"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."
John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under JFK and author of "Excellence."
Two things I like? Plumbing and Philosophy. Maybe yes it's because I'm full of shit. Maybe certainly I'm no expert at either Philosophy or plumbing. But I do know something about both. No, not an expert, but still I have some idea of things, practical and plumb.
Below we have a number of stories on amateurs and experts and blogs and media pros. Maybe plumbers shouldn't have opinions about Philosophy; but if so, then one will hope philosophers don't ever opine on the nature of plumbing. Nor should novelists ever deal in fiction. In such a world, we'd all stay home, if we're carpenter, and freeze in the dark, assuming we're not electricians.
First, a book review, in media res, for all of our Latin speaking Romans:
Since Andrew Keen is so instinctively dismissive about amateur contributors to the internet - people like me - it's hardly surprising that I should instinctively dismiss his book, so let me declare an interest right away: I like Web 2.0. I've been a contributor to it - through Amazon customer reviews, Wikipedia, discussion forums, MySpace, Napster and so on - for nearly a decade now, and I've followed the emergence of the political movement supporting it, exemplified by writers such as Larry Lessig and Yochai Benkler, with some fascination. and no, I've never made a dime out of it (though I have been sent a few books to review, not including this one).
Andrew Keen is that classic sort of British reactionary: the sort that would bemoan the loss of the word "gay" to the English language, and regret the damage caused by industrial vacuum cleaners on the chimney sweeping industry. His book is an impassioned, but simple-minded, hearkening to those simpler times which concludes that our networked economy has pointlessly exalted the amateur, ruined the livelihood of experts, destroyed incentives for creating intellectual property, delivered to every man-jack amongst us the ability - never before possessed - to create and distribute our own intellectual property and monkeyed around mischievously with the title to property wrought from the very sweat of its author's brow.
Keen thinks this is a bad thing; but that is to assume that the prior state of affairs was unimpeachably good. You don't have to be a paranoid Chomskyite to see the pitfalls of concentrated mass media ownership (Keen glosses over them), or note that the current intellectual property regime - which richly rewards a few lucky souls and their publishers at the expense of millions of less fortunate (but not, necessarily, less talented) ones, isn't the only way one could fairly allocate the risks and rewards of intellectual endeavour.
Keen's world is one where there is a transcendental reality; a truth, purveyed by experts, trained journalists, and in great danger of dissolution by the radically relativised truths of Wikipedia where the community sets the agenda, and if two plus two equals five, then it is five. So much Big Brother: Orwell's novel gets repeated mention, it apparently having escaped Keen that a media owned by a concentrated, cross-held clique of corporate interests - which is what the old economy perpetuated - looks quite a lot more totalitarian than publishing capacity distributed to virtually every person on the planet.
Keen laments the loss of a "sanctity of authorship" of the sort which vouchsafed to Messrs Jagger and Richards (and their recording company) a healthy lifetime's riches for the fifteen minutes it took to compose and record Satisfaction (notwithstanding their debt - doubtless unpaid - to divers blues legends from Robert Johnson to Chuck Berry) and seems to believe individual creativity will be suddenly stifled by undermining it. There's no evidence for this (certainly not judging by MySpace, the proliferation of blogs, Wikipedia, and so forth, as Keen patiently recounts), and no reason I can see for supposing it to be true on any other grounds.
On the contrary, Yale law professor Yochai Benkler in his excellent (and freely available!) The Wealth Of Networks has a much more sophisticated analysis: there is a non-market wealth of information and expertise - residing in heads like yours and mine - which the networked economy has finally unlocked, for the benefit of all, and at the cost of the poor substitute that preceded it. That this might have compromised the gargantuan earnings capacity of one latter day Rolling Stones (to the incremental benefit of a few thousand others) is far less of a travesty - and more of a boon - than Keen thinks it is. Now rock bands have to sing for their supper. Keen may regret that but, as a concert goer, I sure don't.
Keen also, irritatingly, keeps returning to the Monkeys and Typewriters analogy (writes your dear correspondent, a monkey). It is true there may not be much talent behind the infinite typewriters, but the evolutionary lesson is that there doesn't need to be, as long as we have tools, be they Google algorithms or manual reputation management devices (things like Amazon's "helpful review" voting buttons) to sort the wheat from the chaff. And like it or not, we do have these tools: they're the sine non qua of Web 2.0, the thing without which it would never have got off the ground.
And Wikipedia (or Linux, or eBay, or Amazon's customer review system) is potent evidence of that. That there are notorious cases, a few of which Keen recounts, doesn't detract from the fact that Wikipedia is largely comprised of brilliant articles, with helpful links and useful surrounding discussion, a complete history, and those articles that aren't so good are obviously not: all you need to pack for a visit is your critical faculties. Again, if the choice were blind faith in Encyclopaedia Britannica or a skeptical read of Wikipedia, I know which I'd have, and which I'd counsel for my children - especially since Wikipedia is automatically up-to-date, preternaturally following the zeitgeist, and replete with good know-how on things that Britannica would never have in a million years. Most of the time, we don't need a Nobel-prize certified article, and in Britannica wouldn't get one anyway, if what we wanted to know about was "The Knights who say 'Ni'."
Elsewhere Keen misunderstands Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Correspondence Theory of Truth, implies that traditional media isn't systemically biased, assumes his fellow men have no sense of skepticism whatever (because something is watched on YouTube, Keen assumes it is necessarily believed true), and constantly fails to see the double standards in his own arguments: Complaining that traditional media is losing out to a swarm of unpaid, under-resourced amateurs, Keen suddenly remarks "but in reality it's often those with the loudest, most convincing message, and the most money to spread it, who are being heard". Plus ca change, eh?
