“…we aren’t angels. We don’t always do the right thing. That is why we have enacted laws that help us to regulate our darker impulses and behaviours”. This is one of the key arguments that Andrew Keen advances against the so-called “Web 2.0” in his controversial 200-page easy-to-read rant “The Cult of the Amateur – How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting our Economy“.
Overall I liked the book, and would definitely put myself on the side of those supporting his general theses, rather than side myself with those (many) people who have been savaging his book. But before offering some comments on why I think the book was overall good, here’s my take on the negative aspects:
- He demonstrates an at times unsustainable faith in the “old media” – Keen has a strong loyalty to the print media and the professionalism of their trade. This might be justified for the broadsheets in many countries but his argument is an elitist one: we, the people, should trust the professionals because we don’t have their depth of knowledge and skill. Whilst I appreciate that he is not arguing that people should dispense with critical faculties and blindly trust what the press tells us, the overall tone comes over as hectoring and at times irritatingly patronising
- In places, his style borders on shallow sensationalism with important points driven home with a series of “shock, horror” examples of the degeneracy of Web 2.0 advocates and practitioners. Maybe we’ve become all too inured to it but his horror stories of the Web are not news and – if he wishes us to take his alarm seriously – he could do with better examples.
Anyway, overall, I did enjoy the book and it throws up a series of important questions that I think are worthy of mention:
- In the future, will all “content” be free and commoditized or is the view that content still has value and ownership, a view worth defending?
- If all online content is free at point of use, does this automatically mean paying for it somewhere, somehow? Where does the money come from? And into whose pockets will it go? Frankly, this is the most worrying issue: Keen raises the daunting prospect that we’ll never be able to buy a piece of music, film or book in the future because it will all be available for free – thus no incentive for anyone to charge for content – but at the price of intrusive, ever-better targeted and non-negotiable advertising. This does keep me awake at night and many apologists of Web 2.0 offended with the supposedly arcane rules of intellectual property, don’t seem to care a fig for the costs: the smarter geeky ones will always be able to find workarounds and hacks but ordinary folk are the ones that will be burdened. Think of the simple example today of an increasing number of legally purchased DVDs: not only can I not skip the intrusive anti-piracy warning (D’uh, I’ve just bought your sodding film) but I am also forced to view through a series of trailers for other films and I cannot skip them. I find this intellectually offensive.
- Time is now our most valuable and only partly tradable commodity and yet there is no way today to negotiate and defend it online (or indeed with many digitized business processes). Time (and cost) savings on the part of Web service providers is often at the cost of the end user.
- In a supposedly “democratized” and “flattened” web-based market of information, it will be the most technologically savvy who will benefit most – knowing all the best tricks to get the best deals. Note, I am not against people leveraging their intelligence and skill to get ahead but this is the first time that mastery of the medium itself – the tool – is as much a key as mastery of the content. And when so many web interfaces are dire, bordering on criminally negligent, then sometimes you do need immense technical skill to access content effectively and safely. So much for an egalitarian Web.
- I don’t share his apparent sympathy for the RIAA and MPAA but the big question is surely: how to reverse the vicious circle of increasing piracy and increased digital rights management (DRM). If the music industry wasn’t so greedy (still more than €20 for a prime CD for goodness sake and how much do the musicians get?) and accepted more modest pricing, maybe more people would be willing to pay the honest, legal way. Look around the world at cheap public transportation schemes and the rates of fare-dodging compared with high-price ones. Or, more topically, Microsoft’s decision to offer genuine Vista to the Chinese market at a much lower price than elsewhere in the world as a discouragement to fraudsters. I simply don’t buy Keen’s defence that the big industry players are defending the intellectual property of content authors. They are not, they are defending profit margins. That said, intellectual property can and should be defended but the alternative to the big business stranglehold is not the anarchy of piracy.
- Should we shed tears over losses in advertising revenue? This is a tricky one. I loathe advertising, except at the point of sale, but can see Keen’s point that advertising revenue keeps many people in work and traditional media afloat. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to stand against certain industries that do more social harm than good: the prospect of accessible content being kept available, but only at the cost of advertising for things that most of us can anyway do without, does fill me with dread.
- Does any moral or political responsibility go hand in hand with ubiquitous Internet access? Internet “freedom fighters” are allergic to any form of public sector intervention but surely the issue of social responsibility should trump their immature posturing?
- There is an insidiousness to the “easy come, easy go” culture ascendant in, for example, gambling but it does not stop there. It seems to imbue the whole ethos of Web 2.0: “OK, our service screwed up big time and you all lost lots of money, sensitive personal data, etc but our brand shiny new improved service sorts that all out. Please give us your custom again…”, and we do.
All in all, a worthy, easy read but it only touches the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t spend enough effort on addressing the whys and wherefores of an adequate reply to the malaise.