Shirky explains why Keen is a Luddite

Clay Shirky's latest essay on Andrew Keen, "Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites," is a magnificent answer to Keen's badly researched book, Cult of the Amateur.

These days, you can't hardly click without running into a clip of Andrew Keen, a failed dotcom entrepreneur who has set out to make a fortune by telling people that the Internet sucks.

Keen's message is essentially that the old media did a great job, without any bias, of picking the "best" work (whatever that is) and making it popular. He says that Internet-driven systems for picking and popularizing work are bad for society, since letting just anyone get a say means that "non-authoritative" people will assume gatekeeper roles, and might choose inferior material. For example, these unwashed clickers might choose DJ Danger Mouse's Grey Album over 'N'Sync's blockbuster LP Pubic Beardz.

Keen says that he loves technology, but doesn't want to see it used to tear down our old, fair, balanced, inclusive institutions. The new institutions — blogs, Wikipedia, Digg, etc — will be harder to navigate for "the masses," which means that only the techno-literate will get "good stuff," while everyone else will be stuck with kitten videos on YouTube.

Keen doesn't offer any evidence for the worthiness of the old system, nor does he give us any good reason to mistrust the new system (if it's so hard to find good stuff online, why are so many people switching off their TVs and switching on the Internet?).

More importantly, Keen's idea that he's "pro-technology" and "pro-authority" is nonsense. Pick one — new technology overturns old authority. You can't have it both ways.

What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat – possible, but utterly beside the point.

The internet's output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.

Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way – lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.


See also:
Clay Shirky defends the Internet
The internet is impurifying our precious bodily fluids, Mandrake