CULT OF THE AMATEUR

Posted in Rants on June 17th, 2008 by Ed

Andrew Keen's popular (although sometimes savagely reviewed) Cult of the Amateur is uniformly terrible. Much of his moralizing and snobbery – not the Fox News epithet kind, but real, honest-to-god snobbery – would be funny if he were not so deadly serious. For the unfamiliar, the book is a jeremiad about how the internet is killing Our Culture because it allows anyone with a computer to fill the cultural arena with pure bullshit. This is undoubtedly and obviously true. What Keen utterly fails to do, however, is defend the superiority of the "establishment" in comparison to the rank amateurism of the internet. Is Wikipedia inherently inferior to Encyclopedia Brittanica? Is Pitchfork inferior to the chatter at your local record store (pretend for a moment that most towns even still have them, aside from big box chains)? Are bloggers really providing less news than Fox and CNN? Is ginandtacos inherently inferior to Serious, Professional, Credentialed editorials in Offical News Sources? Hell, there are hundreds of people on the crude, lowbrow internet who write better critical essays on a daily basis than David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer have written in their entire lives (to say nothing of vacuous, widely-circulated ass clowns like Laura Ingraham).

Keen's irrational obsession with comparing the proliferation of DIY crap via the internet to Marxism is his Achille's Heel. The internet's power to give anyone a soapbox does not imply equality. Shit is still shit. There simply is more of it. The actual problem, which Keen misses entirely, is not that the internet is Marxism incarnate but that the internet is like the nightmare libertarian version of market forces untamed. Since nearly anyone can use it to spread whatever information he or she desires and content is completely unregulated, the internet is simply more able to respond to demand than the traditional media. A blog about celebrity gossip or fashion becomes popular because people want to read about celebrity gossip and fashion. Said blog becomes important because it becomes popular (note how often TMZ, for instance, is now cited as a source by establishment newspaper and news networks). Popularity drives demand which drives legitimacy, since the market is our sole arbiter of right and wrong.

The complete absence of overhead – starting one's own record label, magazine, or TV network versus starting a blog for $7/month – is the only difference from regular media. The internet simply allows more people to participate in the race to the cultural bottom. The market rewards stupidity and consistently punishes that which Keen would consider "good" or quality. Frontline gets worse ratings than Survivor. Wikipedia gets more readers than Brittanica. Pro Wrestling draws millions more viewers than the Olympics or World Series. The reason for all three of these examples is that the more popular item is judged to be more fun and requires less thought. The market will reward base entertainment over quality every single time.

The problem with the internet is not its cult of amateurish nonsense but the fact that, as the most perfect example of an unregulated market for information with almost no barrier to entry, it encourages amateurish nonsense to proliferate. It is full of baseless conspiracy bullshit and "news" that is flat-out wrong because people seem to enjoy reading baseless conspiracy bullshit and news that is flat-out wrong. The internet, in other words, merely flanks the costs of entry into conventional media and more efficiently gives consumers what they want. Gossip. Pop culture. Porn. Angry white backlash. Shit. Mountains and mountains of shit. Establishment media give readers/viewers mountains of shit too. The internet just does it more efficiently, for which Keen apparently cannot forgive it.

Blogging teaches one about these market forces very quickly. Things that are well thought-out, serious, and even-handed rarely attract attention or interest. Spouting off half-cocked and full of bravado generates the comments, links, and hits. After a few years I have reached the point of being able to tell how much response a post will get before it's even written. Things I consider to be "good" and involving effort = neck-breaking yawns. Things I write in 20 minutes while I'm pissed off, inevitably riddled with ad hominems and arguments unsupported by fact = hits. The internet is not a cult of amateurism as much as it is a medium that allows every shmuck with a modem to experience Mencken's truism about opinion discourse: the most popular are inevitably those who preach what they know to be false to people they know to be idiots.