Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the most important, eye-opening books I have ever read. In it, he presents a history of communications in the United States and makes clear what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote, “The medium is the message.” Specifically, Postman discusses how reading a newspaper is different than watching the TV—news told with pictures is necessarily more simplistic than news told with words. Thus, if politics (for example) has become simplistic, it is because of the medium in which it is discussed. Amusing Ourselves to Death is an extremely sobering analysis of our culture.
A few days ago, I was browsing the library shelves and came upon a book that tries to do much the same thing,The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Unfortunately, Keen is not up to the job. In fact, in the one instance where Keen quotes Postman’s book, he does so in a way that indicates he certainly didn’t understand it; perhaps he didn’t even read it:
In Amusing Ourselves to Death
, his 1985 polemic against the trivialization of American life, Neil Postman argues that Las Vegas had become a “metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl.” Today, in the Web 2.0 epoch, Postman sounds as dated as Gibbons describing the decline of the Roman Empire
. The poster of a slot machine has been digitalized and virtualized and is now ubiquitous and available at all times. Nobody needs to travel to Las Vegas—Las Vegas now comes to us.
Keen uses the quote in his discussion of the evils of Internet gambling—Postman has no interest in such trivial issues. It should come as no surprise this quotation is from the very first page of Amusing Ourselves to Death. This kind of razor-thin depth of thinking is both the supposed topic and the basis of Keen’s argument in The Cult of the Amateur. But as different as they are, it is easy to see why these two books should often be compared. On the surface, Postman’s book is a polemic against television and Keen’s is just the 2007 version: a polemic against Web 2.0. While this is an accurate description of Keen’s book it is not at all of Postman’s.
Postman does talk a great deal about television, but that is simply because it was the dominant medium for public discussions in 1985. A thoughtful person can read Amusing Ourselves to Death today without missing its intellectual punch. Keen seems to find Postman dated because he doesn’t understand Postman’s basic thesis: there is a fundamental difference between communication with words versus that with images. Thus, Keen ignorantly thinks that there is a fundamental difference between television and Web 2.0. The truth is that the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 are very similar to the differences between a traditional newspaper and TV news. The move to Web 2.0 was a move in an intellectually more vacuous direction, but that was only because it made the Internet more like television. Keen misses this important change completely, and thus gives us a book indicative of exactly what he decries: the amateur as expert, because Keen is no professional, except in the sense that he was paid for his rantings. But if this definition is acceptable then Keen’s main argument vanishes: if making money is all that makes one a professional, then any loon blogger with a big enough audience to make a few pennies per month via Google AdWords is a professional and an expert.
Traditional Media is Not Necessary Better
Keen is at his best when discussing the Internet and its problems—especially its technical problems. It is when he compares traditional media with Web 2.0 that he runs into trouble, because he really only understands the Web. He has an almost religious belief in the beneficial power of editors and other assorted “gatekeepers” (a term he uses repeatedly, as though un-vetted information is something we must be protected against). It isn’t that he is wrong about the problems he identifies with Web 2.0 (although he greatly overstates most of his points), it is rather that he doesn’t understand that the same problems exist in traditional media.
He quotes a stark statistic: our trust in “ourselves and our peers” (not, as he unquestioningly assumes, necessarily a bad thing), went up from 22% in 2003 to 68% in 2006. This statistic sounds impressive, but it has two big problems. First, it is unclear exactly what it means, and the reference that he provides (“Edelman PR Press Release, January 23, 2006”) is basically useless. Second, such changes in what people say they think are not reliable and don’t really mean much. For example, in polls of CEOs of major corporations taken six months apart during the Reagan Administration, participants were asked what the most important issue facing their companies were. In the first poll, less than 10% mentioned drug use by their employees. In the second poll, just six months later, but after an intense government-pushed anti-drug propaganda campaign, over 60% mentioned drug use by their employees. So this jump in the number of people who trust themselves and their peers is probably a similar case. And in both cases, it was the traditional media who delivered the message: in the first case from the government and in the second, Silicon Valley “thinkers.”
Keen’s biggest error is his trust in traditional media and the idea that experts are somehow steeled against common human frailties. Look at the lead-up to the Iraq War: pretty much all mainstream media covered it as government propagandists, and those few outlets that were skeptical of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (for example), soon fell in line when they saw that everyone else was in lockstep. (See, for example, Media Coverage of WMD Issue Gets Failing Grade: UM Study.) “Professional” no more means good than “amateur,” bad.
Later, Keen argues against the Google algorithm that equates truth with popularity. There is nothing wrong with this—anyone who has ever searched for information about gun control legislation will see the problem. However, he uses the Iraq War as an example of something that was popular but wrong. The problem is that the Iraq War was not popular—at least, not until after six months of traditional media-led government propaganda.
Without a hint of irony, he attacks Web 2.0 because Fox News picked up and pushed a discredited story by the online magazine Insight. But the problem here is not with Insight; they made a mistake that all traditional media outlets make from time to time: they used an unreliable anonymous source (just like Judith Miller and the New York Times). The problem is with Fox News, which does the same thing with misinformation from any source when it fits in with its political agenda. Yet Fox News is a traditional media source with editors and other assorted gatekeepers. To add irony to irony, Keen and his editors missed this obvious mistake of logic. Any media outlet or media form can be criticized, but unless its performance is compared to other sources, the criticism is meaningless. In the end, all we are left with is the criticism that Web 2.0 content is imperfect and that some sites are more trustworthy than others—exactly what can be said about traditional media.
