Thursday, August 14, 2008

not everyone gets a shot, seriously

the cult of the amateur
-andrew keen

andrew keen has to be the world's biggest fan of knol, and if he's not, he's even more of an idiot than he lets on. he actually talks about a similar-sounding site that started up 2 years ago. not having heard of it, i'm assuming it hasn't done well. keen may just be a nostalgic fool, relentlessly attacking the participatory internet, but he has a few points that are worthwhile. the problem is, his main point is that too much participation is bad. stop making music, posting videos, or writing online; if you're good enough and try hard enough you can do it professionally. then andrew keen will give you a shot. this is actually what he says, straight up. he's afraid the record labels will disappear, no one will have the million dollars (yes, literally) and year's worth of time necessary to make a decent pop record, and he won't be able to find anything good because there will be too much lousy music out there. he relies on exaggeration, assumptions, and hyperbolic rhetoric to further his arguments. it's probably not worth reading the whole book unless you're like me and you feel forced at times to investigate viewpoints you immediately hate. what keen seems unwilling to accept is that technological progress brings change. this book is the yin to michael lewis' yang in 'next,' but lewis is the better writer. it's hard to read someone so bitter - he hates craigslist because it's free, youtube because it's not limited to professionals, and online music stores because they sell songs for too little. he talks wistfully of the days when a giant record chain provided deep selection and knowledgeable staff. all i remember about that place was high prices. you start feeling a bit sorry for him when you realize that he liked the world a certain way and just wishes it wouldn't change. he fears that iconic newspapers will continue to decline, somehow assuming nothing will take their place. he whines that cherished reviewers will, someday soon, have no well-paid platform from which to guide us to the most worthy culture and media. he only acknowledges that new media platforms still give rise to hits and influential figures when he's using that fact to reinforce one of his complains such as his assertion that bloggers, even popular ones, don't make appreciable money.

keen's best point is essentially borrowed from mattathias schwartz, and at least partially quoted and cited. it is that online poker poses a definite threat with is intensely addictive action. keen leads this section with the same shocker schwartz begins his article with, and does not cite schwartz for the story itself. citing and quoting schwartz on other elements of the poker story is fine; this is how books are written. the problem is, keen doesn't want web content to be recontextualized and repurposed. he rants about tagging and remixing content, when that is essentially what he does with schwartz' article, using its most effective and relevant elements to add to his own text. this is one more example of keen's shortsightedness; having railed extensively against the internet's application of a concept that's generally accepted offline, he actually employs the same concept for his own purposes. how he used schwartz' article is at least mostly ok; his hypocrisy is not.

i think one of the worst things keen does is to call illegal downloading and legal paid-for downloading of music the same thing. both threaten the music industry's status quo, and keen likes cultural institutions to endure unchanged. somehow, he never seems to consider the positive consequences of things he dislikes. if the barriers to producing music, for example, are lowered, there may eventually be so much music out there that no one will finance a million dollar recording effort. to keen, that's a problem; the million dollar estimate is from a musician he admires, and he wants that man to be able to go on the way he always has. he doesn't want future talents of the same magnitude to miss out on their chance to make a million dollar record. it might comfort andrew keen to know that that record doesn't have to cost a million dollars if technology has radically democratized production of music. even more importantly, that democratization means more talented people will have a chance to make something great and share it. keen argues the opposite is true, and i think it's a shame he can't see that history argues against him.

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