Saturday, October 10, 2009

Review: The Cult of the Amateur

I had mixed feelings about Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur. He begins with an introduction in which he both admits that he is an elitist and assures the reader that he doesn't believe all amateur art is bad. It feels a bit lame, like a person who prefaces an offensive comment with "No offense, but..." As though this preface neutralizes the offensive comment.

Yes, Keen comes off as very elitist. And his "OK, you got me. I'm an elitist" confession didn't really make it OK for me. As a narrative voice I found him shrill and annoying. Moreover, his claim in the introduction seemed contrived, as his attitude throughout the book is that no art, film, music, or writing is worth anything but those of the mainstream.

As a big fan of indie music and film, I found this attitude pretty shocking and ignorant. I'm sure there are plenty of awful blogs, videos on YouTube, and artist MySpace sites. But there are also likely many talented people who would have otherwise been overlooked by major labels, production companies, etc. and who now have a vehicle to get their name and work out there. He seemed worried people would stop appreciating real, quality art and all just watch animals doing stupid things on YouTube. This shows a real lack of faith in people. Frankly I see nothing wrong with having access to low-brow comedy. Moreover, I think there will always be a place for the high-brow, the thought-provoking, and the boundary-testing.

As Shelby mentioned in her review, Keen also seems to believe that no opinion or news is worth anything unless it comes from a PhD or a veteran journalist. While these sources obviously are more easily trusted, it's unfair to think that everyone else in the world lacks knowledge or perceptive opinions. It doesn't help that when he refers to knowledgable, educated people, he is clearly drawing a line between us and them. That is, he feels he is part of this educated group and is worried about information and art getting into the hands of the rest of America. The simpletons I guess.

I thought his concerns that Joe Shmoe news blogs will take over from the traditional trusted news sites were unfounded. My thought is that people who do care about news and world events are savvy enough to know who to trust and who not to. I do understand his dislike of Wikipedia I guess, but I feel that most people use Wikipedia as a reference site with an asterisk. We know there is a chance that everything is not completely accurate.

Luckily, the second half of the book is devoted to some more worthy concerns. Namely copyright and privacy of information. These are things that I definitely agree need to be monitored and considered.

And I think, in general, I mirror his hesitance about Web 2.0. I'm not a technophile by any means, and I sometimes get annoyed with the way things advance online, be it the internet or gadgets. I feel like we are culture that really idealizes convenience. If anything is mildly inconvenient to us, we just download an app to our iPhone so that we no longer have to deal with that minor inconvenience or even use our brains. (I sometimes envision a world where we all sit at home on our computers and never have to leave the house for everything ever). I also wonder how much of technology is just self-fullfilling prophesy. That is, sometimes it just feels like we are trying to advance things, like the Google book search, because we can, not because we really should.

I agreed with Keen that there should be some regulation online to prevent the various dangers such as piracy and identity theft. Likewise, I think we should think and have a conversation as a society about what we really need and what is good for us, instead of just jumping blindly in.

Bottom line: the goal of The Cult of the Amateur is stated to be to start a conversation about Web 2.0. In this respect, it does alright but would be much more palatable coming from a less biased, elitist, and obnoxious writer.


  1. Word. Nice review. I think we can safely say that we've scared the class away from having to explore this writer, yet not the topic.

  2. Hooray for us!

    Also, I want to add that while I don't think the everyday opinions are irrelevant, I did find myself getting irked in one of the articles we read for this week about online books letting readers comment and such. Similarly, I find myself hating Diigo because I don't really care what everyone else highlighted and their comments. I'd rather read and make my own opinion. Then later we can discuss. So I guess I agree with him more on that front than I thought.