The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen’s rant, The Cult of the Amateur, is, like all rants, intellectually undermined by its angry tone. The book contains a substantial amount of scorn and Chicken Little–style alarmism, with, unsurprisingly, a dash of nostalgia for the good old days.

Nevertheless, the book has real polemical value insofar as it raises awareness of quality and the expertise required to achieve it.

If you want to hear more about this book from an expert reader (and amateur reviewer), keep reading.

What Stood Out

Recognizing Authenticity

Keen says kids can’t distinguish original, high-quality content from amateur content (page 3). Kids, he says? Adults can’t either. Or they can but they don’t always bother to try.

I laughed when I heard that conservative Christians were led to believe—by an article in the spoof newspaper The Onion—that the Harry Potter books were Satanist propaganda. But I didn’t laugh years later when a friend gleefully posted a link on Facebook to an article on a no-name “news” website touting a Harvard study proving that all homophobes are gay. The idea that there’s a link between homophobia and repressed homosexuality may be gaining traction, but that article smelled fishy to me and turned out to be total fiction.

More recently, I was sent a political rant–type email forward by someone quite educated. I failed to believe the “facts” in it, I think, only because I’m about as uninterested in American politics as an American can be. I think we’d all be a lot shrewder if we just ignored any message communicated in an angry tone, not just the angry messages we disagree with.

Still more recently, a friend enthusiastically posted a piece of viral “news” content on Facebook that was also totally fake but not perceived as such. So perhaps I have a tendency to understate the ability of the internet to mislead people—certainly it seems to mislead those around me; I’d be a fool to think it doesn’t also mislead me from time to time.

Finding Talent for Production

Finding and nurturing true talent in a sea of amateurs may be the real challenge…. Talent, as ever, is a limited resource, the needle in today’s digital haystack…. (29–32)

The fact that talent is rare is why I think the traditional methods of identifying and supporting talent can only be augmented by the internet, not killed off by it.

Finding Quality for Consumption

And how will we find quality products to consume? Keen acknowledges that there are technologies emerging to help each user identify content that suits his taste (page 32). Of course, then the danger is that each individual can isolate himself in his own niche, free from the need to consider unfamiliar genres… or unfamiliar political perspectives.

Hearing Both Sides

As I understand it, political echo chambers are the issue raised by Sunstein in, published in 2001.

Achieving Depth vs. Achieving Breadth

Keen seems to think that if we’re all doing a lot of things, then surely we must be doing them all badly (pages 38–39). It sounds to me like Keen would uphold the rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that you need to do something for a long time (ten thousand hours) to get good at it. This ‘rule’ has been disputed; it’s clear now that good quality practice is more necessary than large quantities of practice.

My issue is a different one, however: It’s not clear to me that the existence of any number of dabblers rules out the possibility of dedicated experts. Keen is predicting (like Victor Hugo, who was referring to the effect of printed books on architecture) “this will destroy that”, which remains to be seen.

Barbara Sher and Emilie Wapnick, meanwhile, celebrate the abilities of scanners and multipotentialites, would-be Renaissance men and jacks-of-all-trades, those who choose not to choose one field or area of expertise.

Preserving Jobs

Keen bemoans the jobs destroyed by the internet (page 130). But isn’t it actually good when fewer people can accomplish the same thing? You can argue that what’s being accomplished isn’t the same, but you can’t argue that the world owes specific jobs to specific people, indefinitely.

I’m reminded (though only vaguely) of the story of the shipping container, The Box. In the past, every individual thing on every ship was unloaded piece by piece by large numbers of dockworkers. After the shipping container was invented, ships could unload a lot of stuff all at once, with far less human labor. After a nasty and horribly inefficient period of union foot-stomping and teeth-gnashing, jobs were permanently destroyed. In the long run, I would say that’s been a good thing.

Although I acknowledge that changing business models have, sadly, caused media and other businesses to lay off workers and even shut down completely, bemoaning these changes doesn’t strike me as insightful. How are Keen’s complaints any different from those of the buggy whip makers when people started buying automobiles? In any age, there is change. Keen’s book is merely a broom with which he tries to hold back the sea.

Or perhaps Keen is more savvy than it seems on the surface. His response to change, after all, is to sell a screed to those who dislike it, thus turning the change itself, however he truly feels about it, to his advantage.

Keen does credit the idea that making an omelet requires breaking eggs.  On page 113, he quotes Paul Simon, who compares the internet to a forest fire—destructive in the short term, but needed to spur new growth.

