the educational technology journal

Vol 17|No 1|September 2007
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Book Review
The Cult of the Amateur:
How today's Internet is killing our culture
by Andrew Keen

Reviewed by Jamie McKenzie
About author

You can order a copy of this book from FNO Press - Click here.

Keen's Cult of the Amateur is a book worthy of attention because it sounds an important alarm and questions our headlong rush to the edge of a cultural cliff, but he is often guilty of exaggeration. When the warnings slip into alarmism, the book gets a bit tedious.

Keen sees Web 2.0 as a serious threat to quality with its elevation of the amateur to the role of producer. As the book jacket confesses, this is a polemic, an attack that lays balance aside in order to make a strong case.

"Our most valued cultural institutions, Keen warns - our professional newspapers, magazines, music and movies - are being overtaken by an avalanche of amateur, user-generated free content."

Keen substantiates his claims by examining in turn phenomena such as YouTube, Wikipedia and Craigslist. He vilifies several proponents of Web 2.0 as irresponsible radicals who would by removing copyright controls take away much of the incentive for true writers and thinkers to share their works. He decries the decline of record stores with the advent of digital music and widespread piracy. Pointing to the often mediocre but popular material cropping up on sites like UTube and various blogs, he sees this trend shoving aside really good works as the public is submerged in hundreds of thousands of works.

Schools should pay attention to Keen's claims and discuss whether policies should be adjusted to meet some of his concerns. In recent discussions with several schools about Wikipedia and its suitability as a source for student research, I learned that these schools had created no policy governing this issue and each teacher was acting independently, with some taking quite a strong stance against Wikipedia while others were more permissive, suggesting that students might use it as a starting place for a project. The more we looked at some of the controversy swirling around Wikipedia, the more the staffs of these schools seemed intent on creating a policy.

Controversy? It seems, according to a New York Times article, "Lifting Corporate Fingerprints From the Editing of Wikipedia," that quite a few groups like the CIA and Wal-Mart have been editing articles not to their liking. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/technology/
- Subscription required.)

The Colbert Report coined the term "Wikilobbying" when a PR firm was caught modifying articles to be more to Microsoft's liking.

"Wikipedia - The encyclopedia where you can be an authority, even if you don't know what the hell you're talking about".

"When Wikipedia becomes our most trusted reference source, reality is just what the majority agrees upon."

"When money determines Wikipedia entries, reality has become a commodity."


Who writes the articles in Wikipedia? Hard to answer the question, since one can make changes anonymously, but is possible to trace IP numbers back to source computers, which is how the above changes were uncovered.

Ironically, even though Wikipedia is written by amateurs, possibly your neighbor or their teenage daughter, many of the articles seem quite strong and balanced. Sometimes the articles are protected against "vandalism" by one person given extra powers to review edits and make sure they are worthy and unbiased. Controversial topics (China and No Child Left Behind) may be blocked from edits.

Keen sees Wikipedia driving other encyclopedias like Britannica out of business. Traditional encyclopedias, he maintains, hire experts to write their articles and provide information that is much more reliable than Wikipedia but must pay those experts salaries. That makes competition with Wikipedia very difficult since it has few paid staff members and little overhead.

Critics of Keen are quick to challenge his claims and accuse him of exaggeration. But schools should still consider how they can heighten staff and student awareness of the issues he raises. Web 2.0 is an opportunity - one that can be shaped by its participants if they are mindful of the dangers and risks involved with such broad-based participatory models.

In previous articles, FNO has raised some of these issues worthy of consideration:

Keen is a bit too enthusiastic about traditional sources such as encyclopedias, Hollywood and the news media, dismissing too rapidly the claims of Web 2.0 proponents that it might enrich the culture rather than dilute it. His book does not address the dangers of media consolidation, the appearance of fake news and the narrowing of culture produced by large publishers who may bow to the pressures of ratings rather than risk producing more edgy work by independent artists. Van Gogh is popular now, but had trouble selling paintings during his life time. Could he fare better thanks to Web 2.0?

This publication FNO began in 1991 as an email blog of sorts, although the term blog was not in currency at the time. It evolved over time into a periodical with articles that captured a large audience amounting to more than 30,000 subscribers at its height plus daily visitors in the thousands. Through these years FNO has taken no advertisting (except Google ads) and was able to maintain a fiercely independent stance toward foolish new uses of technologies. It is hard to imagine how this publication could have existed prior to the Net.

When exploring new territory such as smart uses of new technologies to support information literacies, the establshment can be quite critical of writers who suggest strategies that are not "research based" even though the strategies may be field tested. For this reason, some college instructors have blocked their students from citing FNO as a source, much as many schools may block students from citing Wikipedia. In contrast, many instructors have made articles in FNO and McKenzie's books required course reading.

Independent points of view sometimes have difficulty surfacing in our society. I recall the chilling silence during the early years of No Child Left Behind as the law began to work its damage. There was much muttering and anxiety, but it was hard to read or find any criticism in what is called "the popular" or "the mainstream press."

9/11 and fears of terrorism had made it difficult to criticize the President and his policies. Such critical voices were stifled by the system. When you Googled "No Child Left Behind" back then, only two pages of the top 100 were critical. Most of the rest were Ed Department propaganda or right wing propaganda.

Thanks to Web 1.0 I was able to launch a new periodical/journal (http://nochildleft.com) attacking NCLB/Helter Skelter and listing its many damaging effects. Today (August 30, 2007) that Web site comes in #8 on Google and the mainstream press is full of critical articles as Congress argues over how to fix the mess they made,

Keen devotes too little attention to these kinds of possibilities, but schools should keep an open mind and guide students to mine Web 2.0 for its best possibilities.

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