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Rant of the Almost Rich: The Illogic of Andrew Keen

Friday, November 2, 2007

Andrew Keen “almost became rich” on the Internet. Now, he's written a bitter book attacking the "amateurs" who have succeeded where he couldn't.

Sometimes very smart people do very dumb things. Consider Bill Clinton's brilliant international, social and economic policies against his choices regarding interns and public statements to the American people. Or consider Steve Carell's genius for comic timing against the decision to sign on for both "Evan Almighty" and "Dan In Real Life." Or consider Steve Jobs’ thought leadership in product design and media against his choice of service providers for the iPhone. These things happen. Gifted people can be stupid too.

Most, however, do not publicly contemplate and document their own moments of stupidity. Andrew Keen has. By any measure, Keen is one bright cookie -- as a technologist, entrepreneur, media critic and lucid writer. He has been in the eye of the storm that is Silicon Valley investment and start-up culture. He has fought the brave fight, and he has sent missives back from the front lines of it all. We trusted his view, once. All this seems thrown into dramatic relief with his absurd "polemic," " The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture."

Keen casts his concerns for the degradation of our culture in the light of philosophical inquiry. He means to look, he claims, at the serious issues of innovation, privacy, creativity and the economic vitality of the nation – all threatened to near extinction by the Web.

In fact, he whines - for 205 pages - in a repetitive pattern that makes the book little more than a circling mosquito that never lands nor bites. The same "argument" was delivered ad nauseum on The Colbert Report as well, coming off as a dandied and pursed "because I said so" more than an intellectual case for change. Mr. Keen believes his argument is beyond argument, yet somehow requires much repeating.

The crux of his stupidity – or, in kinder words, his profound logical fallacy – is this: the "truth" is a neatly formed, certainly agreed upon, completely stable entity that only a few folks get to touch, protect and distribute.

The truth, in Keen’s world, lives only in certain places, and only "professionals” – journalists, researchers, others with advanced degrees – can possibly get to it. By this logic, new ideas come only out of universities, labs and offices, and fully formed at that.

The Internet, by connecting regular folks and their dangerously uninformed minds, threatens the "truth." It disrupts the neat order of things

Indeed, it does. And that is why it is so powerful in terms of creativity, innovation and collaboration. We can recombine things in new ways, like never before. It’s a giant experiment, and some of it will work and some of it will fail. It’s a real-time, fascinating, boring, accurate, laughable, wonderful, maddening, useful and useless ramble through human curiosity and attempt. Such freedom is dangerous – but we’ve known this since our revolutionary founding as a country. Freedom of expression and the press was a radical notion, and it still is. Keen is uncomfortable with this.

Mr. Keen wants to protect these forces by stopping them? If we could just hold life still for a bit, he implies, we'd all be OK for a good long while. The dictatorial bent to Keen’s argument is disturbing: his trust in the established order is so blind that he seems to believe that those with power simply deserve power. That’s one way of being OK with the state of affairs. It’s also the basis for fascism and totalitarian rule. A messy, inaccurate social roar is certainly better than the silence of sheep to slaughter.

Even in this late stage of modern life, Keen believes in the integrity of the news media. His naiveté about how the machine actually works is staggering. Sure, the fourth estate should be the vetted voice of what’s what, but that has become a quaint idea of the past, no matter how regrettable that may be.

Was it not the “trusted” and “professional” mainstream media that failed to examine claims about WMDs ? Was it not the “trusted” and “professional” mainstream media that brought us Jayson Blair and other high-profile plagiarists ? Was it not the “trusted” and “professional” mainstream media that ran dozens of prepared video “news” releases from the Bush administration, falsely justifying support and progress in Iraq? Was it not the “trusted” and “professional” mainstream media that turned en masse from investigative journalism to infotainment and paid placements ? What is Keen defending here? Surely he is aware of the amazing political and financial pressures that make “objective journalism” a phrase few can even speak with a straight face. Nevermind all that: blame The Internet.

Keen is also concerned about scientific rigor, not just journalistic integrity. A bunch of crazy kids are putting nothing but damned lies on Wikipedia, according to Keen, denigrating the careful scholarship of the hundreds of editors at the Encyclopedia Britanica on important biological issues, for example. It hurts sales, too. Indeed, education matters, as do peer-reviewed journals, but open dialogue and debate are also part of intellectual growth. (Nevermind the role Wikipedia played in providing the first and only archive of unfolding events during the massacre at Virginia Tech).

One might benefit from a broader view, realize that we aren’t at the end of the game just yet, and consider stunningly responsible, wonderful advances like the Encyclopedia of Life . This is an evolutionary step from Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 platforms Keen despises, but not a far one. How could Keen mistake a technological approach – an innovation in information gathering and sharing – for its ultimate, still unrealized, application?

Keen is as cranky as Henry Adams was being pulled from the 19th to 20th centuries by the force of the dynamo . Almost as if to prove how out of touch he is, Keen even attacks the value of Google, its search results and the success of its advertising-based revenue model. YouTube is a disruptive nuissance to him (and one might assume color TV is as well). The markets do not agree with Mr. Keen, and neither do most Internet thinkers. Search is likely the future of navigation itself.

