Too Much Power to the People?

Why does Andrew Keen hate America?

The infamously brutal New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, today reviews a new book by Andrew Keen. It’s called “The Cult of the Amateur,” and basically, from what I can tell from the review, it’s an extended rant about the dangers of over-democratization as manifested in a Web gone wild with free, user-generated content by the inferior minds of the hoi polloi.

Here’s what seems to be the gist of it, in Keen’s words: “What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune. The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.”

In her review, Kakutani actually reserves judgment on this provocative stance – not a typical move from her – but, to my eyes at least, Keen hangs himself with his own words. Not having read the book, I have not heard everything he has to say, but the quotes in the review seem to capture the flavor and it comes down to this: Keen is scared of America.

As with many of the elitist arguments against the Internet, Keen’s shows a fundamental lake of faith in our culture and our brand of capitalism, which has always been able, in the long run, to sift through the garbage of the unoriginal and crude in order to reward (culturally and financially) that which has real value. Granted Web 2.0 has created much more junk to sift through. No doubt. But that’s no reason to assume we won’t be able to create new ways of letting the cream rise to the top. If that means retooling the industries of publishing, music and news-gathering – and finding a way for them to make money again – what’s so wrong with that? Is there anything more American?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.