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a review of “The Cult of the Amateur” by Andrew Keen

I recently attended a panel on the future of journalism with Clay Shirky and Andrew Keen, which spurred me to read and review Keen’s book entitled “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture”.

Keen’s book was published in 2007, which is an eternity in the Internet age — it predates the widespread adoption of Twitter, for example. However, much of what he says continues to be fundamentally right. The “democratization” of information as enabled by the Internet has resulted in millions of anonymous, ignorant bloggers, pundits and "social media experts" diminishing the value of journalism, music, arts, literature, and our very culture. On this point, Keen is very right.

However, as an amateur author himself, Keen fails at telling a compelling story without resorting to cheap rhetorical devices, sweeping generalizations based on out-of-context examples, and ultimately, panicked fear-mongering.

Open the book to any random page and you will find examples of the same kind of context-free, uninformed hysteria that Keen so readily disdains. I opened it to page 169 to read “Worse still, the data from 40 million MasterCard and Visa accounts was stolen in July 2005. Just think about that the next time you enter your credit card number on an online shopping site.” What is Keen trying to say here? That a single information security breach should be sufficient to give readers pause before using credit cards online, ever?

Let’s dig a little further into Keen’s example. This article indicates that the security breach had nothing to do with B2C transmission of credit card information, nor was an Internet merchant compromised. The security breach was in a backend payment processor’s systems, which wasn’t even supposed to be storing credit card information. So how is this incident directly correlated with online transaction fulfillment? Couldn’t this have happened to transactions conducted “offline” as well?

The more one digs into Keen’s examples, the more it’s clear that much context is being left out in the quest to write a strong polemic. Early in the book, Keen discussed the Wikipedia experience of Dr. William Connolley, an expert in climate change and global warming:

[Dr. Connolley] went head-to-head with a particularly aggressive Wikipedia editor over the site’s global warming entry, when, after trying to correct inaccuraces he noticed in the entry, he was accused of “strongly pushing his POV [point of view] with systematic removal of any POV which does not match his own.” Connolley, who was pushing no POV other than that of factual accuracy, was put on editorial parole by Wikipedia, and was limited to making one entry a day. When he challenged teh case, the Wikipedia arbitration committee gave no weight to his expertise, treating Connolley, an international expert on global warming, with the same deference and level of credibility as his anonymous foe–who, for all anyone knew, could have been a penguin in the pay of ExxonMobil.”

I agree that the Connolley case is unfortunate, but that’s all Keen has to say about the issue. One gets the impression that this is it — the arbitrator’s decision was final and Connolley was effectively banned from Wikipedia. In fact, Connolley’s “parole” was short-lived and, according to this article in the New Yorker, he went on to become an administrator of Wikipedia.

The book is littered with similar examples of Keen leaving out important context, often to dramatize a situation, and outrageous rhetorical devices. Take this quote from a section discussing the CIA’s internal systems to allow agents to share one another’s research, aerial photographs and videos (Keen calls this “spy-blogging”):

To justify spy-blogging, one defense expert at the Naval Postgraduate School … told the New York Times, "To fight a network like al Qaeda, you have to behave like a network." Next thing, they’ll be telling us that to beat the terrorists, they have to fly planes into tall buildings.

I can see no other purpose in the last sentence except to sex up an otherwise weak argument. What’s so bad about the CIA sharing data internally among their staff? They’ve done that for decades, probably since the inception of the CIA — except in the 1960’s it was called Internal Mail and all the data was stored in manila file folders, not hard drive folders.

In short, Keen’s book was a disappointment. There is an exceedingly strong argument to be made about amateurs undermining and devaluing a culture that’s curated primarily by professionals, but sadly Keen undermines his own argument by using overblown rhetorical devices, hysteria, and examples twisted to fit the polemic. Ironically, it could be because this is the mark of an amateur author.

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