September 2007

Arts & Letters

Let a thousand weeds bloom

By Gideon Haigh
Andrew Keen’s ‘The Cult of the Amateur’

When the impresario of the Weekly World News, Eddie Clontz, died in January 2004, there was a wave of nostalgic obituaries dwelling on his flair for shock-horror headlines: ‘WORLD WAR II BOMBER ON MOON’; ‘TINY TERRORISTS DISGUISED AS GARDEN GNOMES’; ‘OPRAH TO REPLACE LINCOLN ON $5 BILL’. There were fond tributes to the irrepressible Bat Boy who emerged from his cave to endorse Al Gore for president, and the vegan vampire lady who attacked trees.

The axing of the Weekly World News in July this year by its debt-burdened, loss-making owner, American Media Inc., occasioned contrastingly little fuss. From a peak of more than a million in the mid-’80s, the circulation of the Weekly World News had contracted to just 80,000 - and newspapers don’t bounce back as easily as Elvis, whom Clontz had first reported was alive, then dead again, only to reveal that his second death had been a fake as well. These days, news of the death of a newspaper, however storied, is hardly worth the paper needed to print it: one hears merely a distant rustling amid the global cacophony of clicks.

For all its outlandish content, the Weekly World News is following a now-familiar route: it will ‘survive’ vestigially as an online title. Yet this transition seems futile, given that its piss-take of tabloid ‘gotcha’ culture depended on mimicking an old-fashioned black-and-white newspaper. And on Web 2.0, aliens and monster cucumbers are already in passé abundance, while there are numberless versions of Clontz’s alter ego, the farouche right-wing columnist Ed Anger, who inveighed weekly against foreigners, yoga, whales and pineapple on pizza - albeit that these virtual equivalents are apparently in deadly earnest.

Web 2.0? For those who have only just adapted to email or placed their first tentative bid on eBay, it is the neologism coined by the Silicon Valley evangelist Tim O’Reilly to describe user-generated online phenomena such as blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, Digg and Reddit. Few such neologisms survive long enough to become oldologisms - remember ‘information super-highway’ and ‘infobahn’? - but this one looks to have staying power, perhaps because it is flushing out its first objectors.

Chief among them is Englishman Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur (Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $35). Like an earlier techno-scold, Clifford Stoll, the author of Silicon Snake Oil (1995) and High Tech Heretic (2000), Keen is an apostate, a former media entrepreneur who three years ago was radicalised by attending the FOO (Friends of O’Reilly) Camp in California’s Sonoma Valley: an annual conference of the “unconventionally rich” and “richly unconventional” who harbour both “a messianic faith in the economic and cultural benefits of technology” and “a shared hostility towards traditional media and entertainment”. At the incessant use of the word “democratization” and the exaltation of “noble amateurs”, Keen explains, he began to feel queasy, realising after a while that “even my gut was reacting to the emptiness at the heart of our conversation”.

Keen discharged his first salvoes against these prevailing orthodoxies in the online edition of the Weekly Standard, a conservative journal, in February last year. But he seems no more a conservative than a technophobe. The first examples he presents of Web 2.0 contaminating political discourse are the blogging campaign by the ‘Swift Boat Vets for Truth’ that undermined John Kerry during the 2004 US election, and the YouTube video ‘Al Gore’s Penguin Army’, devised by Washington lobbyists in the pay of ExxonMobil to ridicule An Inconvenient Truth. If he has an ideological antipode, it is Glenn Reynolds, the author of the digital utopia An Army of Davids (2006) and the keeper of the most successful American conservative blog, Instapundit.

The Cult of the Amateur leaves nothing to the imagination in its expository subtitle: ‘How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy’It is at once both alarming and also objectionable. Killing? Assaulting? Those wishing to raise concerns about a coarsening or degeneration of civic life should choose their words with more care. In any case, only the most Panglossian observer would contend that the entertainment-industrial complex must be preserved at all costs. If the culture is represented by Britney and Die Hard 4.0, then never mind the flowers - let a thousand weeds bloom. As for political dirty tricks, Donald Segretti seemed to manage without a modem.

