Monday, July 07, 2008

There's A Sucker Born Every Minute

Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy read.

I'm a big fan of the UK site On Friday, I read an article here titled "Publishers Fight Back, Says Andrew Keen." It begins:
Author Andrew Keen has challenged book publishers to fight back against the "tyranny" of free content. Speaking at The Bookseller's conference "Digitise or Die", Keen warned that publishers and other intermediaries were being pushed out of the new economy by the prevailing "northern Californian libertarian mindset" that demanded everything for free . . .
Curious about Keen, whom I'd never heard of previously, I did a little investigation on the Internet, that famous bastion of "free content." From Wikipedia, I learned that Keen earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of London and a master's degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

I also found another article he'd written, this time for the Weekly Standard in February, 2006, here titled "Web 2.0."

That earlier article gives a more complete explanation of Keen's philosopy than one does. It opens:
The ancients were good at resisting seduction. Odysseus fought the seductive song of the Sirens by having his men tie him to the mast of his ship as it sailed past the Siren's Isle. Socrates was so intent on protecting citizens from the seductive opinions of artists and writers, that he outlawed them from his imaginary republic.
That opening was a good hook, although more worthy of a fiction writer than a non-fiction writer since Keen mixed a character from legend with an historical personage; a mistake I would not have expected from a history major.

The second paragraph of his "Web 2.0" article didn't impress me any more than the first:
We moderns are less nimble at resisting great seductions, particularly those utopian visions that promise grand political or cultural salvation. From the French and Russian revolutions to the counter-cultural upheavals of the '60s and the digital revolution of the '90s, we have been seduced, time after time and text after text, by the vision of a political or economic utopia.
It could just be my narcissistic Yank attitude, but I was interested that Keen skipped right over the American Revolution, which began in 1775, and went straight to the French Revolution of 1789.

While his language is certainly pretty, Keen's selective picking and choosing of historical events began to remind me of the shell games I'd seen on the Jersey Boardwalk during my youth. Whenever the carnie's patter distracted me from his nimble fingers, I'd lose track of the walnut shell that hid the pea.

For that reason, I spent some minutes trying to understand his rationale without resorting to American self-absorption. It occurred to me that the insurgents of the American Revolution sought to overthrow a far-distant monarch while the peasant populations of France and Russia struggled beneath more immediate and oppressive despots.

As I considered that possibility I realized that, when Keen speaks of publishers "fighting back," he's actually arguing FOR a modern day oligarchy where the elite of the publishing industry maintain economic control over the peasant rabble of writers.

If you've forgotten your sixth grade history, the word oligarchy comes from the Greek and means "rule of the few." It is a centralized system in which power rests in hands of an organized elite who uses it for their own benefit.

When Keen points with such disdain to those "utopian visions that promise grand political or cultural salvation," he's suggesting that those unkempt French and Russian peasants--not to mention the Berkeley hippies, who were probably far filthier--were seduced into overthrowing their rightful masters.

It takes a while for Keen to come out in the open and admit to this elitist philosophy, but he does finally come clean:
SO WHAT, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? . . . It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone--even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us--can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 "empowers" our creativity, it "democratizes" media, it "levels the playing field" between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is "elitist" traditional media.
Gag me with a spoon. And actually bought what this guy is shoveling?

I sure hope my publisher (Penguin) isn't listening to him. If they are, they're gonna dig themselves in even deeper than Marie Antoinette did when she said, "Let them eat cake" to those starving French peasants.

Silly me--lowly romance writer that I am--I've been operating under the assumption that Web 2.0 was about collaboration. Web 2.0 birthed the entire social networking movement.

Tim O'Reilly, who is widely credited with inventing the term Web 2.0, said here on December 10, 2006:
Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform . . . Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I've elsewhere called "harnessing collective intelligence.")
Does this mean Web 2.0 is perfect? Of course, it doesn't. By now, savvy Internet explorers know that Wikipedia needs to be a starting place for research, not a end point (I checked Keen's Wikipedia bio against that on his own website).

