A month or so ago, Micah Sifry offered me a chance to respond to Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming Cult of the Amateur, at a panel at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum (PdF). The book is a polemic against the current expansion of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. Also on the panel were Craig Newmark and Robert Scoble, so I was in good company; my role would, I thought, be easy — be pro-amateur production, pro-distributed creation, pro-collective action, and so on, things that come naturally to me.

What I did not expect was what happened — I ended up defending Keen, and key points from Cult of the Amateur, against a panel of my peers.

I won’t review CotA here, except to say that the book is going to get a harsh reception from the blogosphere. It is, as Keen himself says, largely anecdotal, which makes it more a list of ‘bad things that have happened where the internet is somewhere in the story’ than an account of cause and effect; as a result, internet gambling and click fraud are lumped together with the problems with DRM and epistemological questions about peer-produced material. In addition to this structural weakness, it is both aggressive enough and reckless enough to make people spitting mad. Dan Gillmor was furious about the inaccuracies, including his erroneous (and since corrected) description in the book, Yochai Benkler asked me why I was even deigning to engage Andrew in conversation, and so on. I don’t think I talked to anyone who wasn’t dismissive of the work.

But even if we stipulate that the book doesn’t do much to separate cause from effect, and has the problems of presentation that often accompany polemic, the core point remains: Keen’s sub-title, “How today’s internet is destroying our culture”, has more than a grain of truth to it, and the only thing those of us who care about the network could do wrong would be to dismiss Keen out of hand.

Which is exactly what people were gearing up to do last week. Because Keen is a master of the dismissive phrase — bloggers are monkeys, only people who get paid do good work, and so on — he will engender a reaction from our side that assumes that everything he says in the book is therefore wrong. This is a bad (but probably inevitable) reaction, but I want to do my bit to try to stave it off, both because fairness dictates it — Keen is at least in part right, and we need to admit that — and because a book-burning accompanied by a hanging-in-effigy will be fun for us, but will weaken the pro-freedom position, not strengthen it.

The Panel

The panel at PdF started with Andrew speaking, in some generality, about ways in which amateurs were discomfiting people who actually know what they are doing, while producing sub-standard work on their own.

My response started by acknowledging that many of the negative effects Keen talked about were real, but that the source of these effect was an increase in the freedom of people to say what they want, when they want to, on a global stage; that the advantages of this freedom outweigh the disadvantages; that many of the disadvantages are localized to professions based on pre-internet inefficiencies; and that the effort required to take expressive power away from citizens was not compatible with a free society.

This was, I thought, a pretty harsh critique of the book. I was wrong; I didn’t know from harsh.

Scoble was simply contemptuous. He had circled offending passages which he would read, and then offer an aphoristic riposte that was more scorn than critique. For instance, in taking on Andrew’s point that talent is unevenly distributed, Scoble’s only comment was, roughly, “Yeah, Britney must be talented…”

Now you know and I know what Scoble meant — traditional media gives outsize rewards to people on characteristics other than pure talent. This is true, but because he was so dismissive of Keen, it’s not the point that Scoble actually got across. Instead, he seemed to be denying either that talent is unevenly distributed, or that Britney is talented.

But Britney is talented. She’s not Yo-Yo Ma, and you don’t have to like her music (back when she made music rather than just headlines), but what she does is hard, and she does it well. Furthermore, deriding the music business’s concern with looks isn’t much of a criticism. It escaped no one’s notice that Amanda Congdon and lonelygirl15 were easy on the eyes, and that that was part of their appeal. So cheap shots at mainstream talent or presumptions of the internet’s high-mindedness are both non-starters.

More importantly, talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age (c.f. Google.) Whatever we think of Keen or CotA, it would be insane to deny that.

