Over at Reason.com David Harsanyi critiques a book by one Andrew Keen, a self-described “veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic.” Not having read (or previously heard of) Mr. Keen or his book, I instead perused his article on the Weekly Standard, Web 2.0.
Now, I have critiqued the internet before, here, and here. All forms of communication have limitations- as Plato likes to remind us, writing has all sorts of problems; old Papias expressed his dislike of written manuscripts in favour of the spoken, “living” Apostolic word. However, there is criticism and then there is criticism. Mr. Keen’s criticism is, I am afraid, utterly ridiculous, not to mention glaringly elitist and statist. In essence, he complains that the internet is unseating “elite” media in favour of user-created, democratic media, and that this is a Very Bad Thing. Thus his argument is two-layered: the first half is, I think, largely correct (though caveats must be inserted), as it is merely factual. The second half- the value judgment he makes- is downright nonsensical when we consider the standards he employs. But first the factual half of the argument.
Mr. Keen discusses the new “buzzwords” being used to describe what the internet does- democratization, redistribution of intellectual capital, that sort of thing. And indeed the internet is perhaps the ultimate engine for decentralized culture, decentralized commerce, decentralized politics, and so on; though cell phone technology is almost if not equally important. The internet is accessible to the masses, almost everywhere in the world. Even in places (such as mainline China) where the elites seek to restrict the content they view as “subversive” the internet is still available, and between the methods of getting around the restrictions, and the sheer volume of users and information, statist elites are finding it increasingly difficult to control information. And once a statist elite loses control of information, they also tend to lose control of a great many other things.
Besides being an agent of freeing information from statist control, as is the case in totalitarian societies, the internet also allows greater diversity of information and material outside of the “mainstream” media conglomerates that previously dominated the market. A much greater number of people are empowered to create and distribute material, from political and cultural commentary to music to poetry. At the same time people can also produce and dissimulate pornography, urban legends, and artless rants: the internet is a genuinely free-market, open to anyone with a connection and a computer. To Mr. Keen this is an unalloyed nightmare:
It [the internet ethos] worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone–even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us–can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 “empowers” our creativity, it “democratizes” media, it “levels the playing field” between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is “elitist” traditional media.
What is the result? Traditional media- newspapers, networks, big record labels, are in “free-fall.” This means- and here is the great gaping hole in Mr. Keen’s value-judgment- that aesthetic standards are in free-fall, that culture is descending into the abyss. Because without network television, billion-dollar studios, and giant music labels, culture will die, replaced by all those unwashed masses on the internet. Without Plato’s cultural statists regulating what we should listen to, watch, and read, the world of culture and art is caput, dead, silenced, lost in the “flat noise of opinion–Socrates’s nightmare.”
But for Mr. Keen’s argument to hold water we must accept one very big assumption: that “big media” (for lack of a better catch-all) has been producing good, viable material. That this is not the case is the basic gist of Mr. Harsanyi at Reason, but I shall offer some additional input of my own, if only because Mr. Keen’s arguments make for a very easy and enjoyable target.
As I read his exaltation of big media, I asked myself, Has the man turned on his television or radio lately? Scanned the magazine rack at the check-out aisle? Watched a big-budget Hollywood film? Where is this high culture and flowering of art that is being destroyed by the internet? We’re supposed to lament the fall of network television because art and culture will die with it? Is this man serious? To take the example of music: I can turn on my radio and listen to hours of commercials and filler-noise, with some mass-manufactured pop-rock/hip-hop/pop-country/pop-Christian-schmaltz squeezed in between the commercials. The “artists” featured on the machine-generated radio stations are featured on the big labels Mr. Keen venerates, which I may purchase at my local big-box mart. If, deciding to be a Marxist rebel, I use the internet to listen to and perhaps purchase music by independent artists, I may select from a nearly unlimited number of artists, some well-established, some known to me, their home-town, and twenty people in Wisconsin. Certainly there’s a lot of worthless stuff out there, but there is also a vast amount of incredibly good music, very little of which would be available to me without of the internet- with the possible exception of NPR (which Mr. Keen likely despises as well). The wide-open free market of the internet allows globalization to develop and operate on a much more person-centered, localized basis than globalization powered by “big media” and big business. And while there is a great deal of artless crap out there, it does not have the corporate big-media backing that, say, Brittany Spears has. Good cultural products operate on a more or less equal basis with the bad; the biggest problem for the good art is finding effective methods of diffusion. Yet even with the vast size of the internet, positive cultural and artistic diffusion- the good sort of “globalization from below”- frequently and significantly takes place.
For example, I can listen to folk musicians from, say, Macedonia, who put their music out for listeners all over the world, without a giant corporate intermediary. I come across them because I heard them mentioned on someone’s blog; I like them, purchase some of their music, and perhaps blog them myself or mention them to my friends via word-of-mouth, or send them an mp3 or two. Some of my friends like what they hear and the process continues, allowing the musicians to increase their listenership and continue making music. This is globalization at its best: people sharing in an open, free market, operating on their own terms, without some powerful intermediary running things and imposing bland uniformity. The globalization powered by big media generates a real leveling of culture- McDonalds trumps the local. With the internet, local, vital manifestations of art and culture can cross boundaries and mingle with other local manifestations, without either trumping the other.
Now, will our Macedonian band ever become famous on par with, say, Bono? Probably not. Will the lack of such fame prevent them from playing and sharing their music with all who want to listen? No. Will the lack of fame prevent them from producing good art? No. Does access to fame and a giant label good art make? If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn…
The same is true of other forms of culture, from film to political commentary. The internet provides immensely more room for genuinely good art, even if it does not assure that it will have as large an audience or impact as it deserves. But traditional big media tends to level art and culture into bland or vulgar homogeneity.
Finally, there is the claim that the internet is one big echo-chamber, that we bloggers- among others- are merely fishing for accolades and amens. Hardly: one of the enjoyable things about blogging is hearing from people with vastly different perspectives, even if you disagree vehemently with them. The internet is a vast forum for ideas, and to use the internet is to be exposed to them and forced to interact, even on a very basic level, with those ideas. In my own experience I have had many an idea challenged in large part because of ideas I encountered for the first time on the internet. There is no controlling agent here, no dominant orthodoxy, no propaganda engine telling us what to think and say.
It is fear of this liberty, this openness, that has- so far- defined the internet, that is really driving Mr. Keen. He writes that without an elite media we will lose our memory: what he is really afraid of is the loss of the elite’s ability to control that memory. For the internet’s brand of “globalization from below” could well mean- though it is by no means assured- the preservation of genuine memories, of the history and identity of real people, from here in rural Mississippi to the new ghettoes of Baghdad to the villages of rural China. It could mean that localized, personalized art and culture drawn from a vast diversity of sources will trump the artless products of big media. It could even mean that the elites and authoritarians that seek to control and exploit the lives of people all over the globe will be thwarted. The internet has great potential as an engine of democratic, subaltern change- whether it will continue to be such remains to be seen, however.