Staying Modest

The simple ownership of a computer and an Internet connection doesn’t transform one into a serious journalist any more than having access to a kitchen makes one into a serious cook. (47)

That is so quotable! And so true! There is always a tendency to confuse the tools with the trade. In some sense, I do believe you have to put in the time. Anyone can dabble in writing, but you are not a writer unless and until you write like a writer. (And yeah, I know that includes me.)

Living in the Long Tail

Keen says there are more than enough books published through traditional channels to keep us busy, so the yucky amateur ones are not needed (page 56). But there’s no particular reason to stop people from using the technology that’s available. Nothing is valuable per se. When you say something is valuable, you have to say to whom and for what. A self-published memoir may have great value to twenty members of the author’s family. That’s enough to justify its existence. No one else has to care. Because books can be cheaply manufactured in small quantities (or published digitally), every project is possible, no matter how humble. This is the long tail.

Staying out of the Crosshairs

Malicious misinformation communicated via the internet can seriously hurt people (page 72). So could rumors and lies disseminated in more traditional ways. The process is now, simply, more efficient. Again, think of the change from horses to cars. I’m sure people died using horses for transportation, and that cars are more dangerous than horses. Not to beat a dead horse, I’m still glad we have cars.

Organized Nonsense

An essay by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Total Library” embodies a version of the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters idea, also realized in Borges’ story “The Library of Babel”. Keen, who uses the monkey/typewriter idea to disparage amateurs, says that the internet is such a library of nonsense already (page 84). I would sympathize more if he said the internet seems to him to be such a library, or that the internet is analogous in certain ways to such a library, but to state that it merely is such a library is pure exaggeration and shows a lack of respect for the math behind the thought experiment.

Competing on a Shoestring Budget

Keen complains that companies with money dominate content platforms (page 92). Yes. As ever. As, perhaps, it should be. But now amateurs have a chance where once they had none. How is the situation worse than before?

Judging Truth

Keen argues that the wisdom of crowds substitutes the average preferences and questionable knowledge of everyone for the taste and true knowledge of experts, and thus destroys truth (pages 92–93). Google rankings reflect individuals’ choices equally and en masse, therefore are in his view misleading and easy to distort.

He overlooks two key ideas:

  1. All technology, if not all life, is an arms race between sneaky people and those who guard everyone else against them. Yes, people will manipulate search engine rankings any way they can, but the people at Google try to stop them any way they can.
  2. People still have brains and are just as capable or incapable of making judgments as they were fifty years ago. We don’t need to be told by an expert what to believe about everything now any more than we ever did. And if we want expert advice, we can still get it.

Valuing Software

Google is a parasite; it creates no content of its own. Its sole accomplishment is having figured out an algorithm that links preexisting content to other preexisting content on the Internet, and charging advertisers each time one of these links is clicked. In terms of value creation, there’s nothing there apart from its links. (135)

True, Google does not produce original text or images for consumption. It is, however, stunningly perverse to insist that its software—or any software—by virtue of being merely a platform, has no value. You might as well say that the newspapers of yesterday that Keen so ardently admires have no value because all they do is organize the material created by reporters and charge advertisers each time a copy of the paper is printed.

Maintaining Intellectual Honesty

I wholeheartedly agree with Keen that lack of respect for intellectual property and intellectual dishonesty are real and serious problems, legally and morally (page 145), and it’s clear they’ve been made orders of magnitude worse by digital technology. I wouldn’t say it’s the technology’s fault, though. I would say it’s a problem of education in the field of ethics.

Protecting Us from Ourselves

I sympathize with those whose lives are affected by gambling addiction (pages 152–53), but I detest the pragmatic solution: government regulation that offers us protection from ourselves (page 196).

Looking Forward

In the end, Keen is “neither antitechnology nor antiprogress” (page 184). He’s not a Luddite; he just wants to keep the best of the old media even while adopting the best of the new. In fact, the last chapter of Keen’s screed strikes a rather positive note.

When and Why I Read It

The internet has changed a lot of business models, for better or for worse. Since I’m accustomed to hearing glowing accounts of the benefits of technology, I decided it would be useful to consider the other side of the coin.

Genre: Non-fiction (computers and technology, internet and social media)
Date started / date finished:  14-May-16 to 16-May-16
Length: 205 pages
ISBN: 9781857883930 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Cult of the Amateur

Related Media

Books I’ve read:

  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
  • The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Books I haven’t read:

  • Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
  • The Total Library by Jorge Luis Borges (non-fiction collection)
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (fiction collection)
  • The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen
  • Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen