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New Book Looks at the Internet’s Impact on American Life

September 17, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: YouTube, MySpace, blogging and so much more, in the past few years, the Internet has been transformed. Where once a person might spend most of his or her time looking at various Web sites, today the focus is on interactivity and social networking, in which people share opinions and videos, in an environment in which anything goes.

We’ve reported on many of the positive developments in all this, but there are contrarian views. A new book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” presents some of these arguments. Its author, Andrew Keen, is himself an Internet entrepreneur who also writes on technology and culture. He joins me now.

Welcome to you.

ANDREW KEEN, Author, “The Cult of the Amateur”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The subtitle is, “How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture,” very provocative. What’s the key argument you’re trying to make?

ANDREW KEEN: The key argument is that the so-called “democratization” of the Internet is actually undermining reliable information and high-quality entertainment. By replacing mainstream media content, high-quality radio, television, newspapers, publishing, music, with user-generated content, we’re actually doing away with information, high-quality information, high-quality entertainment, and replacing it with user-generated content, which is unreliable, inane, and often rather corrupt.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democratization is this idea, though, that so many more people can participate. They can talk to each other. They can vote on things. They can debate subjects. Why is that not a social good?

ANDREW KEEN: Firstly, I don’t think that participation has been something that’s been missing from American politics or culture. One can always participate before the Internet. It’s not as if the Internet invented, even if some of the Silicon Valley utopians would claim otherwise, it’s not as if the Internet has invented collaboration, conversation or community. One only has to read Alexis de Tocqueville to realize that those existed way before the invention of the Internet in America.

But the fact is that that democratization is not doing those things. It’s not improving community. It’s not increasingly developing rich conversation. It’s not building collaboration.

Internet breeding narcissism

JEFFREY BROWN: Why not, though? Does the technology itself somehow change the dialogue or the output, the intellectual or cultural output?

ANDREW KEEN: My book is not against technology. I'm not against the Internet. I'm not a Luddite. I'm not suggesting that we should switch off the Internet. The Internet itself, particularly the Web 2.0 Internet, is a mirror. When we look at it, we're looking at ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Web 2.0 is this notion of interactivity and networking.

ANDREW KEEN: Right. And today, I think, when we look at the Internet, what we see -- we see some of our best qualities. We see irreverence, and vitality, and excitement. We see a youthfulness.

But we also see, I think, many of the worst developments in modern cultural life, and, in particular, I think we see what I call digital narcissism, this embrace of the self. It's Time magazine's person of the year for last year, was you.

I don't think that that "you" is a good person. I don't believe that the key to citizenship means self-expression. I think the key to citizenship means listening, and reading, and consuming high-quality information and entertainment.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are you blaming the Internet? If there is a narcissism in American society, is the Internet to blame? Or does the Internet -- are you saying the Internet enhances what we see out there?

ANDREW KEEN: The Internet isn't a person. We can't blame the Internet. Or even if I sat here and said, "I blame the Internet," who am I going to blame? It's not a person. We create the Internet. If there is anyone to blame, it's ourselves. We're using it, I think, very often inappropriately. We're using it inappropriately in two or three different ways.

I think we're forgetting that the key to high-quality media is consumption. We're forgetting that traditional mainstream media, with its gatekeepers, actually brings significant value, not only in terms of our understanding of the world, but in terms of our civic identity and understanding and interaction.

Internet as an echo chamber

JEFFREY BROWN: But we have, at the same time -- we've reported a lot on this, about the impact on the mainstream media, for example -- the sense out there that the mainstream media is too narrow, too elite, too controlling, that not enough views are heard, and that the Internet, all of these different -- the blogs, everything -- allows more to be told, allows more to be seen and heard, and allows people to interact with all of that. What is wrong with that?

ANDREW KEEN: I don't believe that's the case. I actually believe that mainstream media is more diverse than the Internet. The Internet has become an echo chamber; it's a place where we go to confirm our own views; it's a place we go to interact with people like us.

Really high-quality newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, shows like yours, include people of very different political, socioeconomic and cultural identities. You don't find that on the Internet. Internet sites fragment our identity, and we congregate at places that look -- that are made up purely of people like ourselves.

So it's fragmenting community. It's doing away with mass media. And mass media is the heart of our civic identity. It's what makes us Americans. It's what makes us citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are, are we not, just in the infancy of all of this? It is still very much developing.

ANDREW KEEN: We are in the infancy, and that's why I wrote my book. My book is an attempt to open this conversation. My book shatters, I think, the myth of the utopian myth that the Internet solves everything, that it democratizes, that it flattens, that it's creating this ideal society. I don't think that's the case. My book is an attempt to begin the conversation, to start the debate.

The value of Internet content

JEFFREY BROWN: And where do you want it to go? I mean, you said that you're not advocating getting rid of all of this; it would be impossible anyway. So you end with a chapter on solutions. What do you want people to -- how do you want to leave people, in terms of thinking about the future, thinking about their own use of the Internet?

ANDREW KEEN: A couple of things I would encourage people to think about. Firstly, if your listeners are using the Internet to express themselves, if they are one of the 70 million bloggers, the hundreds of thousands of people posting their videos on YouTube, the tens of thousands of people doing editing on Wikipedia, for them to ask themselves, "Is this really valuable? Do I need to tell the world what I'm eating for breakfast? Do I need to tell the world what I think of the latest TV show?" Much of the self-expression on the Internet is wasteful.

JEFFREY BROWN: You came from this world, right? You came from Silicon Valley.

ANDREW KEEN: And I'm still part of it. There are many people in Silicon Valley, I think, committed to recognizing these structural problems with this early-stage development in the Internet.

There's one other thing that I would encourage people to do. I think this is a real beginning. We don't want government intervention. I'm not trying to suggest that the government should become like the government in China or Iran, and pull the switch, and force everyone to conform to their view of the way things should be.

But I think the most corrosive thing of today's Internet is anonymity. That's what's creating such an uncivil world. It's a pre-social contract place. It's a state of nature. We're not behaving ourselves properly on it, very often because we don't reveal who we are. Much of the most uncivil conversation, much of the unpleasantness of the Internet is carried out by people who won't reveal who they are.

So one beginning, one place to start for all of us is to recognize that we don't need to be anonymous on the Internet. We can reveal who we are. And having revealed who we are, I think the conversation will be more mature, more responsible, and more fruitful for everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "The Cult of the Amateur," Andrew Keen, thank you very much.

ANDREW KEEN: Thank you.