The Fascinating Phenomenon that is Andrew Keen

So Andrew Keen oozed his way on to the Colbert Report the other night and I just caught the video off the website.

For those unfamiliar with Keen he is the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture” a book in which he describes how the internet is making arts and media unprofitable. As innumerable blogs, and most notable, David Weinberger have documented, there are so many holes in Keen’s thesis it is hard to know where to start.

On the Colbert Report Keen cycled through some of his regulars. He correctly pointed out that certain types of media and arts are unprofitable because of the internet… and ignored how the internet has simultaneously given rise to a multitude of new ways for artist to earn a living. New business models are emerging. On the hilarious side, Keen briefly tried to argue that it was blogs and the internet – not American’s old media institutions such as CNN and FOX – that allowed the American public to be hoodwinked into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My god, blogs were the only place in the US where an honest discussion about Iraqi WMDs took place! I could go on… but why repeat what so many others have said.

What it interesting to me is that a phenomenon like Keen even exists. Why is it that we repeatedly listen to people who take a simple ideas and overextend it in illogical ways. Does anyone else remember the fear mongering 1994 book – The End of Work – about how “worldwide unemployment will increase as new computer-based and communications technologies eliminate tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors”? Keen’s book is similar in that it nicely capture our society’s paranoias and fears about change (this time wrought by “web 2.0”).

Interestingly I think Keen is a necessary and positive phenomenon. Indeed, Keen exists, is championed and raised up on a pedestal not because he is right, but because is so glamorously wrong. Societies need Keen so that his arguments can be publicly destroyed in a manner that satisfies even the strongest doubters. In this case, Keen’s book helps advance the larger narrative of how centralized authorities that offer the illusion of certainty are collapsing in the face of probabilistic networks that offer a reality of uncertainty. This narrative is hardly new – books that preceded “The Cult of the Amateur” like “The Long Tail” and “Free Culture” more than aptly dealt with Keen’s arguments, they just didn’t do it publicly enough. The publics’ appetite to understand and hear this debate is merely climaxing and has not yet been sated.

The San Francisco Chronicle is right to say “every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 has Andrew Keen.” Sometimes being contrarian is about offering a valuable insight and keeping the debate honest. And then, sometime its about encapsulating the worst fears, insecurities, and power dynamics of a dying era so that a society can exorcise it. I guess it’s a role someone has to play, and Keen will be well rewarded for it… as his book is reviewed and sold, online.

(NB: If you are looking for a good book on the internet, skip The Cult of the Amateur and consider David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined or Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder they are both excellent).

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