I have to admit my opinion of Andrew Keen was coloured before reading the first few chapters of The Cult of the Amateur. I met his less than optimistic musings in the June 2013 issue of The Atlantic, when he exposed the negative side of “social discovery” apps in “Messing with Fate”. For my purposes here, the article just compounds with his book to show that his distaste towards technology is not specific to how it functions on the computer, or in academic culture, but across all platforms and mediums. Keen comes off as anything but keen – in fact, he seems downright pissed off. And it seems I am now too…
I found that the most inflammatory passage of his text is where many of his irksome ideas are packaged together in the first paragraph of his section on “The Cost of Democratization”:
This blurring of lines between the audience and the author, between fact and fiction, between invention and reality further obscures objectivity. The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not outrightly corrupting, our national civic conversation. (27, emphasis added)
Yes, his book will ultimately argue that a lot of this democratization is used for Capitalist gain, and he will also explicitly tell us that this arena where everyone is a participant in knowledge creation is used “to obfuscate truth and manipulate public opinion” by the hands of the few (albeit, a different few in each situation) (26). Yet his implication that “obscuring objectivity” is necessarily a bad thing, seems to me a strange comment, and I want to note (but not dwell on) the fact that we decided objectivity is a fallacy long ago. That being said, I do think this need for objectivity that Keen clearly illustrates here is an excellent manifestation of something he is consistently guilty of doing: feeling upset with the fact that a democratic dissemination of information is challenging dominant power structures, of which he is on top. The word objectivity, along with the cultural implications it has in present day Western society, clearly aligns it with dominant ideologies. To be objective is not to occupy the object position, but in fact to occupy the active position of the interpreter, reader, or, gazer. Essentially, to be objective one must have the power to gaze, one must occupy the subject position, or the male position, in order to constitute everything else around him as object through his male gaze. It does not take much elucidation to further realize that an understanding of this distinction between oneself as active and everything else as passive (exemplified in the naturalist mode of observation needed for objectivity) is a highly Capitalist gesture, as it allows us to treat everything around us as objects themselves. As the divide between author and audience disappears, objectivity will necessarily disappear, but not in the way Keen seems to put it. Objectivity disappears because the subject/object divide disappears, and as a result, the power/powerless binary is challenged. All of a sudden, the audience that used to be objects become active subjects, and I don’t want to necessarily say that Keen is having an abject reaction here, because let’s face it, when are scholars ever personally invested in their work… (I’ll leave that one up for discussion). Also, I’m just going to offer the objective observation here that Keen’s whole paragraph rests on binary’s, and no binary is ever without hierarchy…
The idea of the audience or reader as passive objects is further highlighted when Keen explains that “we receive” information. I would say no, Keen, we do not simply receive information as it appears, and arguably we never have. In literary studies, the poststructuralists offered the idea that readers are active, thus subjects or even their own form of authors. I would argue that the internet now offers us a hyper-realized version of this model, a sort of readers-gone-wild where we are constantly invited to invent, evaluate, and discuss everything (both textual and not) that we encounter. So while it may be Keen’s fantasy that his readers are only taking the meaning from his words that he wishes for them to take (as good, readerly object-sorry, audience), this is highly unlikely.
Finally, Keen ends his paragraph with the strong assertion that conversation is being corrupted by, what he calls “democratization”, and what I call a levelling of power dynamics. This is not just any conversation either, its “our national civic conversation”. Because my mind is in annotation world, circa John Oliver Hobbes project, I read this line four times and thought, “this is something I would attempt to annotate 100 years from now, google the phrase, come up blank, and still have no idea what he is talking about”. Who exactly is the “our” he is addressing? And what is this alleged “national civic conversation”? Is there a transcript? Have I eavesdropped on it? Am I engaging with it right now?! Do any of my questions even matter?! Perhaps, if I’m included in the “our”, if not, this conversation is not for me. Possibly he means our national CAPITALIST civic conversation, as he goes on to discuss “real businesses with real products, real employees, and real shareholders” in the following line. While we all engage with these paradigms of capitalism, certainly we are not all welcome to the discussion about them. I’m also not sure how blind to our absence Keen is, or that if he just pleads willful blindness in order to make a seemingly collegial claim.
I have to wonder, then, what exactly should we (or I) make of Keen’s titular claim that the internet is destroying our culture? It seems to me that although he discusses recognized cultural artifacts, such as art, there is something more at stake here. I see an undercurrent through which Keen is using “culture” as a stand-in for “cultural norms” or “dominant ideology”, to which I propose the title of my own book “The Cult of the Amateur: how the internet just might save us all”. Then again, I won’t write this book, because I’m not really a part of this national civic conversation anyway… I’m just an amateur.