Perhaps most disappointingly, Keen forgets or ignores the vital roles of readers and editors, and how these two are becoming one thing. Yes, there is a great bastion of fools out there, and they’ve always had a voice, whether from well-funded pulpits or the bullhorn of Jerry Springer . Now, though, they are confronted by countless readers, scholars, editors – and smart every day folk – who can debate them, call them to task, set them straight.

Keen apparently believes only dummies write and only dummies read, himself excluded. He has no faith in the social fabric and filter he claims to protect. Is he really suggesting that we all “believe everything we read” on the Web? The line between fact and fiction has always been gray, but the reader has always had the power to know insight from bullshit, too.

Keen unwittingly proves this point by “exposing” Wal-Mart’s social networking “Hub” as a move to “calculatingly play to our false assumptions about the ‘realness’ of the amateur” by engaging teenagers to make free advertisements for cable television. Far from being a smart calculation, Wal-Mart’s efforts were DOA – instantly mocked for what they were by the “amateurs” on the Internet . Keen should have done his Internet homework on this well-documented failure. According to Keen’s own logic, readers should believe his “professional” (if limited) view of the Wal-Mart “Hub” effort because it is printed in a “real book” with a “real editor.” By all means, forget the “wisdom of crowds” and what they exposed on the Internet. A bit embarrassing, really.

The role of the editor and aggregator is just this: to separate the wheat from the chaff, not take it all to market as worthy offering. Keen believes the Internet is all chaff, so it seems, and thus approaches intellectual starvation in this book. It simply is not an argument he has tested, thus the maddening repetitions, as if he is trying to convince himself along with us.

Any author who makes such high-minded claims about being informed, intelligent and committed to the truth brings upon himself a mighty burden to know his subject. Keen attacks the “amateur” ruthlessly but never knows, really, about what he writes. The amateur, to Keen, is merely the uninformed, the dangerous masses. He mistakes the “amateur” for the “fool,” another logical fallacy for this smart man. If Keen himself were more responsible, he would have avoided becoming his own foolish subject.

“Amateur,” as it turns out, is quite a compliment. It comes from the Latin “amator,” or one who loves, and reaches us in the mid-18th century on the French tongue. The amateur works for pleasure, pursues labors of love – not money. Professionals, those that Andrew Keen so celebrates and trusts, perform only for money. For the amateur, the money - and so much more - comes later, a reward for the dedication of the heart to something it adores. This is why Robert Frost writes in “ Two Tramps in Mud Time ”:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Most true entrepreneurs will say some version of the same thing: I did it for the love of the hunt, the fun or it all, as an expression of myself. The money was never the point; it came when I did what I loved.

Consider Steve Jobs’ early efforts, which surely would leave Keen as unimpressed as he is with Wikipedia and YouTube. Things worked out OK for this "amateur" kid who disrupted things.

early_computer.gif

 

This difference between the love of the thing itself and the desire for “professional” reward is, in fact, the lie of Andrew Keen’s bitter book. Keen tells us upfront: “I peddled the original Internet dream. I seduced investors and I almost became rich.”

That Keen was in it for investor money, that his business ethos is one of seduction, that he is angry about not catching his own golden ring – well, we can’t help but feel sorry for him. He never knew the glory and purity of the amateur pursuit – of never uniting his vocation and avocation, we must believe. To attack others who have found the personal and economic power of the amateur – and proven to be smarter, savvier and richer in spirit and wallet – reveals only the bitterness of Keen’s loss, not the wisdom of his claims.

We have a “moral responsibility…to protect mainstream media from the cult of the amateur” so we preserve “professional standards of truth, decency and creativity,” Keen preaches in his conclusion, making a plainly laughable suggestion that mainstream media is somehow a victim (forget its own role in losing readers’ trust and not evolving). Perhaps he is aiming to restore things damaged from his previous financial seductions? Or is he merely continuing his self-interest, as someone who lives off of articles in traditional magazines and a newly published book? It’s hard to understand where such claims would find solid ground otherwise.

In Keen’s view, we must be protected from ourselves so that the systems and economies currently in place thrive and do not hurt anybody. We must stop markets from changing, evolving – stop them from the very self-regulating, objective acts they exist to perform. Yes, that’s it: stop what hurt Keen himself, what rendered him an “almost” instead of a “winner.” Because he lost in the economic game, we must all now agree to sit on the sidelines?

There is no more dangerous idea to democratic capitalism than this desire to kill market forces. And believing in such an illogical concept is precisely why Andrew Keen “almost” got rich; he has likely believed he is smarter than the market before. It is also why such a smart man has written such an utterly illogical book.

If Keen doesn’t want us to believe everything published on the Internet, I happily applaud, as much of it is little more than bunk.  My only requirement in return? We also don’t have to believe everything published by Andrew Keen.

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