Clay Shirky has written a response to Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur. Part of that response deals with the part of truth of that book, which is that any change also has negative consequences. This passage is worth reading and pondering.
“Keen is correct in seeing that the internet is not an improvement to modern society; it is a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible, or, put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are significantly important, and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isnâ€™t unique, itâ€™s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences â€” employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is epochal. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without radical alteration.
This change will create three kinds of loss.
First, people whose jobs relied on solving a hard problem will lose those jobs when the hard problems disappear. Creating is hard, filtering is hard, but the basic fact of making acceptable copies of information, previously the basis of the aforementioned music and newspaper industries, is a solved problem, and we should regard with suspicion anyone who tries to return copying to its previously difficult state.
Similarly, Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees. Its possible to regard this as a hardship for the ad guys, but its also possible to wonder whether they were really worth the $300K in the first place if an amateur, working in their spare time with consumer-grade equipment, can create something the client is satisfied with. This loss is real, but it is not general. Video tools are sad for ad guys in the same way movable type was sad for scribes, but as they say in show biz, the world doesnâ€™t owe you a living.
The second kind of loss will come from institutional structures that we like as a society, but which are becoming unsupportable. Online ads offer better value for money, but as a result, they are not going to generate enough cash to stand up the equivalent of the NY Timesâ€™ 15-person Baghdad bureau. Josh Wolf has argued that journalistic privilege should be extended to bloggers, but the irony is that Wolfâ€™s very position as a videoblogger makes that view untenable â€” journalistic privilege is a special exemption to a general requirement for citizens to aid the police. We canâ€™t have a general exception to that case.
The old model of defining a journalist by tying their professional identity to employment by people who own a media outlet is broken. Wolf himself has helped transform journalism from a profession to an activity; now we need a litmus test for when to offer source confidentiality for acts of journalism. This will in some ways be a worse compromise than the one we have now, not least because it will take a long time to unfold, but we canâ€™t have mass amateurization of journalism and keep the social mechanisms that regard journalists as a special minority.
The third kind of loss is the serious kind. Some of these Andrew mentions in his book: the rise of spam, the dramatically enlarged market for identity theft. Other examples he doesnâ€™t: terrorist organizations being more resilient as a result of better communications tools, pro-anorexic girls forming self-help groups to help them remain anorexic. These things are not side-effects of the current increase in freedom, they are effects of that increase. Spam is not just a plague in open, low-entry-cost systems; it is a result of those systems. We can no longer limit things like who gets to form self-help groups through social controls (the church will rent its basement to AA but not to the pro-ana kids), because no one needs help or permission to form such a group anymore.
The hard question contained in Cult of the Amateur is â€œWhat are we going to do about the negative effects of freedom?â€ Our side has generally advocated having as few limits as possible (when we even admit that there are downsides), but weâ€™ve been short on particular cases. Itâ€™s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining, because the writing has been on the wall since Brad Templeton founded Clarinet. Itâ€™s harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks.
Those cases are going to shift us from prevention to reaction (a shift that parallels the current model of publishing first, then filtering later), but so much of the conversation about the social effects of the internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe (as with the essjay crisis on Wikipedia), we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public.
What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.
We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer. The conversation about those governance models, what they look like and why we need them, is going to move out into the general public with CotA, and we should be ready for it. My fear, though, is that we will instead get a game of â€œDid not!â€, â€œDid so!â€, and miss the opportunity to say something much more important.”