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Responding to Andrew Keen’s Anti-Web 2.0 Manifesto

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th April 2007


Here is some quick commentary to the main points made in Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur. My responses are in italics.

AK-1. The cult of the amateur is digital utopianism’s most seductive delusion. This cult promises that the latest media technology — in the form of blogs, wikis and podcasts — will
enable everyone to become widely read writers, journalists, movie directors and music artists. It suggests, mistakenly, that everyone has something interesting to say.

MB: I would indeed affirm that and I mean indeed everybody, has something interesting to say, but it depends crucially on what topic, and on the context of exchange. There are processes where we want to select for quality, and others in which we want every participant to have hir or her say, either because they are impacted by a decision, and have a moral right of input, or because “together we know everything”, and we want to design for such a process of collective intelligence. There are many design tools and facilitation processes that can guard against dumbing down and lowest common-denominator results. This is a practical matter, not an objective trend towards lack of quality.

Peer to peer processes are based on the principle of equipotentiality, see the entry here for a full treatment.

Jorge Ferrer expresses beautifully what it is about:

Everybody can be considered …

“equals in the sense of their being both superior and inferior to themselves in varying skills and areas of endeavor (intellectually, emotionally, artistically, mechanically, interpersonally, and so forth), but with none of those skills being absolutely higher or better than others. It is important to experience human equality from this perspective to avoid trivializing our encounter with others as being merely equal.”

Good participatory systems allow this to happen through self-selection first, then through communal validation. A problem can arise with the second process of distributed quality control. Massification of judgment can lead to a bottoming effect, but not necessarily. It can be configured in such a way that either affinity groups or experts can play a privileged role in the validation process. The only difference is that the control is a posteriori instead of a priori. The advantage of a broader participation is that there is a greater quantity to select quality from. Finally, it is based on the idea that “together we know everything”, and that even experts have limited and biased viewpoints.

The key point is that the “danger” that Keen points to is a matter of good design principles and processes, not of the participatory process itself. There are many p2p projects where experts, and pro-ams successfully work together.In fact, Keen simply repeats the arguments that have always been brought against democratization.

AK-3. To imagine the dystopian future, we need to reread Adorno, as well as Kafka and Borges (the Web 2.0 dystopia can be mapped to that triangular space between Frankfurt, Prague and Buenos Aires). Unchecked technology threatens to undermine reality and turn media into a rival version of life, a 21st century version of “The Castle” or “The Library of Babel”. This might make a fantastic movie or short piece of fiction. But real life, like art, shouldn’t be fantasy; it shouldn’t be fiction.

MB: Isn’t this the same old tired argument assuming that the real and the virtual are ‘separate’ realms, where in fact there is just one embodied life, using various tools. This is not to say that there can be various ‘abuses’ and ‘exagerrations’ (people reading all the time, phoning all the time, surfing all the time), but they are not different from physical addictions (gambling, alcohol)

AK-4. A particularly unfashionable thought: big media is not bad media. The big media engine of the Hollywood studios, the major record labels and publishing houses has discovered and branded great 20th century popular artists of such as Alfred Hitchcock, Bono and W.G. Sebald (the “Vertigo” three). It is most unlikely that citizen media will have the marketing skills to discover and brand creative artists of equivalent prodigy.

MB: Of course, but lets turn his argument around. Not all small media are bad media. Distributed media can aggregate so to achieve scale, and can produce qualitative works as well. I’m thinking of the music in Bali, where every musician has to follow a collective score, and can only change the score through coordination with all other participants. This is just one polarity, the other being the jazzband model of free individual creativity in communal mode. Different production modalities will produce different types of creative possibilities, which have to be judged on their own merit. Big media has clear dumbing down effects, micro media, through wrong design, can have as well. However, big media have a clear self-interest in dumbing us down, and are controlled by financial forces which do not have our best interests at hand. Micromedia, even when mediated through the centralization of sharing that is characteristic of the attention economy, are in our own collective hands, and distributed design can act against the centralisation of sharing. The key is to defend the continued capacity to change hubs, since hubs will always exist through voluntary choices (the power law). But it is possible to design for autonomy and diversity, to offset the protocollary power of invisible architectures.