However, when it works well, Web 2.0 does remarkable things. In February, blogger Josh Marshall and his blog Talking Points Memo won one of the prestigious George Polk Awards for journalism. The press release said:
The Polk Award for Legal Reporting will go to Joshua Micah Marshall, editor and publisher of the widely read political blog, Talking Points Memo. His sites . . . led the news media in coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country. Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall and his staff . . . connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration's bidding. Marshall’s tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Since Keen peppered his article with historical references, I'll point out that knowledge was once closely guarded in the hands of the nobility and clergy. It could be argued that the first great media revolution was actually the invention of Gutenberg's press in the mid-fifteenth century. It made newspapers--and eventually books--available to the unwashed masses. I was taught in my eighth grade history class that Gutenberg's invention was one of the precipitating events leading to the Renaissance.

Gosh, maybe Web 2.0 might have a similar impact on today's world by offering information access and collaborative assistance to parts of the world we now label under-developed. When contemplating that possibility, who cares if several thousand god-awful writers self-publish their purple prose? Or if a bunch of teenage bands pollute our ears with their horrible chords via the Internet?

One last item of interest. article reports:
Keen . . . argues [in his book, The Cult of the Amateur] that the internet is debasing culture by giving everyone the tools to create and no-one the skills to select . . . Keen added, "for the creative class--this is a bad time", arguing that intermediaries played a vital role nurturing talent: "When you take away the gatekeepers everything becomes crap. Writers don't get rich and famous on their own."
I find that last statement wonderfully ironic since it appears that Keen has built a career for himself out of being "famous."

On his website, he modestly describes himself as "the leading contemporary critic of the Internet." His bio goes on to say:
He [Keen] founded in 1995, and, securing significant investment from Intel and SAP, established it as one of the most highly trafficked websites of the late Nineties. As the Chief Executive of, Andrew became a Silicon Valley celebrity.
The bio neglects to mention that Audiocafe folded in February, 2000. However, three months later after the site shut down in May of 2000, Keen moderated a workshop panel titled "Selling Entertainment and Consumer Electronics on the Net" at a conference. Here's the bio he gave to the conference organizers:
Founder and CEO, AudioCafe: Andrew Keen is a leading visionary in the audio business with almost ten years of experience as an entrepreneur, salesman and writer in the industry. Having single-handedly founded Audiocafe in 1997, Keen has driven the development of the site's content and business development. His model of integrating commerce, community and content is now acknowledged as the most viable business model for building a successful Internet business model.
What a difference eight years can make.

And where the hell were the "gatekeepers" when Doubleday published Keen's The Cult of the Amateur? What is it that P.T. Barnum is often credited with saying?

Oh, yeah.


Laura Vivanco said...

It could be argued that the first great media revolution was actually the invention of Gutenberg's press in the mid-fifteenth century. It made newspapers--and eventually books--available to the unwashed masses. I was taught in my eighth grade history class that Gutenberg's invention was one of the precipitating events leading to the Renaissance.

As you say, Gutenberg's press was developed during the fifteenth-century. Although there are differences of opinion about a precise dating, the Renaissance is usually thought to have begun some considerable time before this. Dante lived from 1265-1321, Petrarch from 1304-1374, Boccaccio from 1313-1375. So I don't think it's possible for Gutenberg's press to have led to the Renaissance. Were you meaning the Reformation?

It could just be my narcissistic Yank attitude, but I was interested that Keen skipped right over the American Revolution, which began in 1775, and went straight to the French Revolution of 1789.

He doesn't mention the English Civil War either. I think the key to understanding his selection of revolutions is his use of the terms "utopian visions" and "a political or economic utopia." It would appear that he thinks of the French and Russian revolutions as ones which are primarily the result of philosophical ideals, whereas presumably he thinks that the reasons for other revolutions were more pragmatic, or more theological.

Maya Reynolds said...

Hey, Laura: Thanks for stopping by again.

I probably should have fact-checked my "eighth grade history" memory. However, I'm sure you know the Renaissance was not a uniform movement that hit Europe all at once. It certainly did start in Italy (as my Italian father was fond of pointing out). From there it spread to the rest of Europe.

Referring to the printing press as a precipitating factor probably was a stretch. However, the Art History 101 website has this to say: "The Renaissance in Northern Europe struggled to come into being, mostly due to the . . . fact that this geographical region was slower to gain political stability than was northern Italy. Nonetheless, the Renaissance did occur here, beginning around the middle of the fourteenth century and lasting until the Baroque movement."