BERKELEY, California (Reuters) - Internet culture, often portrayed as the vanguard of progress, is actually a jungle peopled by intellectual yahoos and digital thieves, according to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-dissenter.
Andrew Keen, a 47-year-old Briton who founded dot-com era music startup Audiocafe, argues that basic notions of expertise are under assault amid a cultural shift in favor of the amateurism of blogs, MySpace and other popularity-driven sites.
“Millions and millions of exuberant monkeys ... are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity,” Keen writes in a book published Tuesday.
His views have infuriated bloggers and others, especially in Silicon Valley, who argue he is an elitist intellectual, a conservative pining for a return to old ways, and a writer who cannot keep his facts straight.
The villains in Keen’s narrative are a “pajama army” of mostly anonymous writers who spread gossip and scandal, “intellectual kleptomaniacs,” who search Google to copy others’ work and the “digital thieves” of media content in the post-Napster era.
For a technology industry used to basking in the glow of self-promotion, Keen’s work is shocking for its unforgiving view of Silicon Valley’s utopian aspirations.
The book “is designed as a grenade,” Keen, a native of north London who now lives in California, said at a recent debate with bloggers and journalists in Berkeley. “It is not designed to be particularly fair or balanced.”
The title of his polemic, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture,” attacks what he calls the “cut and paste” ethic of Web users, who he says are robbing professionals of their livelihoods.
The Web allows anyone to post their most intimate thoughts, views or even outright lies, without any editing, under the assumption that the crowd will correct any mistakes. Keen calls for efforts to balance out the Web’s powers of instant publishing against society’s need for accountability.
Some of the biggest names in Internet publishing are hitting back against Keen, including video blogger Robert Scoble, media critic Jeff Jarvis, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor and blog pioneer Dave Winer.
Jarvis, on his blog BuzzMachine, refers to Keen’s thinking as “Snobs.com.” He recently asked readers to advise him whether he should bother to debate Keen or shun him. The outcome was that the two have agreed to debate online.
But some would-be detractors find themselves sticking up for Keen, at least for his ideas, if not his bombastic tone.
Clay Shirky, a lecturer on new media technology at New York University, came spoiling for a fight with Keen at a recent online politics conference in New York. Instead, Shirky says he found himself defending Keen.
“So much of the conversation about the social effects of the Internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe ... we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public,” Shirky wrote in a blog post afterward.
Keen, for his part, rejects any notion that he is a modern Luddite out to break the machinery of the Web. He keeps up a regular dialog with friends and opponents at his blog at andrewkeen.typepad.com/.
He points to intellectual influences such as German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, known for her work on the nature of totalitarianism and the “banality of evil,” and Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher who defined the concepts of the private and public spheres in politics.
“The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus,” Habermas said in a 2006 speech.
Keen first staked out his views in a 2006 magazine article in the Weekly Standard magazine, and in online debates since then has won some supporters, who say they too have second-thoughts about the Web’s ultra-democratic ethos.
“If I ever need surgery, I damn sure hope my surgeon is one of the elite in his field,” one disgruntled blogger wrote.