Conclusion: againt Andrew Keen we must insist that participation (the peer to peer process) and elitism (the selection for quality process), can and will inevitable co-exist. The difference is that elites will be more diversified and flexible. The role of the elite is to sustain a more and greater creativity, not to put themselves as gatekeepers.

To quote John Heron, about leadership:

“The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in the initiation and continuous flowering of autonomy-in-co-operation in all spheres of human endeavor”

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5 Responses to “Responding to Andrew Keen’s Anti-Web 2.0 Manifesto”

  1. Natalie Pang Says:

    I largely agree with you, Michel.

    But at the same time I also think that there is a certain downside to the successes of open systems, collaborative software and highly participative networks that we are witnessing today. It is a breakdown of respect for expertise. It comes as a result of the empowerment that Web 2.0 brings…and because we now know that the knowledge we produce can be as important as those produced by a few professionals in the older days, there is a radical breakdown in how we view professionals.

    I think this because I work daily with a group of librarians and museum curators who increasingly, find it challenging to search for appropriate vocabulary to describe the work they do and their value-add in the contemporary context.

    I was very glad to read an article by Larry Sanger recently, who assured me that I’m not the only one feeling this way. Will share more about this in a separate post.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Hi Natalie,

    I agree with Larry and your concern, but have doubts about larry’s solution Citizendium, which wants to put the experts ‘back in charge’. I believe we have to repurpose the role of the experts. The modern paradigm sees us a disconnected individuals, which are centrally addressed by institutions, and with the rule of the experts which validate truth. I think the new paradigm is about connected individuals and peer groups, which co-inform themselves and act more autonomously, and need to engage with a support infrastructure, and this is where the experts play a role.

    In peer production, putting the experts in charge, can, and does often have, a crowding out effect, and this is what I fear will happen with the Citizendium project. My view is that, no matter how expert the doctor, in the end, it is the patient who has to choose the treatment; no matter how expert the ecological engineer, it is the citizen that makes the political decisions. So how can we optimize the decision-making by involving experts?

    For wikipedia, my idea is that next to the pages produced by any users, special pages would be opened up to experts only, where they could point out the mistakes or omissions on the pages for examples.

    In politics, we can have public debates where experts play a privileged role in informing the public.

    In health, see the Open Health report of the UK Design Council, we can have healthcare reorganized as a support infrastructure, instead of as a industrial process where the patient is just a number.

  3. Natalie Pang Says:

    Agree. I doubt that ‘Citizendium’ is the answer too…I’m a little nervous about some of the language that’s used to describe it…

    I think there is a place for both the ‘expert’, and the public. A little like Arthur and his round table. But it is one that forms as quickly as it dissolves, over time and space (as the time-space continuum Giddens’ describes in structuration theory).

  4. Nicholas Bentley Says:

    I like the Equipotentiality idea. I feel that expertise is a continuum and multi faceted and therefore we need systems that rank each contribution and contributor and can identify valid disagreements where there might be gaps in our knowledge.

    You can have a amateur photographer who chooses to photograph wild orchids for 30 years and all of a sudden he is an ‘expert’ on orchids. Other professional ‘experts’, of 30 years standing, get together and they can’t agree on a founding principle.

    No closed groups some sort of Consensus Polling is required.

  5. Il Manifesto anti-web.20 e l’ordine ontologico delle cose « The Geek Librarian Says:

    […] C’è anche qualcuno che, sì, si è preso la briga di rispondere colpo su colpo, anche se purtroppo non si tratta di una confutazione filosofica, l’unica di cui Andrew Keen avrebbe veramente bisogno, e infine da segnalare la ormai mitica conversazione tra Keen e Weinberger sul Wall Street Journal. […]

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