Before the internet, it seemed like a joke: if you provide infinite monkeys with typewriters, one of them will eventually come up with a masterpiece. But with the web now firmly established in its second evolutionary phase – in which users create the content on blogs, podcasts and streamed video – TH Huxley’s “infinite monkey” theory doesn’t seem so funny any more.
“Today’s technology hooks all those monkeys up with all those typewriters,” argues Andrew Keen, who believes that “Web 2.0” is killing our culture, assaulting our economy and destroying time-honoured codes of conduct.
An Englishman who moved from north London to California in the 1990s, and swapped university lecturing for internet entrepreneurship, Keen has turned against the thoughtless barbarism of his Silicon Valley peers. In an alarming and important new book, The Cult of the Amateur, he argues that many of the ideas promoted by champions of Web 2.0 are gravely flawed.
Instead of creating masterpieces, the millions of exuberant monkeys are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary, unseemly home videos, embarrassingly amateurish music, unreadable poems, essays and novels.
Worse still, the vaunted “democratisation” of the web has been a sham. “Despite its lofty idealisation, it’s undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent,” says Keen.
Take the vaunted “wisdom of crowds”, which has led to the astonishing growth of the free online reference work, Wikipedia. The English site alone boasts 1.8m articles freely contributed by ordinary web users, and more are created every minute.
But as the sum of what we all know and agree, the wisdom of crowds has no greater value than Trivial Pursuit. It allows no room for fresh insight and expertise. Dr William Connolley, a climate modeller at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and an expert on global warming, disagreed with a Wikipedia editor over a particular entry on the site. After trying to correct inaccuracies, Connolley was accused of “strongly pushing his point of view with a systematic removal of points of any point of view which does not match his own”. Eventually he was limited to making just one edit a day. Arbitrating on the dispute, Wikipedia gave no weight to his expertise, and treated him with the same level of credibility as his anonymous opponent. “The consequences of this dismissal of traditional, credentialed experts are both chilling and absurd,” says Keen.
“What defines the best minds,” Keen argues, “is their ability to go beyond the “wisdom” of the crowd and mainstream opinion.” Wikipedia is premised on a contrary theory of truth that would have seemed familiar to George Orwell: if the crowd says that two plus two equals five, then two plus two really does equal five.
At a working breakfast in 2004, Keen was alarmed to be told that the new democratic internet would overthrow the “dictatorship of expertise”. And that’s happening already. Wikipedia, with its millions of amateur editors and unreliable content, is the 17th most trafficked site on the net. Britannica.com, with 100 Nobel Prize-winning contributors and 4,000 other experts, is ranked 5,128. As a result, Britannica has had to make a series of painful cuts in staffing and editorial.
These cutbacks don’t only affect the individuals laid off. They affect us all – because if Britannica and publications like it should disappear, we’ll be obliged to rely on the unreliable patchwork of information parcelled out on Wikipedia by people who often don’t even reveal their identity. “Instead of a dictatorship of experts, we’ll have a dictatorship of idiots,” says Keen, who finds classic signs of totalitarianism in Silicon Valley. “Anyone who disagrees is wrong. These people manifest some of the symptoms of 19th century Russian idealists and utopians, who think that their vision of the world is going to change everything for the better.
“People have tried to pigeonhole me as a conservative but I’m not. I’m a liberal. I drive an electric car. And I see this as a progressive issue. The attack on authority and expertise is taking place on left and right.”
“I needed to write a book and expose what’s going on. I was surprised that nobody else was saying it. I felt like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Lots of people privately come up and say they agree but in public people are shy to speak up publicly.”
This is not only about reference libraries. It’s much more important. What Wikipedia has done to reference books, bloggers and news aggregation sites do to traditional news media. Papers and magazines close down, while broadcasters sell off their radio and TV stations, as more people turn instead to podcasts and streamed videos.
News aggregation sites such as Reddit and Digg cannibalise mainstream media, and take away valuable sources of income. Keen is not a journalist himself, so can’t be accused of defending his own job. As revenue streams dry up, mainstream media become less authoritative and less worthwhile. But as they decline and even close down, there will be nothing left for the aggregation sites to cannibalise.
The only remaining sources of news will be bloggers. Can we trust them? As Keen shows, many are merely fronts for public relations machines. Others conceal their agendas. They’re also unaccountable, and rarely remove their mistakes. And as James Callaghan once put it: “A lie can make its way around the world before the truth has the chance to put its boots on.” That has never been more true than in the freewheeling, unchecked blogosphere.
