An Interview with Andrew Keen, Author of “The Cult of the Amateur”

July 16, 2007 11 min read

Andrew Keen (blog) is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a writer. When his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, hit the bookstores a few weeks ago, it immediately attracted critics’ attention. The book questions the core values of the Web 2.0 revolution, exposing its economic, ethical, and social dangers. As with every revolution, even the Web 2.0 has zealots who didn’t miss the opportunity to discredit Andrew Keen and dismiss his book as badly researched. While I don’t fully agree with Andrew, I strongly believe in the need for more provocative opinions like his in order to better understand all the implications of the changes created by the Internet.
The same day I finished reading the book I asked Andrew for an interview and a couple of days later we sat in a bakery in Berkeley drinking coffee and discussing the book. Here is a transcription with only marginal editing of the original live interview.

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF THE BOOK: We are offering three signed copies of "The Cult of the Amateur" to the three most interesting comments posted in the next two weeks. I and Andrew will select the winners. After reading the interview please leave a comment with your sincere opinion and don’t forget to provide an authentic e-mail where we can reach you in case you have been selected.

Andrew, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional activities?

I’m a Silicon Valley old-timer, a veteran of the Internet business. I founded AudioCafe in the mid-1990s. I’ve produced shows about the future of technology, I’ve worked in senior positions in a number of different startups as a sales and marketing executive — so my background is as an Internet entrepreneur and an executive.

"The Cult of the Amateur" presents a different, less optimistic, opinion about the impact of the Internet on our society and economy. How has it been received so far?

I would agree that (my book) is not particularly fair; I think it’s relatively accurate

It’s been received very differently by different people. Most of the people in the Web 2.0 community don’t think the book is fair or accurate. I would agree that it’s not particularly fair; I think it is relatively accurate. They’ve tried to nitpick the book and suggest that some of my facts are wrong. All of my facts were taken from mainstream media, from newspaper articles so there’s not that much wrong in the book.  It’s a polemic, so I make arguments. Sometimes my arguments are less compelling than others, but I try to make a case and not every argument is perfect. The book has been well-received in the reviewing community. The New York Times, for example, gave an extremely good review. A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail in London, very prominent biographer and writer, thought it was it an outstanding book. A number of reviewers really like it and some reviewers don’t, of course. I’ve got really a lot of positive responses back from many readers. Although there are some technologists who are happy with what I’ve written, many positive reviews are from teachers, academics, librarians, people on the front lines of this new culture war, who understand what I’m saying, who respect the fact that the kids today are sort of media illiterate — they have no idea what they’re reading — who are troubled by the disappearance of newspapers and who see in so-called community sites like MySpace and YouTube just a lot intellectual piracy and moral corruption. I’m particularly encouraged by the fact that people who really are on the front-lines of these new culture wars are sympathetic to what I’m saying. They say, "Yeah, you’re right, this is something that is going around and we need to do something about it."

While a few great journalists are working hard to investigate and understand the world around us, many others sit at their desks rewriting press releases, or reformatting press agencies dispatches. Aren’t blogs and bloggers a better alternative?

the blogosphere doesn’t really represent a very coherent business model; the vast majority of bloggers are not making money

Well I think the biggest weakness in my book is that it idealizes mainstream media and I acknowledge the fact that it’s not as ideal as I’d like it to be. I have a very idealized vision of how a good journalist works, and I think about John F. Burns at The New York Times or Robert Fisk at The Independent, and so many other journalists who really are my heroes as a young man, and in fact in some ways I wish I’d been a journalist myself. So you are right, there are a lot of lazy journalists and I think it’s a good thing that the Internet is giving these journalists a kick in their pants. Some of them are losing their jobs — I don’t applaud that, I don’t think it’s good when anyone loses their job, but perhaps there was a lot of fat in traditional media that need to be cut away. I hope that the muscle doesn’t get cut away as well. That’s the danger. In terms of the blogosphere, of course, there are some very very good bloggers and some very smart bloggers, although out of 17 million you’d hope there would be because if there weren’t I think it would lead to very dire predictions about the human race. The problem with the blogosphere for the most part is that they are dependent on the information of mainstream journalists. So if you do away with newspapers then what are the bloggers going to have to write about?  I’m all in favor of bloggers — the quality bloggers — becoming professionals, being paid, of spending their days writing about the world, and researching the world. The problem is the blogosphere doesn’t really represent a very coherent business model so the vast majority of bloggers are not making money. That’s why I applaud something like the Huffington Post which is making an attempt to actually pay the best bloggers for their work. So I’m all in favor of professionalizing the blogosphere, I’m just not that optimistic that it can be done.  It certainly needs more of an effort by everyone, mainstream journalists and people on the Internet.

