While I spend a lot of time speaking onstage these days, I rarely get to keynote large conferences. Usually, when people are looking to entertain or provoke a large audience, they choose someone who’s work and ideas has a very broad appeal, not someone who works on a specific field, like international news media. So I was surprised – and honored – to be given the chance to speak to two thousand or so librarians in Toroto for an hour at the Ontario Library Association’s annual conference. And I was more surprised and honored that the vast majority stayed in their seats for the hour that I rambled about the internet’s ability to bring people around the world together, and our successes and failures in embracing its power.
I hadn’t realized, when I signed up for the gig, that I was speaking directly before Andrew Keen. Keen is one of the hottest internet skeptics right now, and has been touring to promote his book, “Cult of the Amateur”. My friend David Weinberger has been invited to debate Keen several times, most notably in the Wall Street Journal, and I found myself worrying that I’d been put on stage as a cyberutopian strawman for Keen to batter afterwards.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the intention. I addressed a plenary session, then Keen ran one of a dozen simultaneous sessions. To the two hundred or so crammed into a too-small room for Keen’s talk, it likely felt that he was responding directly to my optimism about the internet – as it turns out, he hadn’t actually caught my talk, which meant that the conflict between our worldviews was an inherent one, not one created by the structure of the conference.
I read “Cult of the Amateur” a few months before it was published, in galley form, and liked quite a bit of the book. But I hated much of the book, and as much as I tried to write about it, I discovered that I got tripped up in trying to refute all the nonsense in it that I never got to engaging in the parts I enjoyed and appreciated. I had the same problem with his talk on Thursday. Keen has some very important points. But he’s also got a bad habit of saying things that are outrageous, provocative and, to be frank, not true. Over the course of his hour-long talk, he said half a dozen things that struck me as right on, a dozen that made me dismiss him as an ill-informed crank, and two or three that were so off base, I laughed out loud, surprising the bemused librarians all around me.
Keen’s core thesis is that the read/write nature of the Internet is a danger, because is destroying our culture and economy by causing us to value experts less and over-celebrate the contribution of amateurs. Or, as he put it early in his talk, “Instead of a dictatorship of experts, we’ll have a dictatorship of idiots.” It’s easy to misread Keen as simply being a Luddite (or pretending to be a Luddite, as it’s often hard to know if he’s being serious or not…), but he spends a good bit of his time explaining his fondness for the Internet as a distribution medium. It’s as a medium for content creation that he finds it so unsettling.
This wasn’t as clear to me in his book as it was in his talk. As Keen narrated his move from founding a print publication for audiophiles to operating a web site… which was promptly trounced by Amazon… I saw the recapitulation of a story near and dear to my heart: the conversion of Tripod.com from a content to community business. When we began Tripod in 1994, we saw it as a repository for professional content for college students and recent graduates. As we got better editors, that expert content got better, edgier and more fun to read. Unfortunately, very few people read it. At the same time, the content members were creating through one of our skunkworks projects, a webpage buider, was generating ten times the traffic. Eventually, we made a business decision to start focusing on this user-generated content (a Web 2.0 business model), rather than the content our writers and editors were producing (Web 1.0). It took us 18 months of difficult, sometimes angry, discussions to get there. I get the sense that Keen’s still in that angry phase, and that makes me more sympathetic, as I understand that anger.
I was also pleased to see that Keen relied heavily on Fred Turner’s brilliant “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” an important book that links the rhetoric of cyberspace promoters with 1960s counterculture. Keen takes Turner’s argument a bit more broadly than I would, essentially putting all responsibility for Web 2.0 on the shoulders of the 1960s flower children. And then he declares a surprising number of people to be hippies, including Jimmy Wales (for his hippyish love of Ayn Rand?) and Dave Winer (because he’s a contrarian.) While this made me laugh out loud, Dave does admit to being an “aging hippie”, which may suggest that Keen’s getting better at researching his provocations. What’s useful about Turner’s analysis is that it draws a bright line from the countercultural values of people like Stewart Brand to their desire to use the internet for societal change. I think Keen’s using this in a different way, trying to make his case that the hippies don’t care about money and will destroy the tools of capitalist cultural production. (Perhaps he didn’t read the chapter of Turner’s book where Brand and others made common cause with silicon valley VCs and made some bucks.)
Finally, I was happy to hear Keen speak in a nuanced way about anonymity, allowing for the importance of anonymity for whistleblowing and blogging from difficult countries. He feels strongly that people in relatively free societies shouldn’t use the net to speak anonymously and, for the most part, I agree with him. Identity – whether real-world identity or long-term persistent psuedonymity – seems to be critical for civilized discourse online, and here he and I would probably make common cause, despite our apparent disagreement.
That said, there were parts of his talk that I simply disagreed with. He framed his argument to librarians in strongly populist terms, arguing that the rise of Google and Wikipedia would put them out of business. Correctly pointing out that Google gets smarter with every user, he attempted to scare the librarians by telling them, “your job as librarians is to be search engines; your lives are a narrative of collecting that wisdom,” the wisdom Google now threatens. I was pleased that one of the questioners responded to his line of argument by pointing out that Google’s made life much better for librarians. Patrons now ask much more interesting questions, ones that require real knowledge and research, and no longer pester librarians with searches for the population of Ghana, for instance. I got the sense that much of this populism was pretty cynical – a desire to make common cause in the hopes that librarians would join his battle to protect lucrative expertise. (Then again, I started my talk with a slide of an action figure of a geek, an action figure of a librarian and a heart between the two. So who’s pandering to the crowd now.)
Admitting that he’s more optimistic now than he was when writing the book, he pointed happily to hybrid models being advanced that empower experts on the Internet. He ‘s a fan of Citizendium, the Larry Sanger project to create a wikipedia by leveraging experts; of Google’s “wikipedia-killer”, Knol; of Jason Calcanis’s hand-rolled search engine Mahalo. These projects seem deeply reactionary to me, like they’re missing the fundamental truth of the projects that they’re copying: that the movements of a mass number of people on the internet can accomplish tasks that it’s very hard for a small group of experts to solve.
I had my hand up for much of the question and answer session, but didn’t get to offer my query. I got asked by several people afterwards what I wanted to ask. Basically, I planned to ask Keen when he’d become worth listening to. He argues that we should listen to experts, not to amateurs… but this is his first book. Did he become an expert in a single moment of enlightenment? Or when the check from the publisher cleared? If it wasn’t a quantum process, was there a moment as a very good amateur where he was suddently worth listening to? And if so, doesn’t that mean that there could be, theoretically, out there on the citizen-generated internet, someone else worth his time to listen to?
Unfortunately, he had to catch a limo, so I didn’t manage to get my question in. A fitting end to a talk by a man who told us more than once that he was an elitist, not a democratizer, that he was on the podium and not us. I found myself wishing we’d gotten to share the podium for a little while, if only to figure out how much more of his argument I actually agree with once the bombast and exageration is stripped away.