longer recognize work done for reference works as it does with the existence of rival upstart Wikipedia. Then he totally loses me when he talks about the terrible effects that custom publishing has wrought in higher education. As the Writing Director for a large-enrollment first-year course, I'm grateful not to be stuck with irrelevant readers or writing textbooks that don't address the ambitious inquiry-based humanities instruction that we provide.

He also may be over-investing print in stability and authority, given that historians like Adrian Johns point out that ink-and-paper media were also fractious and contentious spaces.

As the owner of a small apartment building, who also has to periodically rent apartments through Craigslist, I'm not nostalgic for the old days of newsprint classified ads in the way that Keen is. He should be old enough to remember that these ads were enormously time-consuming and didn't allow for easy exchanges of different kinds of information between contractual parties.

Finally, it seems strange to me that Keen won't acknowledge the role that media conglomeration has played in the struggles of national newspapers and other media ventures that focus on return for shareholders rather than serving a particular segment of the geographical population.

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Blogger bob c said...

this subject matter and the accompaning opinions and conclusions always reminds me of the discusions that must have taken place throughout time as each step in technology took place. One can just hear the debate on the use of fire when the reliable means of its creation was being diseminated. We all know fire can be helpful or deadly. As with all things, it is we that bring the problems to the technology. The discusion should focus on the magnitude of our potential use, abuse or misuse and the safeguards that are, could or should be in place. Maybe they tried but time will tell who was more correct and/or honest in critical thought. Then WE asess the risks, virtues and costs. Of course, that is if they want us to think for ourselves.

5:07 PM  

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