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Negative review of "Cult of the Amateur"

August 3rd, 2009
politics, wikipedia  [html]
I just finished reading andrew keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture.. I'm not very impressed. The book is divided into two main sections: first, an extended diatribe against "Web 2.0", and second, a survey of various internet related ills. This second part is relatively well informed, but not very interesting as identity theft, pornography, and gambling have received extensive coverage elsewhere.

Them first section, however, is a mess. Keen angrily derides any system where the information is not provided by paid experts, generally without properly understanding what he is criticizing. His biggest error a misunderstanding of the roles of search and aggregation. This confusion pervades the book, turning ostensibly good things like additional information becoming available online into harms. He rails loudly against google as a parasite [1] and claims any aggregation system not backed by experts narrows our access to information [2] . Then he goes on to complain that with all this amateur content we won't have any way to find what's worth reading. He observes that "the more self-created content that gets dumped on the Internet, the harder it becomes to distinguish the good from the bad" [3]. He asks if "we really need to wade through the tidal wave of amateurish work of authors who have never been professionally selected for publication?" [4] No, each person need not wade through all of it. No, it's not one person's job alone to distinguish the good from the bad. The problem that keen identifies, that the more information there is on the internet the harder it is to make sense of it and determine what is worth reading, is solvable. Blogs, search, and aggregation all solve pieces of the problem, yet keen dismisses blogs as narcissistic, search as parasitic, and aggregation as narrowing.

In the opinion of this non-expert reviewer, keen misses the point.

[1] "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 content on the internet ... In terms of value creation there's nothing apart from its links." -- p135

[2] "These sites track the reading habits of their community and make recommendations based on the aggregated preferences of the entire community. But such a method cannot be relied on to keep us informed. When our individual intentions are left to the wisdom of the crowd, our access to information becomes narrowed, and as a result, our view of the world and our perception of truth becomes dangerously distorted." -- p94

[3] p31

[4] p56

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