Book review: I’ve discussed Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” once already. I’m not sure the book deserves much more. It’s a rant, sweeping in its attack, but thin on its evidence of support. Today, I’ll mention one more problem I have with Keen’s argument, his romanticization of so-called “experts.”
The Cult of the Expert in Keen’s world: Keen romanticizes “experts” as being the preservers of “our culture.” For example, he writes: “the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert infromation are being replaced … by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists.” (p. 16)
In my view, this argument is just wrong. It’s true that, in some areas, we need experts — medicine, law, economic policy, etc. But Keen’s not talking about those areas. He’s talking about experts in “our culture,” which includes art, entertainment, music, movies, books, publications, news. His idea is that experts in these areas should filter out for the rest of us things that are worthy of our time.
There are two problems with this argument. First of all, it’s elitist and anti-democratic. Maybe Keen would have us elect a Minister of Culture in the United States who would decide for us what content is worth consuming? As I asked in my last post, what “expertise” qualifies Keen, a Silicon Valley enterpreneur, to tell us what is good for protecting “our culture”? Second, many of these areas involve matters of taste or prediction for which so-called “experts” are virtually useless. I don’t need an expert to tell me why I do or don’t like Britney Spears’s music. I just listen to her music and decide for myself. Except for maybe journalism and encyclopaedias, I don’t think any of Keen’s examples involve matters where expertise can determine a “right” answer. It’s all subjective, matters of taste.
Business and innovation are pretty similar. There’s no “expertise” in predicting what’s the next thing that will take off. I’ll end with a quote from the co-founder of YouTube Jawed Karim, who gave the commencement address (video) at University of Illinois this year:
“What I learned next may sound counter-intuitive: Don’t listen to so-called experts. When the time came for responding, initial reactions from investors were mixed. Some of them called the website cute, but they questioned its long term growth. They told us get advice from experts on what to do with your website. That’s when I realized that there were no experts because, after all, if those experts really existed, how come they hadn’t built this website? We realized that we were now experts and it was up to us to figure out how to proceed. Within 18 months, YouTube had a far greater impact than anyone, including us, could have predicted.
“People often ask me what do I take away from this phenomenon. To me, it just shows that there are talented people everywhere.”