Does The Internet Undermine Culture?

June 16, 2007

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The answer is Yes, argues Mr. Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” To judge by his NPR interview from which I lifted the title of this piece, it is the professionals – those paid to instruct and entertain us – who should have all the say. If you don’t get paid for it, keep your opinion and your expertise to yourself. Better yet, don’t pretend to having any, for, being merely an amateur, you are not entitled to them, and so you have none. Be quiet and absorb in awe the art and wisdom of your paid-to-do-it betters.

Given that a more than adequate answer to Mr. Keen’s argument was provided as far back as 1644 by John Milton in his immortal Areopagitica, a speech in defense of unlicensed publishing (that is, of something we call “internet” today, though back than it was based on printed books and pamphlets rather than on computer networks), it would be a waste of time to go into a point-by-point debate, all the more that thus far, the bloggers, the YouTubers, the Wikipedians and the rest of the “amateurs” so detested by Mr. Keen are being protected by the US constitution.

Instead, it will suffice to simply give a list of a few amateurs, and let their names speak for themselves. Also, it would do to point out the conspicuous and well-documented absence of a meaningful “professional” contribution to at least one vitally important area of knowledge.

Should we begin in 1905 with a certain Swiss government clerk? A misfit unable to find even a school-teacher position after he got his college degree, a certain Mr. Einstein was eking out his living by filling out paperwork at the patent office, while in his dream-world arrogantly imagining himself a scientist, and even daring to scribble what he thought were scientific papers – which could not have possibly been the case, he not having been paid for them. Alas! Mr. Keen was born too late to prevent the scandalous recognition of this amateurish fellow, this Mr. Einstein, as a first-rate scientist with a contribution to physics which no professional other than the very great Sir Isaac Newton can match.

Nor can Mr. Keen, undoubtedly to his despair, save mankind from the disgraceful fact that modern chemistry was founded not by a professional, but by an amateur aristocrat called Robert Boyle; or to prevent a mere rapacious businessman and lawyer, one Lavoisier, from contributing to this science in a most fundamental way by discovering the law of conservation of matter.

Nor could he, to his profound regret, stop a mere lawyer, Mr. Pierre Fermat, from making a huge contribution to the theory of numbers; or a mere brewer and local politician in the city of Danzig, Mr. Hevelius, from becoming one of the most important astronomers of the seventeenth century.

And it would be interesting to hear Mr. Keen explain a strange fact that for all the abundance of “professionals,” we do not understand such genuinely urgent matter as the reason for terrorism – as was openly acknowledged by the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. For all the “professionals” in academia, press, and think-tanks, our government does not know enough about terrorism to come in out of the rain. One wonders whether they would benefit from some Einstein-class amateur help – but even if it is available, their professionalism-directed noses are stuck too high into the air to notice, to our great detriment and loss.

As a person who wants to “internet-ize,” so to speak, the print media itself, leveling the playing field in book publishing and allowing Americans to speak for themselves rather than being hostages to publishers when they want to exercise their free speech right (and who, to get the ball rolling, filed a federal lawsuit), I cannot but laugh at Mr. Keen’s “professional” “argument.” Yet, when I heard him talk on the radio, the sense of my amateurism so overwhelmed me that it prevented me from buying Mr. Keen’s book – for am I, a mere amateur, worthy of reading it and stepping into the realm of professionalism? Will I comprehend its professionally-advanced argument? Appreciate the loftiness of its professionally-reasoned thought? See the majesty of its professionally-constructed language?

Comprehension of Mr. Keen’s professional book is obviously unattainable by the mind of a mere amateur. Let the professionals read it.

Yet, to think of it, there is a remedy. Make me a professional reader of your book, Mr. Keen. Pay me to read it. In accordance with your own argument, if I am paid, I will be able to understand it all right.

But unless you pay me, I will have nothing to do with your book.

[first posted on Ezine Articles site]

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