Similarly, Scoble scoffed at the idea that there is a war on copyright, but there is a war on copyright, at least as it is currently practiced. As new capabilities go, infinite perfect copyability is a lulu, and it breaks a lot of previously stable systems. In the transition from encoding on atoms to encoding with bits, information goes from having the characteristics of chattel to those of a public good. For the pro-freedom camp to deny that there is a war on copyright puts Keen in the position of truth-teller, and makes us look like employees of the Ministry of Doublespeak.

It will be objected that engaging Keen and discussing a flawed book will give him attention he neither needs nor deserves. This is fantasy. CotA will get an enthusiastic reception no matter what, and whatever we think of it or him, we will be called to account for the issues he raises. This is not right, fair, or just, but it is inevitable, and if we dismiss the book based on its errors or a-causal attributions, we will not be regarded as people who have high standards, but rather as defensive cult members who don’t like to explain ourselves to outsiders.

What We Should Say

Here’s my response to the core of Keen’s argument.

Keen is correct in seeing that the internet is not an improvement to modern society; it is a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible, or, put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are significantly important, and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.

The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is epochal. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without radical alteration.

This change will create three kinds of loss.

First, people whose jobs relied on solving a hard problem will lose those jobs when the hard problems disappear. Creating is hard, filtering is hard, but the basic fact of making acceptable copies of information, previously the basis of the aforementioned music and newspaper industries, is a solved problem, and we should regard with suspicion anyone who tries to return copying to its previously difficult state.

Similarly, Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees. Its possible to regard this as a hardship for the ad guys, but its also possible to wonder whether they were really worth the $300K in the first place if an amateur, working in their spare time with consumer-grade equipment, can create something the client is satisfied with. This loss is real, but it is not general. Video tools are sad for ad guys in the same way movable type was sad for scribes, but as they say in show biz, the world doesn’t owe you a living.

The second kind of loss will come from institutional structures that we like as a society, but which are becoming unsupportable. Online ads offer better value for money, but as a result, they are not going to generate enough cash to stand up the equivalent of the NY Times’ 15-person Baghdad bureau. Josh Wolf has argued that journalistic privilege should be extended to bloggers, but the irony is that Wolf’s very position as a videoblogger makes that view untenable — journalistic privilege is a special exemption to a general requirement for citizens to aid the police. We can’t have a general exception to that case.

The old model of defining a journalist by tying their professional identity to employment by people who own a media outlet is broken. Wolf himself has helped transform journalism from a profession to an activity; now we need a litmus test for when to offer source confidentiality for acts of journalism. This will in some ways be a worse compromise than the one we have now, not least because it will take a long time to unfold, but we can’t have mass amateurization of journalism and keep the social mechanisms that regard journalists as a special minority.

The third kind of loss is the serious kind. Some of these Andrew mentions in his book: the rise of spam, the dramatically enlarged market for identity theft. Other examples he doesn’t: terrorist organizations being more resilient as a result of better communications tools, pro-anorexic girls forming self-help groups to help them remain anorexic. These things are not side-effects of the current increase in freedom, they are effects of that increase. Spam is not just a plague in open, low-entry-cost systems; it is a result of those systems. We can no longer limit things like who gets to form self-help groups through social controls (the church will rent its basement to AA but not to the pro-ana kids), because no one needs help or permission to form such a group anymore.

The hard question contained in Cult of the Amateur is “What are we going to do about the negative effects of freedom?” Our side has generally advocated having as few limits as possible (when we even admit that there are downsides), but we’ve been short on particular cases. It’s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining, because the writing has been on the wall since Brad Templeton founded Clarinet. It’s harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks.

Those cases are going to shift us from prevention to reaction (a shift that parallels the current model of publishing first, then filtering later), but so much of the conversation about the social effects of the internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe (as with the essjay crisis on Wikipedia), we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public.

What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.

We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer. The conversation about those governance models, what they look like and why we need them, is going to move out into the general public with CotA, and we should be ready for it. My fear, though, is that we will instead get a game of “Did not!”, “Did so!”, and miss the opportunity to say something much more important.

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