One of the main problems of the Internet is to extract “good” and “relevant” content from a sea of “garbage” or unrelated content. You claim that popular vote (as in Wikipedia, Digg, and ReddIt) is not a good solution to this problem. What’s your opinion about the “genetic” approach, such as the one used by Pandora?

the crowd, to me, is not intelligent. The crowd is an abstraction, it’s meaningless

I think that an interesting, tough question. I think that perhaps another company that you can include with the Pandora category is Mahalo. My understanding of Pandora is that they’re using human expertise in musical form and identity to help people figure out their taste. And I’m more in favor of that. And I can’t comment on the Pandora algorithm. I’ve used the Pandora system, I haven’t been particularly impressed, but I like the principle of having a human element in the algorithm. That’s why I like what McCabe Calacanis (blog) is doing with Mahalo. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t trust pure artificial intelligence algorithms, Google for me is problematic, and the other wisdom-of-crowd. Google is essentially a wisdom-of-crowd advocation in the same way as ReddIt and Digg.  So, I prefer the Pandora and Mahalo approach, which I think is more of a compromise and I think that may indeed be the future.  I’m not sure if Pandora will work, but certainly there has to be a human element; there has to be an editorial authoritative element. What I like about Pandora is that they get musical experts in the same way as Mahalo uses experts in search to enter intelligence into their website, which is a good thing.  But the crowd, to me, is not intelligent. The crowd is an abstraction, it’s meaningless, and often just gets hijacked by activists who are hiding behind anonymity.

Who will benefit from a future without privacy where all the content is generated by amateurs? What kind of people will emerge as leaders in such a society?

(Google, YouTube, etc.) are walking a very narrow line between a sort of theft and a legitimate appropriation in order to monetize their wisdom of the crowd products

That’s a really interesting and important question. I mean clearly in business terms the people that benefit are the Eric Schmidt(s) and the Steve Chen(s) and Chad Hurley(s) of the world. I wouldn’t say they’re fraudulent companies, because they’re smart businesses, but they’re companies that are decimating the traditional content businesses because they’re essentially, if not stealing the content, walking a very narrow line between sort of theft and legitimate appropriation in order to monetize their wisdom-of-the-crowd product and undermine traditional business models. So in business terms, these are the people who benefit. I think they’re smart guys, you know I respect the business wisdom of Eric Schmidt. What I don’t respect is his dishonesty when it comes to social and cultural issues. When you hear Schmidt talk it’s as if Google is our friend, Google wants to reform the world, bring wisdom to the masses — he couldn’t give a damn. He’s become an immensely rich man, unimaginably rich and I don’t see him doing much to improve the lives of people in Africa or anything like that, it’s just a sort of doublespeak. Even more worryingly than that, the kind of people who’ll benefit are the self-promoters.  This is a media which is designed for experts in self-promotion. Now Larry Lessing loves me and thinks that everything I say is wrong, and I don’t like him any more than he likes me. But he says that I’m a brilliant self-promoter, which is true, which is why this book has had a lot of attention, because I’m good at that, I understand the way that works. I’m good at giving interviews. I’m not a shy sort of person. The problem though in this world is: do you really want a culture with people like myself — big mouths — people who are happy, experts in talking, experts in giving messages.  It’s a new kind of oligarchy of spinmeisters of one kind or another. And people of real talent are going to get lost because they’re not good at self-promoting. When you do away with the ecosystem, when you do away the infrastructure, when the writers have to promote themselves, when the musicians have to promote themselves, we’re not going to have any more Bob Dylan(s) or Bruce Springsteen(s). We’re going to have Madonna(s). We’re going to have Paris Hilton(s), just good at self-promotional stunts, going out without knickers or saying stupid things to people to get their attention. Christopher Hitchens is a great guy, he’ll prosper in this world. It would be great if all talented writers were as good as Christopher Hitchens at self-promotion, but they’re not. That really concerns me.

