Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Descent of Knowledge? Online Communications and the Cult of the Amateur

I came across some commentaries on Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, and thought I'd add my two cents.

Are blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and all the other new forms of mass online communications destroying intelligent debate in the marketplace of ideas?

I haven't read Keen's book, but this seems to be the gist of it. I look at the issue (or problem) more in terms of democratization. Online communications - in all its forms, blogs, chat, social networking, interactive news media, etc. - have simply let loose the uncleansed hordes on the public square, and in the popular imagination.

I often refer to the "Wild West" of the blogosphere. Writing online - in the daily blog format - makes one's views available to everyone. If someone doesn't like what you have to say, you'll be attacked remorselessy. Intimidation and threats go with the terrority. Complete repudiation of authoritative knowledge and credentials is common. A Ph.D. in political science? Nah, this asshole still doesn't know what the f%@#!k he's talking about!

You know what I'm saying. The Founders weren't oblivious to the passions of the mob, which is why
Madison and his allies established a constitutional structure that filters and insulates mass opinion, preventing tyranny of the majority.

Certainly, though, traditional media - especially newspapers and political television - will never be the same. This is good, for though much if not most of the internet political space is unleavened and uninformed, the political blogosphere provides an almost endless stream in-depth, knowledgeable, and perceptive commentary and analysis.

Thus, these communication enrich the realm of ideas, and add to the base of information required for democratic decision-making. It's rough sometimes, and those writing online need to have thick skin (I'm still working on it). But for the most part, it's all well and good.

What do some of the elite have to say about the argument?
Here's this from the New York Times:

This book, which grew out of a controversial essay published last year by The Weekly Standard, is a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the “wisdom of the crowd.” Although Mr. Keen wanders off his subject in the later chapters of the book — to deliver some generic, moralistic rants against Internet evils like online gambling and online pornography — he writes with acuity and passion about the consequences of a world in which the lines between fact and opinion, informed expertise and amateurish speculation are willfully blurred....

For one thing, Mr. Keen says, “history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise,” embracing unwise ideas like “slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears.” The crowd created the tech bubble of the 1990s, just as it created the disastrous Tulipmania that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century....

Because Web 2.0 celebrates the “noble amateur” over the expert, and because many search engines and Web sites tout popularity rather than reliability, Mr. Keen notes, it’s easy for misinformation and rumors to proliferate in cyberspace. For instance, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (which relies upon volunteer editors and contributors) gets way more traffic than the Web site run by Encyclopedia Britannica (which relies upon experts and scholars), even though the interactive format employed by Wikipedia opens it to postings that are inaccurate, unverified, even downright fraudulent. This year it was revealed that a contributor using the name Essjay, who had edited thousands of Wikipedia articles and was once one of the few people given the authority to arbitrate disputes between writers, was a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan, not the tenured professor he claimed to be....

Mr. Keen argues that the democratized Web’s penchant for mash-ups, remixes and cut-and-paste jobs threaten not just copyright laws but also the very ideas of authorship and intellectual property. He observes that as advertising dollars migrate from newspapers, magazines and television news to the Web, organizations with the expertise and resources to finance investigative and foreign reporting face more and more business challenges.

Here's this about Keen and bloggers, from London's Independent:

Blogs also get short shrift from the author. Keen mocks the notion that the blogosphere represents a return to the vibrant intellectualism inherent in London's coffee-house scene of the 18th century. He notes that Dr Johnson, Burke and Boswell didn't hide behind aliases, whereas most bloggers do. Keen refers to bloggers as "anonymous and self-obsessed". He ennumerates examples of companies, PR firms, and political organisations who use this very anonymity to take all sorts of liberties, from denigrating opponents to passing advertising off as user content on sites such as YouTube. YouTube itself comes under the spotlight when Keen discusses the contentious issue of intellectual property rights.
Well, there you have it.

Keen's book came out last year, and frankly if there was a big intellectual debate over it, I missed it.

Sometimes the power of the blogosphere and the influence of online communications are overrated (Daily Kos types take note). There's always going to be a demand for authoritative, peer-reviewed, or scientific information and knowledge. The best ideas float to the top, in any event.

John Stewart Mill made the case for the unfettered marketplace of ideas. We're certainly seeing such forces at work today.