Lastly, Keen laments the passing of specialist record and book shops like Tower, whose "unparalleled" and "remarkably diverse selection" will be lost to us for ever. Clearly he's no online shopper then, since dear old Amazon would lick all of them put together - but Amazon, he says, lacks the dedicated expertise of sales assistants that could have stepped out of Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity. Except that it doesn't, since it has literally millions of them - people like you and me - who can offer our tuppence worth gladly and without thought of recompense.
The thing is, there *is* a debate to be had here, though not quite the apocalyptic one that this author believes is necessary, and at times Keen touches on it, but his brimming prurience and needless moral disgust - at the cost of level-headed analysis and exposition - towards a community which has simply adjusted to the new social environment more quickly than traditional political and business models have makes this a poor entry for the purposes of kicking off that debate.
In the mean time, Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom and Lawrence Lessig's Code: Version 2.0 (neither of which Keen seems to have read) might be a better place for interested persons to start.
Now, as it turns out, I am a blogger, one of the infamous few who isn't making a killing from this business. Below we have a different take on blogging from that given by the most excellent Sir Whatshisname above.
Hannah Strange, "The final showdown: reactions from the blogosphere."
Bloggers may not be a homogeneous group, but they are an educated and affluent one, according to a new survey measuring the current state of the blogosphere. Seventy percent of all global bloggers are college graduate, half are between the ages of 18 an 34, and 40 percent have a household income more than $75.00.00, [a] survey found.
And while blogging has only recently exploded in mainstream popularity, at least 50 percent of the bloggers surveyed have engaged in online commentary for more than two years and, collectively, are now generating close to one million posts every day.
The survey was conducted by Technorati as part of a continuing analysis into trends and themes i blogging. As part of the 2008 report, a random sample of 1.2 million bloggers registered with Technorati were asked about: the role of blogging in their lives; the tools, time and resources used to produce their blogs; and how blogging has affected them personally, professionally, and financially.
While the survey was administered in English, responses came from bloggers who publish in 20 different languages in 66 countries. Highlights include:
- Women make up only 34 percent of active bloggers, but are more sophisticated than male users about various means of driving traffic to their site.
- The majority of resondants currently have advertising on their bogs, generating a mean annual revenue of $6,000.00 U.S.
- One in five Asian bloggers is a student and more likely to write about music than politics; however, Asian bloggers are also three times more likely than bloggers elsewhere in the world to have paid advertising on their site.
- American bloggers are four times more likely than Europeans to try to make money from their site.
Gossip or tell-all tales fell to the bottom of the list in self-described styles among the bloggers surveyed. The majority of blogger reveal their identities on their blogs and recognize the positive impact that blogging has on their personal and professional lives. More than half are now better known in their industry and one in five has been on the TV or the radio because of his or her blog.
Personal satisfaction is by far the most popular measure of the bog success, the survey found, though, on average, bloggers use four distinct metrics to gauge their influence, including revenue generated and the numbers of subscribers or comments.
For the complete survey, go to http://technorati.com/
Here I jump in again briefly with an introduction to Th. Lifson's article on the MSM. [Boo! Hiss!]
Thomas Lifson, "Newspaper death throes (continued)", American Thinker; 26 Oct. 2008
The Newark Star-Ledger reportedly plans to reduce its newsroom staff by half, according to the Associated Press. The editor is quoted as saying that 151 out of 335 editorial employees have so far accepted buyouts.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post chronicles the troubles of the AP itself, in a piece by Jay Newton-Small. The article notes the increasing reliance of the AP on news analysis and and editorializing, as opposed to straight news gathering, but oddly focuses on Ron Fournier, who is a rare AP staffer not in the left-liberal camp.
Increasingly, the AP is becoming a competitor of the newspapers which own it as a cooperative). Major papers, including the Tribune Company biggies (LA Times, Chicago Tribune) the Star-Tribune, and others are dropping the AP, reducing its revenue base.
Jerry Malone, a veteran journalist "who truly bleeds ink when I'm cut" laments the decline and fall of American journalism, declaring himself ashamed to admit he's a journalist now. He suggests that the dying industry may be sacrificing its integrity by blatantly shaping the news to support Obama for reasons of its own:
I learned a long time ago that when people or institutions begin to behave in a manner that seems to be entirely against their own interests, it's because we don't understand what their motives really are. It would seem that by so exposing their biases and betting everything on one candidate over another, the traditional media is trying to commit suicide - especially when, given our currently volatile world and economy, the chances of a successful Obama presidency, indeed any presidency, is probably less than 50:50. [....]
...you are facing career catastrophe -- and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway - all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.
And then the opportunity presents itself: an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career. With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived Fairness Doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe, be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.
And besides, you tell yourself, it's all for the good of the country . . .
Oh, the world is ending and it's all a big catastrophe, not anything like when I was a boy, back in the good old days. Polio and the Cold War and famines in India. Great.
Then came the hippies, and look at the mess we have now. So we do what we do, and we do our best, expert or no. Personally, I have more faith in you than I do in Obama. You, who are likely like Sarah Palin, (if you are) inspire me. No experience? Come on!? I might not want you changing my car brakes but I think you're likely as well-informed as the next person about things that matter in life. If hundreds of Sarah Palins would go to Washington--as our representatives-- then I'd feel good about America for the duration. We don't need your expertise in foreign affairs. We need a return to America. We need palin, "again" a "return." That's why today I'm not an expert but that I am in spite of that at least a minor Palinite. Return my America to the people. Any decent person can do it. Expert or no.
You can do it, excellent Palinite.