If your worst prediction were to come true, who do we have to blame? The technologists who built the tools to “popularize” the creation of content or our leaders for not managing the evolution?

we’re responsible for cleaning this thing up and for establishing a social contract

I would say none of those. I’d say we’d have to blame ourselves. We have to take responsibility for this. We look at the Internet web 2.0, it’s a mirror, and we’re looking at ourselves. It’s all too easy to blame other people. It’s all too easy, and I blame myself, Eric Schmidt, it’s all too easy to blame the politicians who are certainly not to blame – they’re the victims if anything. It’s all too easy blaming the leaders of the mass media who again are the victims. I think we all have the responsibility. We are the ones who determine are we going to pay for our content or are we going to steal our content. Are we going to educate our kids about the value of Wikipedia? Are we going to let them on MySpace? Are we going to stop buying newspapers? Are we going to respect mainstream media or continue to whine and moan about their corruption? So ultimately we’re the ones who determine this. There’s nothing inevitable about technology. We shape it, we create it, it has no autonomy, no independence aside from ourselves. If there’s one message in this book: we’re responsible for this! If things go really bad, we collectively are to blame. And we’re responsible for cleaning this thing up, for establishing a social contract, we’re responsible for forcing people above all not to use this new media as a sort of Hobbesian state of nature where we insult each other. One thing I think we should collectively fight against, which would overnight clean this thing up, make it a much more attractive environment would be to fight against anonymity. Only if everyone agreed collectively as a kind of social contract to say "Ok, we’re all going to go on this media, it’s not ideal but one way to improve it is let’s all agree not to be anonymous, let’s all agree to reveal who we really are." We’re not in China, we’re not in Iran. No one gets puts in jail for saying unpopular things on the Internet. If people were put in jail, I’d be in jail for the rest of my life. The fact is we should reveal who we are because we behave like human beings rather than like animals. The monkey metaphor was all very well, but we actually do behave a little bit like monkeys, like primates, when we’re anonymous. Like when we’re in cars and no one knows who we are we stick our fingers up at each other. When we’re sitting across a table we’re polite. I want the Internet to reflect the best of human nature rather than the worse. At the moment I think it’s reflecting more of the bad qualities than the good qualities.

Several people saw in your book an attack to the "freedom" created by the Internet. According to them, the fact that non-democratic countries limit and control the access to the Internet proves the value of the Internet as a tool to promote "freedom" values. What’s your opinion on this?

the Internet at the moment is a kind of state of nature, there are very few laws. That’s not a good thing in life

Firstly I certainly cherish our open democratic society. When I critique democratization doesn’t make me anti-democratic. I’m thrilled to be living in America and not in Iran. I see China and Iran as the other extremes. I think we have to acknowledge that we need to self-police the Internet, that doesn’t reduce freedom. We need to think. The best analogy is social contract theories, political writers like Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Internet at the moment is a kind of state of nature, there are very few laws. That’s not a good thing in life. Rousseau thought that was a good thing. Rousseau idealizes the state of nature and I see the promoters of Web 2.0 very much in that Rousseau-ian path. I’m much more in the Hobbesian path. I see the state of nature as one being life is nasty, brutish, and short. Lots of people are dying on the Internet, or at least some people are or in cultural terms. I think we need collective social contracts. It doesn’t have to be as harsh Hobbes, but we might learn from John Locke or some of the 20th century social contract theorists that we need to group together, make collective laws, and pacts, as a way of improving. That’s not limiting our freedom, it actually increases our freedom. I don’t think there’s much freedom on the Internet. Why is it free when you go on the Internet and say something and everyone swears at you and insults you?  Why is it free when there are none, or very few sites where people really discuss issues in an intelligent and a grown-up way?  That’s not free, that’s just anarchy. So the real freedom comes out of social contract. Real freedom comes out of civilized people understanding that there are intrinsic problems with a lawless world whether it’s in real-life or on the Internet and collectively suggesting to themselves we need to improve. It’s Tim O’Reilly‘s idea of a code of conduct but it needs to be pursued with much more muscularity, much more aggressively, he’s a little wimpy, he got to be much more aggressive. I hope this won’t come true, but I fear there’s going to be some really bad things happen on the Internet which will force us to do that. You know the Kathy Sierra (blog) thing was bad but I think there’s going to be some even worse things happening which will force people to actually address this issue and to develop a more aggressive social contract.

I would like to thank Andrew Keen for taking the time to answer my questions. If you have any questions for Andrew or for Novedge, please leave a comment below and win a signed copy of "The Cult of the Amateur".

Franco Folini

Franco Folini
Franco Folini

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