By Eric Auchard
Internet culture, often portrayed as the vanguard of progress, is
actually a jungle peopled by intellectual yahoos and digital thieves,
according to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-dissenter.
Andrew Keen, a 47-year-old Briton who founded dot-com era music
startup Audiocafe, argues that basic notions of expertise are under
assault amid a cultural shift in favor of the amateurism of blogs,
MySpace and other popularity-driven sites.
"Millions and millions of exuberant monkeys ... are creating an
endless digital forest of mediocrity," Keen writes in a book published
His views have infuriated bloggers and others, especially in Silicon
Valley, who argue he is an elitist intellectual, a conservative pining
for a return to old ways, and a writer who cannot keep his facts
The villains in Keen's narrative are a "pajama army" of mostly
anonymous writers who spread gossip and scandal, "intellectual
kleptomaniacs," who search Google to copy others' work and the
"digital thieves" of media content in the post-Napster era.
For a technology industry used to basking in the glow of
self-promotion, Keen's work is shocking for its unforgiving view of
Silicon Valley's utopian aspirations.
The book "is designed as a grenade," Keen, a native of north London
who now lives in California, said at a recent debate with bloggers and
journalists in Berkeley. "It is not designed to be particularly fair
The title of his polemic, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's
Internet is Killing our Culture," attacks what he calls the "cut and
paste" ethic of Web users, who he says are robbing professionals of
The Web allows anyone to post their most intimate thoughts, views or
even outright lies, without any editing, under the assumption that the
crowd will correct any mistakes. Keen calls for efforts to balance out
the Web's powers of instant publishing against society's need for
Some of the biggest names in Internet publishing are hitting back
against Keen, including video blogger Robert Scoble, media critic Jeff
Jarvis, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor and blog pioneer Dave
Jarvis, on his blog BuzzMachine, refers to Keen's thinking as
"Snobs.com." He recently asked readers to advise him whether he should
bother to debate Keen or shun him. The outcome was that the two have
agreed to debate online.
But some would-be detractors find themselves sticking up for Keen, at
least for his ideas, if not his bombastic tone.
Clay Shirky, a lecturer on new media technology at New York University,
came spoiling for a fight with Keen at a recent online politics
conference in New York. Instead, Shirky says he found himself defending
"So much of the conversation about the social effects of the Internet
has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe
... we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public," Shirky
wrote in a blog post afterward.
Keen, for his part, rejects any notion that he is a modern Luddite out
to break the machinery of the Web. He keeps up a regular dialog with
friends and opponents at his blog at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/.
He points to intellectual influences such as German-American political
theorist Hannah Arendt, known for her work on the nature of
totalitarianism and the "banality of evil," and Jurgen Habermas, the
German philosopher who defined the concepts of the private and public
spheres in politics.
"The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the
Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this
medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a
focus," Habermas said in a 2006 speech.
Keen first staked out his views in a 2006 magazine article in the
Weekly Standard magazine, and in online debates since then has won
some supporters, who say they too have second-thoughts about the Web's
"If I ever need surgery, I damn sure hope my surgeon is one of the
elite in his field," one disgruntled blogger wrote.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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