Thursday, June 07, 2007

Is the internet "killing our culture"?

The day is still young, but I don't know if I'll manage to come across anything so objectionable as the following piece before it's through. is hosting a Q&A with Andrew Keen, author of a new book entitled, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy (UK title).

An intro to the Q&A debate contains the following information:

Mr Keen does not believe in “the wisdom of the crowd”. Much of the content filling up YouTube, MySpace, and blogs is just an “an endless digital forest of mediocrity” which, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter public debate and manipulate public opinion.

Now, I am no believer in the recently fashionable thesis of "the wisdom of the crowd", but I have to take issue with the rest of that paragraph. And it's not because I feel impugned as a blogger contributing to the "endless digital forest of mediocrity" (sucks that the phrase, "vast wasteland", was already taken, right?).

As in any medium, there is a lot of crap content and you're just going to have to slog through it to find items of quality and interest. This we should know.

What I find ridiculous is Keen's allegiance to the professional gatekeepers and "editorial filters" that keep you and me (the public) safe from unprocessed (and therefore, false and unreliable) information.

Now I agree that there is probably a lot of false info and misinformation floating around on the internet. Unfortunately, the same is true for every other medium you can think of.

Are there no lies or offensive material to be found in books and magazines (think periodic p.c. outrage, banned material, and book burnings)? Have you never felt short shifted by a crummy newspaper or magazine article that failed to tell the truth?

How about those wonderful, hidden PR releases and "buy this!" pieces disguised as regular "content" rather than advertising? What about those reporters and editors you occasionally hear about, the ones who just plum forgot to inform you that their quotes and their "facts" on this story have been made up! I don't even want to mention tv and radio...

The point is that bias and even outright lies/misinformation will be found in just about every form of interpersonal communication and media that we use. The biases are part of who we are and the lies we broadcast through media are used to influence or control.

We know that governments and ruling elites everywhere (and throughout history) have been eager to exploit or control the means by which information is shared or broadcasted. That's why the first thing that coup leaders do when they overthrow the government is take control of the radio tower and TV stations. It's partly why governments are so eager to regulate TV and radio channels, and lately, even the internet.

In the internet age, given access to the proper tools, anyone can become a broadcaster or a pamphleteer. Information can be shared, discussed, and debated. This upsets the balance of power that Keen's gatekeepers, the parents, teachers, and politicians who should "responsibly manage the consumption and use of this media", have grown accustomed to.

I agree with Keen's observations that certain aspects of the internet and web 2.0 are likely to heighten narcissism in our society and further the spread of relativism. But the very tools that enable the growth and dispersion of these sentiments are likely to bring these features of our personality and our thinking into sharp relief.

People who sense that something is wrong in their society, or with their way of thinking, will begin to take a look at the world around them and the information they've received and they will question it. Then, for some, the search for truth and understanding will begin.

With a giant share of the world's storehouse of information already online, anyone can begin to learn with a click of the mouse and an internet connection. All one really needs is a bit of curiosity and the ability to read and think critically.

And in spite of what Andrew Keen might tell you, the internet will do no more to break down your critical reasoning faculties than watching TV, reading magazines, or attending school. Who knows, it might actually improve them.