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March-April 2010


 
 

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 Visionaries 2020, Part II

Reinventing the Luddite: An Interview with Andrew Keen

An Internet entrepreneur and Web critic is trying to remake the Internet from within.

The following interview was conducted by FUTURIST senior editor Patrick Tucker.

THE FUTURIST: You’re perhaps the most outspoken critic of Web 2.0 and Internet culture to participate in Internet culture. You’ve railed against Twitter and Facebook even though you subscribe to both. What do you see as your mission?

Andrew Keen: I’m ambivalent about Facebook and Twitter and almost all of these things. But as a speaker and a social critic, I have an economic incentive in finding an audience. As mainstream media cracks up, the only way to build a brand successfully is to use a service like Twitter. That’s not to say that tweets in themselves have intrinsic value or will ever have intrinsic value. You’ll never be able to sell a tweet, no matter how beautifully crafted. I don’t have to admire or improve what’s happening, but I can’t be a Luddite, either. The people in the nineteenth century who refused to acknowledge the significance of the Industrial Revolution were swept away.

THE FUTURIST: You’ve been very vocal about how today’s Internet culture erodes privacy. Do you envision a future in which privacy neither exists nor is particularly missed? If so, what does someone with no conception of privacy behave like? What is the culture like?

Keen: I do envision such a possibility. In a culture with no concept of privacy, there wouldn’t be an inner life. Nothing would be kept to ourselves. We would lifestream 24 hours a day. The John Stuart Mill idea of the good life, with a clear delineation between inner and outer life, is turned on its head. I hope we never see it.

But you can already sense the way the Internet and artificial intelligence are tearing down the notion that we should have a distinction between public and private. I’m terribly hesitant about terminology like “transparency,” which suggests that businesses, institutions, even professionals, should try to put as much of themselves online as they can to reassure the public about their activities. This portrays that shift as something good, as more evolved. What does this lead to? Perhaps a culture of constant self-arrest, where we’re afraid to do anything because of how it may appear to others. Perhaps we’ll live vicariously through our AI entities.

THE FUTURIST: You’ve compared the Internet revolution to rock ’n’ roll, but it seems that the Internet revolution has the potential to be more hopeful. After all, rock ’n’ roll coincided with the rise of Jacques Derida and the deconstructionist philosophical movement. Many argue that the appeal of rock ‘n’ roll was the way it presented a violent teardown of prior musical forms. The Internet, by definition, is about construction, building the future. How exactly is the Internet like rock ‘n’ roll?

Keen: The Internet is more closely related to the rock ’n’ roll culture of the Sixties rather than of the Fifties. Richard Florida, who wrote Rise of the Creative Class, has talked about this. He makes a good point that the Internet, technologically, rose from the military-industrial complex of the Fifties, but the culture of it is better represented by the counterculture of the Sixties. It’s not that the Internet is like the Sixties; it is the Sixties.

The primary difference is that rock ’n’ roll generated a lot of money for certain types of people — namely, record companies and artists. The heroes of the Sixties were the rock stars and the counterculturalists. Many of them were obsessed with a childish revolt against authority, but some of them were remarkable. The wealth that’s been created out of the Internet revolution has been monopolized by technologists. The heroes of this age are entrepreneurs like the Google boys rather than the creative artists who have been relatively ignored for the most part.

The ultimate irony is that the artists were the radicals in the Sixties. In the Internet age, they’ve been rendered conservatives. Look at what happens to singers who try to defend intellectual property rights and the vitriol of the attacks to which they’re subjected?

Similarly, nothing of much intellectual or cultural value has come out of the Internet as an artistic medium. Intellectuals are able to use it peddle their own brands and ideas, but I’ve seen little Internet-based art with any lasting value. There haven’t been any real Internet movies; there hasn’t been a truly affecting Internet novel, though many have tried; Internet music has been basically a failure. Even when it’s successful, it isn’t created on the Internet, it’s just distributed on the Internet. Google, for example, is a remarkable company built by two computer scientists. Has it contributed to culture? At best, Google has undermined traditional media and destroyed it, and in so doing, it’s destroyed the way artists make money and the way experts make their livelihoods.

What does this mean for us now? The crusty old academic in a chair with a pipe reading books and giving lectures won’t work in the twenty-first century, but I don’t believe expertise will be swept away. I hope it will be modernized. Today’s expert needs to learn how to ride the wave, which requires not only wisdom, but speed.

THE FUTURIST: Watching these trends over the last few years, have you grown more optimistic or more pessimistic?

Keen: I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote Cult of the Amateur, which was published in 2007 (St. Martin’s). People have begun to realize that Wikipedia isn’t reliable, that most of the stuff on YouTube has no value, that a tweet, by definition, cannot be wise. My hope is that by 2020 experts will be able to flood back into the production of culture. A legal scholar can tweet as well as a 12-year-old. It’s not the technology that undermines the expertise; it’s a cultural disrespect for authority and even for learning.

But culture is changing. We’ll require new experts to help us understand how that’s happened and what it means, particularly for education. Hopefully, people who are smart and well educated, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences, will seize back the tools of production and realize that they can have quite an impact by distributing their wisdom.

About the interviewee

Andrew Keen is an author and Internet critic and the author of Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing Our Culture (St. Martin’s, 2007). As an Internet entrepreneur, he founded the music site Audiocafe.com in 1995. His second book, Digital Vertigo: Anxiety, Loneliness and Inequality in the Social Media Age, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010.

 

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