Keen also betrays the limits of his experience as mainly a writer of opinion pieces, alighting briefly, describing partially: the effect is, perversely, a book freely condemning blogs which at times reads like one. There is sloppiness; there is repetition; there is self-indulgence. As a remonstration with the online sale of music, for example, Keen offers a long paean of praise to the defunct Tower Records in San Francisco, which closed last year, like hundreds of American independent music stores: customers, apparently, used to enjoy great service and guidance there. Well, I’m afraid I never went to Tower; and if the alternative is the sullen stoners who’ve always served me in record shops, file-sharing actually seems kinda nifty. Nor does he satisfactorily come to grips with the implications of the likes of Facebook and MySpace: for it seems little wonder that civil libertarians struggle to rouse the populace about threats to their privacy when so many people are throwing it away holus-bolus.

Yet, even if he sometimes argues it rather crudely, Keen offers the outline of a case to answer. Not everyone is equally equipped to contribute valuably to a culture. The blogophiles, Wikimaniacs and YouTubers believe passionately in publishing and posting everything, and letting the market sort it out; it’s touching, in fact, to see members of the purported Left so willingly in thrall to market forces, and submitting to the fondling of so many invisible hands. The risk is, of course, a sort of informational Gresham’s Law, in which bad content simply swamps good, a process abetted by search engines like Google and Yahoo and news aggregators like Digg and Reddit, which obsessively privilege the mass mind by relying on the collective behaviour of other users to prioritise the links they display. As Keen puts it:

As I write, there is a brutal war going on in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. But the Reddit user wouldn’t know this because there is nothing about Israel, Lebanon or Hezbollah on the site’s top twenty ‘hot’ stories. Instead, subscribers can read about a flat-chested English actress, the walking habits of elephants, a spoof of the latest Mac commercial and underground tunnels in Japan. Reddit is a mirror of our most banal interests.

And from all this, of course, there is big money to be made, although perversely not by those who create the content; rather, by those who harvest it. In one sense, the principles of Google and YouTube are less capitalist than feudal; we are all cheerful serfs, toiling happily to plant and tend what they reap and exploit.

What, meanwhile, is lost in the backwash from this wave of self-generated content? The subject of Keen’s most evolved thoughts is the old organisations of news-gathering, integral to an informed polity, but whose business model has been snagged by the online undertow. He quotes the telling statistic that the New York Times has 2.7 million paid subscribers to its print edition, generating US$1.7 billion a year, while its online version, with 40 million users a month, makes US$200 million. No wonder the Economist believes that half the world’s newspapers will fold in the next 20 years as readers migrate online.

Yet about this, nobody seems to give a monkey’s. The blogosphere might appear a raucous, reckless, plural place, but on one theme bipartisan harmony prevails: a sort of pouty, petulant, mooning-out-the-bus-window disdain for the so-called mainstream media, or MSM. Right-wing bloggers trash it as being full of liberal milquetoasts. Left-wing bloggers detest it because ... well, it’s unclear: perhaps, having swallowed too much unchewed Chomsky, because they perceive it as the plaything of corporate interests; perhaps, although God knows anyone walking through a newsroom will be struck by the preponderance of twenty-somethings, because they believe it lacks young voices; perhaps because op-ed editors won’t return their calls when they send in those scintillating opinion pieces that then clutter the internet. Who knows? Who cares? As a disaffected refugee from it, I struggle to find words of praise for the MSM. Yet Web 2.0 offers nothing to fill its reportorial function; indeed, its ethos sits ill with a public-service role, partly because it is so unapologetically partisan, partly because there is no penalty for falsehood. Fraudulent journalists - Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Adnan Hajj - suffer when they are exposed. But when the Wikipedia stalwart ‘EssJay’ was revealed earlier this year not as a tenured professor of religion, as he had claimed, but as a 24-year-old college drop-out, the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, defended him to the hilt: “EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community.”

Keen has written a mediocre book whose rich subject nonetheless makes it worth your time. For the stark-raving fans of Web 2.0 are reminiscent in their way of Donald Rumsfeld after Iraq slid into chaos following the Ba’athists’ fall. “Freedom is messy,” Rummy remarked famously. But mess isn’t freedom, and a culture without a hierarchy of talent, expertise and authority is as vulnerable as a democracy without institutions. And if readers aren’t shelling out for the headline ‘MAN BOTHERED BY ALIEN TELEMARKETERS’, then every masthead is in peril.

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