Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Amateur Night: Web 2.0 Meets the Wild Wild West

Title: The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World Is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values

Author: Andrew Keen

Publisher: Doubleday/Currency

Price: $24.95

ISBN: 9780385520805

A sports blog may not be the ideal venue for which to review a book about the Internet and what its technological wonders hath wrought upon our society, culture, economy and moral direction. But this is just as much a media-centric site, and on that basis we weigh in on—both for and against—Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, a provocative attack on the evils of the Web.

Keen’s straightforward theme avers that the proliferation of Web technology and its wide and easy access to any Joe or Jane has created a rudderless, authority-less media environment responsible for the following primary ills:

1. A general and alarmingly casual disregard for facts (i.e., the truth about certain things)

2. A democratized approach to learning (e.g., Wikipedia), wherein those with expert opinion (and conventional credentials) are being pushed aside by an army of amateur thinkers and journalists

3. The rapid (and continuing and probably inevitable) financial decline in traditional media such as newspapers and magazines

4. The absolute destruction of the music business as we once knew it

5. The potential destruction of the film business

6. A compromised society-wide morality (especially among the younger, cut-and-paste generations) that fails to recognize theft of intellectual property as a criminal act (Keen dubs this scene a kleptocracy)

7. An onslaught of exposure to pornography that is warping minds and further fueling an atmosphere where sexual deviance and predatory activities are fostered

It’s tough to argue with any of this. What Keen says is true, and he brings in pertinent facts and some interesting interview responses to bulwark his points. Anyone who’s smart and Web-savvy—and also is a critical reader and observer—would have to embrace his commentary, which is expressed in eminently readable prose and with palpable passion.

What Keen refers to as the Web 2.0 environment is indeed a bit of the Wild Wild West, and what he calls the Web’s “narcissistic, self-congratulatory, self-generated content revolution” has spawned millions of blogs (many rigorously unedited, and all immune to libel laws into the bargain); a deluge of home-made (often pointless) or otherwise stolen YouTube material; music piracy on a devastating financial scale; the draining of massive advertising dollars from the coffers of daily newspapers (Craig’s List is solely responsible for much of it, with its free classifieds); and a startling lack of citizen knowledge about, or care for, the laws of copyright infringement in general, which is transforming us all into thieves of one kind or the other.

Maybe what’s at stake most are the economics of the situation. Media conglomerates are cutting jobs. The rise of the Web has traditional print outlets running scared for sure, their only solution to launch affiliated Web sites of their own and try to ride that new wave while continuing to produce their well-edited product without having to resort to cheesy, celebrity-news journalism. But if more newspapers fold, and if Disney is cutting employees (which they’ve done recently), then there’s certainly a disconnect among mainstream media, its audience, its advertisers, and its vehicles of delivery.

Yes, the Web is to blame, mainly because that’s where more and more of us are spending our time. Why put my head into a newspaper or wade through the TV jungle, when I can get it all on my Mac? Even ESPN—as powerful and profitable a media presence as there is today—looked encroachingly dated to me recently, if only because I can simply go to MLB.com and download the highlight baseball clips I want—when I want. The TiVo people do the same thing, and it’s all because we don’t have time for advertising or lame-ass garbage features like ESPN’s “Who’s Now” segments.

Not that this excuses any of Keen’s critical concerns about regard for truth or the rise in theft and amorality. The losses in the music biz have been outrageous in the past decade, and his figures on free downloads versus purchases are nothing less than stultifying. Keen does raise a good ancillary question, though. In this current environment, why do record companies continue to insist on charging $15-$20 for CDs when you can download the same thing online for $10, or simply pay $.99 per individual song? Meanwhile, MySpace has become the new marketing arm of musicianship everywhere, though, as Keen proves, that only seems to induce more free downloading. Hence, grassroots bands and songwriters aren’t getting paid any more often than their major-label contemporaries. Many simply aren’t paid at all.

No, it’s all clearly a mess, this Web 2.0 world, but someone is getting rich, right? Advertising and consumer dollars don’t completely vanish, they just get pushed around. The Craig’s List incursion into classified ads is a major, major development, however; that money stays right inside the pockets of the advertisers in that case. Ditto for the music: If I’m not spending $20 on a CD—since I downloaded it for free—what am I spending that money on instead?

Keen risks a brand of snobbery when he bemoans the rise of the amateur citizenry. In fact, a lot of the amateurs—increasingly well-educated and kept out of the media loop—have grown up, and they probably don’t trust the former traditional gatekeepers of news and entertainment any more than they trust themselves. The Web has empowered them, and the genie isn’t going back into the bottle. So the Web, with its amazing freedoms and instant information, is here to stay, but how to effectively—and openly—police its use and resources and make it a better, and more profitable, place for all? It’s certainly one of the major challenges of the 21st Century.

Keen offers a few solutions for the predicaments he cites, mostly of the legislative/governmental kind, though he also gets on parents, assigning them a key role in teaching their children on responsible use of the powerful electronic tools (and more are surely on the way) at their disposal.

Yet much of what Keen’s railing against has no immediate cure. There are simply too many gunslingers in town these days, and it’s doubtful Sheriff Keen (he's a Brit, by the way) will win the shootout. When all-powerful, relatively easily mastered, technology meets a rising tide of expression, Web 2.0 in the Wild Wild West is what you get. That means a work in progress. Still, his book is must reading for the media-wise and those aspiring thereto. (No doubt, the Web will help him sell some copies!)

[Point of order: Keen states in his book that Alan Parsons engineered The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road. Wrong—it was engineered by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald. I looked it up, and not on Wikipedia.]

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