“Many bloggers flaunt their lack of training and formal qualifications as evidence of their calling, their passion,” says Keen. But they also lack connections and access to information. A politician can avoid dealing with ordinary citizens but would be a fool to refuse calls from representatives of the press and TV news.” If traditional news-gathering disappears, who will hold politicians to account?
Even if they had the talent and the connections, no blogs could afford to conduct investigations comparable to the great newspaper campaigns of the past.
So the idea that content on the web is “free” is mistaken: the hidden cost may be the demise of old media, and entire art forms, on which the free content depends.
Already, Keen contends, illegal downloads have destroyed the music business. (He’s not alone. The great singer-song-writer Paul Simon told Keen : “I’m personally against Web 2.0 in the same way as I’m personally against my own death.”)
And with download speeds increasing and becoming more widespread it’s only a matter of time before film and TV studios face the same demise.
Shamefully, some established media have rolled over and collaborated in their own downfalls. In 2006, Universal Music artist Jay-Z collaborated with Coca-Cola to release a clip on peer-to-peer sites promoting the soft drink. As Keen says, the soft-drink company “marketed its message specifically to music thieves”.
Another web idea dismantled by Keen is the concept of the “Long Tail” – the slow but gradual accumulation of sales by niche products, such as books that could never have commanded shelf-space in shops but can wait for buyers to find them on Amazon. In other words, you may never get more than ten buyers for your little book of poetry, but thanks to the net, you can publish it anyway. Somehow, those ten readers will find you.
But talent is “the needle in today’s digital haystack”, says Keen. In a world without newspapers, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV stations there’ll be nobody to discover and – no less important – to nurture talent. The result could be no less catastrophic than Pol Pot’s decision to eliminate talent and expertise in Cambodia by mass execution.
“Once dismantled, I fear that this professional media – with its rich ecosystem of writers, editors, agents, talent scouts, journalists, publishers, musicians, reporters and actors – can never again be put back together. We destroy it at our peril.”
He makes comparison with cars and railroads. “There was a conspiracy in the US on the part of the car business to do away with rail. Everyone thought that was great because cars would “empower” people. But the railways were decimated and they have never come back.”
As well as wrecking mainstream media, and eroding trust in what we read, watch and listen to, Web 2.0 has created an infinite desire for personal attention. Without that, the parasitical companies that have thrived in the internet’s second wave would be nowhere. “In the bring-your-own-content business model Web 2.0 businesses provide users with nothing more than the platform to express themselves, network and link with one another,” Keen explains.
But at the same time as promoting exhibitionism, Web 2.0 has created an opportunity for people to interact anonymously, in turn leading to a vast increase in behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable or even impossible.
That includes uploading home-made porn into the public domain, gambling uncontrollably, spreading malicious falsehoods, stealing intellectual property – even clerics do this, downloading other priests’ sermons to deliver as their own – and paying to commit rape or murder on fantasy-world sites such as Second Life.
Little that Keen says has not been said before, but he’s done a hugely valuable service by putting together the big picture.
He stresses that he’s not against technology. He just wants to see a bit more control. We need to take greater responsibility for how we use the net.
Parents should monitor their children, restricting the sites they access and taking computers out of bedrooms and back into family rooms.
We must choose between sites such as Wikipedia, where the cult of the anonymous amateur prevails, and the newer alternative, Citizendium, which aims to improve on Wikipedia’s model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names.
Where necessary, governments should intervene, as the Americans did last year by clamping down on gambling sites. Most urgently, governments should restrict the amounts of information held by search engines.
“If companies such as Google continue acquiring knowledge at current they will soon know everything about us. Ordinary web users need to understand that every time you enter anything into Google it remembers. It is amassing a huge narrative about you. We treat Google like some kind of web confessor, we never imaging there’s someone at the other end, but there is. They’re collecting unimaginable amounts of information about all of us. Not because they want to imprison or torture us but to sell more ads.
“That’s the ultimate nightmare. This is not about being herded into a gulag but the complete flattening of culture so that everything becomes a commercial break.
“‘Free culture’ is about giving it away so that you can advertise. I grew up wondering why there were no ads in novels. That was because I was prepared to spend money to buy the book.”