Andrew Keen is no stranger to controversy. He has irritated bloggers by equating Web 2.0 with communism and enraged citizen journalists with his best selling book, Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. Naturally when I saw Keen’s core conversation “Is Innovation Fair?” on the SXSW program, I knew it would incite lively discussion.
SXSW and the term “read-write web” are perhaps the antithesis of what Keen has become known for. While we as a publication (and often as a community) celebrate the participatory culture of Web 2.0, Keen sees the rise of amateur publishers as the fetishism of change-based culture and the breakdown of centralized moral authority. In less diplomatic circles, he’s accused of being an elitist. When an intimate 40 person setting of bloggers like Stealthmode Partners’ Francine Hardaway and legendary futurist Bruce Sterling failed to erupt into an angry mob, I was surprised.
In addressing the question “Is Innovation Fair?” Keen maintains that there is no definitive answer. He says, “If you asked a peasant whether innovation was fair during the industrial revolution, he’d answer no. But history is written by innovators.”
Keen explains that the voices that have legitimized change from the industrial revolution to the late 60’s, have been those of the cultural elite. Professional poets, musicians, academics and writers have always had a place in creating the histories surrounding major paradigm shifts. Nevertheless, as the digital revolution rapidly destroys the barriers to creating historical narratives, a new elitism has emerged in the form of a-list bloggers, social media experts and web developers.
While digital utopians generally see technological innovations and social media as vehicles for democracy and positive solutions, Keen argues that the proponents of innovation tend to forget the victims of change.
“Innovation doesn’t lead to justice and fairness. I’d argue there is a more dramatic inequality now then there ever was during the industrial revolution. We have fetishized change, but we are unfettered. If anything, the new media is less transparent and less accountable…I don’t have a problem with Twitter or new media, my problem is that digital utopians have dressed up their ideology to sound like democracy…Google has become the master of seeming like an altruistic and public company and yet laughing all the way to the bank.”
Keen argues that because established elites are being displaced by the digerati, the web ecosystem is suffering from a crisis in authority. He believes that a lack of thoughtful skepticism and the overwhelming emphasis on real-time sound bites rather than academic treatise is leading to the vast majority of netizens consuming only mulched versions of the truth.
Says Keen, “You can’t get nuggets of truth in 30 seconds on Twitter…Skepticism requires deep thinking. We have an increasing nihilism when it comes to traditional authority and yet few of the new authorities are doing the reading or groundwork. …When we simply assume that all traditional structures are wrong, we risk the populism of a Sarah Palin…”
As a blog with an audience of entrepreneurs, self-publishers and technologists, we know Keen won’t hold you back from innovating. But he may make you question whether or not you have enough information to accurately assess your life decisions. Love him or loathe him, let us know your thoughts about Keen’s assertions in the comments below.