Before the Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been one driven by the careful aggregation of truth—through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, and radio and television. But as all information becomes digitalized and democratized, and is made universally and permanently available, the media of record becomes an Internet on which misinformation never goes away. As a result, our bank of collected information becomes infected by mistakes and fraud. Blogs are connected through a single link, or series of links, to countless other blogs, and MySpace pages are connected to countless other My Space [sic.] pages, which link to countless YouTube videos, Wikipedia entries, and Web sites with various origins and purposes. It’s impossible to stop the spread of misinformation, let alone identify its source. Future readers often inherit and repeat this misinformation, compounding the problem, creating a collective memory that is deeply flawed.
The fact that exactly the same thing goes on with traditional media seems to elude Keen. In fact, he uses a myth created by the mainstream media (that he constantly praises for being edited for truth by gatekeepers) in introducing the book itself. He writes, “It’s the work of an apostate, an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool-Aid and resigned his membership in the cult.” Here, he is making reference to the mass suicide of Peoples Temple cult members. Although it is true that many members of the cult voluntarily drank their cyanide-spiked drinks (it was actually Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid), those who did not wish to kill themselves—and there were many—were not allowed to simply pour out their cups. So misinformation is created by traditional media and people like Keen keep the spread of it going—even when they too are helped by editors and gatekeepers.
Profits and Porn
In the end, Keen’s primary concerns are corporate profits and online pornography. Let’s talk about all that lost revenue first, because he does. His concern for profits is stated as a concern for artists’ profits, but as one who just started his own publishing company, I can see for the first time that the greatest threat to my profits were always from publishers. Unless you are an A-list author (musician, artist, whatever), all you will get are the crumbs that fall off the corporate table. In general, a book writer gets 10% of the publisher’s profits of the sale of a book—50% or less—a lot less. Yes, the publisher takes a financial risk in publishing a book, but it is minor. And all they do is publish the book. There is next to no marketing or even editing. If a author wishes to get his book publicized, he had better make his own plan and contact media outlets to do interviews. Even the simple act of setting up a book tour is asking too much of most publishing companies. The corporate side of publishing takes minimal financial risk and receives almost all of the money in return. So when people like Keen talk about protecting “artists’ profits” they mean “companies’ profits.”
He brings up the same, tired arguments we have heard so many times before about online piracy. I should be clear, I believe that artists should get paid for their work and I am very much against piracy, even when artists get a tiny fraction of the cost of a work. Just the same, copyright is a complex issue that shouldn’t be dealt with in a simpleminded manner. On the one hand, Keen assumes that every pirated copy of a work is lost revenue. This is clearly not the case: not every person who steals a song would have bought it if he had had to; it is a song, not a loaf of bread. On the other hand, Keen assumes that piracy has no up-side whatsoever. Again, this is clearly not the case: pirated works do have an advertising effect. One person may buy a song after hearing a pirated copy.
There is no doubt that piracy does cut down on the revenue that would normally come from a work of art. But this is an issue that can and should be dealt with separately from any discussion of Web 2.0. In particular, there is nothing in Web 2.0 that facilitates piracy over Web 1.0 or FTP or even Kermit. There is more than a bit of bait and switch here. Keen claims that there is something special about Web 2.0 that is killing our culture, but the first of his two major issues is not specific to it at all.
The second issue—pornography—has been enhanced by Web 2.0, but much of it was still available in the early days of the Internet and long before that, offline. There was even pornography available under the highly respectable Rec.Arts list of newsgroups: Rec.Arts.Erotica, which distributed reader contributed (yes, “amateur”) erotic stories. Pornographic images could similarly be downloaded via newsgroups and FTP. Porn websites were going strong in 1995—just two years after the creation of the World Wide Web. What’s more, at that time, it was almost impossible to not see porn because so many porn sites lied about what they were and search engines were very trusting.
As with “artists’ profits,” Keen claims to be concerned with something other than what he is really concerned with—in this case, children being exposed to porn. But this is always the way, right? People in America will never own up to flat-out censorship; they just want to protect the children, and if that requires denying adults the right to see what they want, so be it; we have to do it: for the children.
It is true that improvements in technology have made porn distribution far easier. However, unless you are looking for it, you aren’t going to find it. The last time an unwanted pornographic web page displayed on my computer was back in 2002—pre-Web 2.0. Regardless, I don’t see how easy access to porn on the Internet is “killing our culture.” People will get their porn in whatever form necessary. You used to have to mail-order Super-8 porn movies and now you can have them stream directly to your television. Big deal.
The Big Lie
Keen’s book is not about what it claims to be, and the small part of the book that is, is not serious. Neil Postman was interested in a substantial topic. The subtitle of Amusing Ourselves to Death was “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” and that is exactly what the book is about. Andrew Keen’s book is not about “the cult of the amateur”—at least not for very long. A better title for the book would have been its subtitle, “How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” Keen’s critique starts as a discussion of the problems of amateurs on the Internet (which is a problem—just not a big one), but quickly devolves into a culture war rant. The title and dust-jacket information certainly gave me the idea that this was going to be at least an interesting and provocative read. And I suppose that was the point. Had I been told that this was another conservative plea to protect corporations from thieves and children from pictures of naked people, I wouldn’t have read it. Few people would.
 Also note how publishers are paying authors lower royalties on electronic publications—exactly the opposite of what one would expect if publishers were actually adding value to the “product.”
 The original World Wide Web was just two programs: httpd and mosaic. The first—httpd, or http daemon—was the web server that listened (and still does) to port 80 on the network for HTTP commands. These commands would be things like, “Send me the web page /index.html.” The second—mosaic—was a web browser—not actually the very first web browser, but pretty close. It would receive data sent from httpd and display it properly. It would do other things too. For example, if it received that /index.html file and the file included an image tag, mosaic would then request that file from the server and display it in the page. And so on. The amazing thing is just how simple the World Wide Web is and how much has been done with it.