Is the internet killing our culture?

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and polemicist Andrew Keen is kicking up a storm with his views on Web 2.0, soon to be published in his book The Cult of the Amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture.

Leading national media columnists have recently commented in balanced terms on his views and the book in particular:

and others are also questioning the Web 2.0 hype, in particular that surrounding blogging:

But much of the criticism of Keen has come from Web 2.0 enthusiasts who have not read the book, though they may have read his views on his blog or heard them at one of his many speaking appearances. Until the book appears, the following comments from his blog will give a flavour of his views:

As I will show in my Cult of the Amateur, we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Blogs, wikis and social networking are, indeed, assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. Web 2.0 is pushing us back into the Dark Ages.

In the Web 2.0 world, our brands are personalized and transformed into channels. We are what we broadcast ourselves to be. Thus the infantilized nature of the blogosphere. Thus its corruption of democratic politics and traditional notions of citizenship.

The blogosphere is structurally flawed. It is inhabited by instantly forgettable people uttering instantly forgettable things (ie: the crowd). Best to stay out of the swamp entirely.

At least there are a few sane people left in the world not intimately familiar with these online dens of iniquity. And they are our representatives because they’ve got more important things to do than hang-out at MySpace or watch the latest hits on YouTube.

The whole blogosphere is one big diary of a nobody. We are all Mr Pooters.

The choice is Lehrer or Drudge [the archetypical outsider]. Responsible news journalism or the hyper democracy of the Freak Show.

Anti MSM’ers [ie those “opposed” to the mainstream media] … remind me of provincial “intellectuals” (Lenin, Robespierre, Pol Pot, etc etc), their noses pressed up against the window of the real world, blaming everyone but themselves for their own gaping inadequacies.

Close your eyes. Imagine Google’s universal library – a world without physical books, where authors are transformed into power-point wielding consultants and intellectual clowns. A nightmare, right?

So Keen is long on scorn for the “amateurs” and sees cultural disaster looming at every turn, but does he provide any constructive thought? One respected blogger (indeed the granddaddy of blogging), Dave Winer, has read the book and finds it distinctly lacking:

The solution isn’t to call the amateurs names, the new world requires thought, and Keen does not provide any.

His book, while based on an important and valuable premise, that Silicon Valley is too-much admired for the good of all of us, including the tech industry, fails to enlighten while he props up the egos of obsolete people and businesses. Each of his arguments is easily refuted, too easily. There’s no food for thought in this book. I was ready for a work that would inspire a thoughtful response, because I like Andrew, at a personal level, but this book is beneath criticism. Back to the drawing board.

In a quick trawl through Keen’s blog posts I was able to find only one constructive comment. On the prospect of a world without physical books he says:

The challenge is to convince the world that the book is just as futuristic as the search engine. The challenge is to make the case that it will be the concreteness of the physical book, and not abstraction of the digital universe, which will dominate our culture in 2020.

Web 2.0, and the internet in general, is neither good nor bad. Internet technologies are enabling positive developments for businesses and individuals but are also giving succour to the vain, the greedy, the irresponsible and the perverted. The challenge is to promote the former whilst putting the brakes on the latter. The answers will be found in a combination of technologies (eg to filter out the low-value and the undesirable), regulation (where necessary) and, perhaps most importantly, education (so that users learn how to assess information, contribute constructively and behave responsibly).