Finally getting around to taking advantage of the fact that at any given moment there’s twenty more-or-less interesting things going on in London, I went to the Royal Society of Arts last night to hear a debate between Andrew Keen, author of The Cult Of The Amateur and Tim Montgomery. I’d not actually heard of Montgomery before - but as he’s apparently influential in Tory blogging circles, that’s not altogether suprising.
Keen’s doing the circuit at the moment, pimping his book which is basically a polemic decrying the influence of the internet in destroying what he sees as a golden age of mediated high-quality content and the associated effect on culture and society in general.
Having skimmed the book before the event, I thought he was taking a deliberatly contrarian view, and having seen him speak I’m more convinced that he’s written the whole thing with more than one eye on whipping up some controversy which could then translate into sales.
If you take his argument at face value, user-generated content equates to worthless low-brow trash, and the only way to guarantee quality is to filter it through the professional gatekeepers of editors, writers and film-makers. There’s a superficial attraction to this argument if your definition of high-quality content is the kind of material that you’d find on the BBC, for example. But then the same organisation responsible for Newsnight is also equally happy to pump out endless episodes of How Clean Is Your Celebrity Chef Dancing On Ice, and for every Arctic Monkey there’s a Brittany. Professionals are equally happy to create crap in the name of ratings, so I’m far from convinced that the quality argument holds.
The other example that crops up is the Wikipedia-versus-Encyclopedia Britannica argument. Again superficially attractive, but this blew up in Keen’s face rather spectacularly when it turned out that the Managing Director of Encyclopedia Britannica was sitting in the audience. Once he got hold of the mike during the Q&A;, he wasted no time in pointing out that far from wanting to wipe Wikipedia from the face of the net, he actually saw them as a rival that had caused EB to raise it’s game.
The response from Keen confirmed my suspicions - he’s basically a troll. He’s trotting out a line which has less to do with a genuine concern about deterioration in standards than it does to tapping into fin-de-siecle angst about how things ain’t what they used to be, and a harking back to a mythical golden age. It’s the same old arguments that are wheeled out every time there’s an inflection point in an industry - no doubt there were monks decrying the plummeting standards that the printing press caused, and the Catholic church weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the sudden ability of the man in the street to spread the word. Keen’s book has an audience, but it’s an audience attracted by a Daily Mail-esque “why can’t things be like they used to be” yearning.