I am reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values. It is a very interesting, and challenging book. His general thesis is that our move into the world of the “Digital Natives” (see my other blog post on that) has been essentially dumbing down our discourse. Perhaps even more to the point, he puts forward three points that catch my interest:
First, “I” matter the most. In this new world we are all equally important, and apparently all have an equal right to be heard. Unfortunately, in our rush to be heard we forget that we should also listen. We are rushing to be heard, and ultimately result in simply asserting our right to speak. In discussing an event he attended, he writes
“Everyone was simultaneously broadcasting themselves, but nobody was listening. Out of this anarchy, it suddenly became clear that what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated. Under these rules, the only way to intellectually prevail is by infinite filibustering.”
He then goes on to write
“The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves. “
So what? What’s wrong with everyone writing about themselves? His point is a bit more than simply we are producing too much noise. When we do take time to read, and to listen, we are no longer availing ourselves of the filters of expertise. We are starting to read and value uninformed, and ignorant, analysis over the informed and educated. When we no longer look to experts for opinions on lofty and heady subjects we lose the ability to truly learn, and instead replace that with a sense of knowing and not a reality of knowing.
Second, from this drift away from the works of experts to amateurs, he argues that facts and truth are no longer immutable.
Again, he writes:
As Marshall Poe observed in the September 2006 issue of the Atlantic: We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars…. But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean…. The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability.
What’s even more dangerous here than just the self-absorbed cacophony is that this new cult of the amateur actually elevates opinion to the same level as educated fact. Once we believe a few hours of exposure to a topic makes us “as good as” an expert, we substitute our knowledge for real knowledge.
I was listening to an ETS Talk podcast from Cole Camplese and his group at Penn State University — University Park. They were attending a conference and Cole was mentioning the great work done by Michael Wesch and his students at Kansas State University. In the discussion Cole talks about the change from the focus on the Professor, with 200+ hours of advanced coursework, to the “wisdom of the crowd.” When they added up the experiences of the professor, and his classes, they “discovered” that collectively they have over 24000 credit hours of study, and global experiences with humanitarian, military, and personal experiences, including collectively 24 years of military service in Iraq. As if, somehow, having all that “introductory level experience” in any way compares to the depth of research, study and experience of the experts. For example,
- If 100 students each took 8 credit hours of Calculus do those 800 hours somehow equate to a Math Professor who has taken 100 credit hours of advanced math? (Let’s ignore the simple fact that most probably earned a C, and likely received a B.)
- Do the 24 years of collective experience in Iraq in the military (most likely served by 24 junior enlisted troops serving in frontline positions) mean that they collectively are as good as the General who has served in varied posts for 24 years?
What bothers me here is not that we quickly accept these assertions without much reflection–it’s that some, in reading my two bullets above, may actually agree that they are in some way equivalent! That is what Keen is speaking to when he argues we are losing the value of the experts.
The third point of Keen’s that speaks to me is when he argues that our efforts at creating, and embracing, the democratization of information actually is harming the creation of new knowledge. As he writes,
…a radically democratic culture is hardly conducive to scholarship or to the creation of wisdom. The reality is that we now live in a highly specialized society, where excellence is rewarded and where professionals receive years of training to properly do their jobs, whether as doctors or journalists, environmental scientists or clothing designers. In The Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith reminds us that specialization and division of labor is, in fact, the most revolutionary achievement of capitalism: The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of labour.
Keen goes on to argue that our tearing down of the existing structure for vetting information, and our apparent wilingness to go to other less reliable sources, results in the diminution of resources to further develop the skills necessary for true knowledge creation. Some talk about this as being the “new economy” but imagine an economy based on not paying for what you receive.
As I said, I am working through Keen’s book, and find it interesting and challenging. Of course, I am writing about this on my own blog. I even acknowledge that for me the writing is as much to help me think through things (listen to myself talk) as it is for anyone else.
But perhaps there is another view. Perhaps we can transform the transmit only world into one where true engagement can take place.
Stay tuned–and in the meantime, take part in the engagement right here! Leave your thoughts in the comment section. Let’s actually “talk” rather than just read.