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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Internet Kills Babies

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 12:45 PM


This is the most ridiculous thing I have read in the past week. Given that I've been reading a lot about Congress and Mitt Romney, that's really saying something. The argument, by Andrew Keen, basically (and despite Keen's ass-covering caveats) blames the Internet for Anders Behring Breivik's murder spree in Oslo last year, in which he killed 77 people.

Keen is perhaps the most famously fatuous critic of "the Internet" that we have. The mere fact that he criticizes "digital culture" tells you much about why he's worth paying attention to -- mostly for entertainment purposes. Or at least that's how it should be, but he keeps getting book contracts, as well as writing and speaking gigs.

The problem with calling yourself a "professional skeptic," as Keen does, is that you sort of box yourself in. You have to dismiss anything that might refute your opinions, even when doing so makes you look like a fool. We should all be skeptical, but when it becomes a professional title, the jig is up. Keen's M.O. is to append clunky, facile caveats to his most ridiculous assertions. He says something, then says, "of course I'm not saying" exactly what he just said.

He blames the Oslo killings in part on the "increasingly delusional, violent, and narcissistic nature of our digital culture." But then he says it would "of course," be "crass to blame something as tragic as the mass murder of 77 innocent Norwegians on social media. And yet it would be equally irresponsible to simply ignore these signs and refuse to draw any connection at all between Breivik's troubled personality and the broader culture [sic] forces in our electronically networked world."

This seems more like someone trying to force an idea to fit a preconceived notion than a sound, well-reasoned argument. He goes on to lump video games like World of Warcraft in with social media as if there's something about digitized information itself that spreads evil. He doesn't support any of his pronouncements with either data or logic. He just says that "digital culture," by feeding our "narcissism," makes it more likely for such attacks to occur. Breivik was a narcissist, and he was online a lot, so -- there's your logical through-line. Also, Breivik played World of Warcraft a lot, which Keen decided is "troubling."

As funny as this kind of thinking might be, though, it's also a real shame because we could use more people criticizing the kind of witless digital triumphalism practiced by the likes of Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and many others. Keen, though, tends to make those guys seem like subtle thinkers by making sweeping, unsupported pronouncements like the ones he made about the Oslo murders.

Keen came to prominence with a 2006 essay in The Weekly Standard, which the next year he expanded to book length for The Cult of the Amateur. I was excited when I heard about the book because I thought (and still think) that there really was a cult forming around the idea that amateurs were, by their nature, superior to professionals, and that institutions such as newspapers and movie studios were inferior simply by virtue of being institutions that employ professionals.

But then I read the original essay and reviews of the book, and my enthusiasm disappeared. Keen compares the cult of the amateur with Marxism (hence the publication of his essay in the right-wing Weekly Standard) -- a mindlessly reductionist take on the situation. In the essay, he decried the fact that the cult "worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer."

But what's wrong with any of those people? Nothing. Before Hemingway was published, he was unpublished. Bob Dylan was once a dorm-room musician. It used to be that institutions like publishing houses and record labels decided who did and did not become successful. Now there are many different paths to success, and one of them is to become well-known and well-regarded as an amateur. At which point, the amateur might become professional. At the same time, there are downsides: It's harder for musicians to finance and promote themselves without label support, for example, and piracy makes it harder still for them to make money.

But just because the digital triumphalists tend to, by default, champion amateurs and berate professionals (Jarvis recently called me a "print priest" despite the fact that I've been writing online for years longer than he has) doesn't mean that it's bad that the playing field is being leveled. It's good! Sam Beam of Iron and Wine started out making terrible home recordings of his great tunes. He's now a success, thanks in large part to the Internet. Brian Stelter, who wrote a blog about TV news, joined the New York Times as a media reporter a month after he graduated from college.

And for all the indiscriminate amateur-worship that goes on, there are few amateurs who make it big who don't deserve it, either by virtue of their talents or, failing that, because a lot of people like what they do, even if it's terrible. That was true when media companies were firmly in charge of markets, and it's true today, when they aren't.

In any case, it's not the fault of the Internet, or digital technology, that many musicians, filmmakers, etc., are having a hard time. And it's certainly not the fault of the Internet that a crazy person in Oslo decided to go on a murder spree.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell


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