“Cult of The Amateur”–Early Reflections on Keen’s Work

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.

Scary, right?

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.

5 thoughts on ““Cult of The Amateur”–Early Reflections on Keen’s Work

  • I don’t think Wesch was saying his students’ knowledge out weighed his, it was that by taking a closer look at the students in his class he was humbled by their collective experiences. I doubt he would argue that they are more prepared to teach his course (or any other) just because they have a collective set of experiences taking courses. What Wesch was saying however is that he is tired of people in the academy putting his students down — assuming they can’t do higher order thinking at the introductory level … he was making the point that his class was ready to be pushed via a level of rigor is not present in many classes today. All he is saying is that it is critical for us to remember that a classroom full of students has an amazing set of experiences that should be explored and can be used as a foundation to assume they can be pushed.

    I know for a fact he wasn’t saying they were more qualified as a cultural anthropologist than he. I felt as though it was an honest and open moment of self awareness that he shared with us during his talk. He was not saying the “wisdom of the crowd” was greater than his. I was celebrating the former as his realization made a real impact on me.

  • Thanks for the comment Cole. I must admit, I didn’t hear that come out of the podcast, but then again, it’s a Saturday morning–I was getting coffee, settling in and the like.

    I will say I filtered what was said through the lens of the book I was reading.

    In regard to his class, and your podcast: you bring up the criticism of others that what he does won’t work in their classes. I actually have to agree with the criticism in some sense. What he does *is* anthropology with his students actively engaged as both researcher and subject. That won’t quite translate in other classes. That doesn’t mean that the technologies and approaches won’t work in those classes, but they aren’t as easily transferable.

    For instance, in Anthropology the vast range of experiences of the students exposes a richer understanding of how people live and interact. In that sense (as my brother pointed out in a phone call) having 24 or 48 soldiers who all spent time in different units in Iraq make those “collective 24 years” meaningful.

    For an understanding of something deeper, something that is not studying the lives of people (an area in which we all have some expert domain–at least in our own lives) then we can easily be mis-led by the sense the numbers seem to convey.

    As you point out, different take-aways from the comments, depending on where we are in our discussions–and for you it was great that you could celebrate that realization.

  • I’ll add that collective experiences in a classroom probably cannot be compared to years of experience on the battlefield. The General with 24 years of experience has something 24 single year servicemen don’t have and that is wisdom. Big difference when you are leading to save than leading to simply teach IMHO.

    I would argue that any subject can be taught in an engaging way. It may be more work to envision or design it, but it can be done. I know you’ve had good success in changing the way students lean about supply chain … you’ve envisioned and engaged. Wesch has worked really hard at it and I think if he were in a different discipline he’d find ways to do the same. Just a hunch, but I am betting he feels as though his scholarship and teaching are on even playing fields and he treats them both with serious energy. I’m part of design teams working to rethink finance, english composition, biology, communications, thermal dynamics, and more … all of the experiences, while not at the level of effort Wesch gives, will be remarkably more engaging than before. Either way, it is a good discussion.

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