Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reports of the Death of Culture Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

NB: Personal View – not written in a work capacity.

Until next Monday morning, you can hear a rather excellent edition of the BBC World Service arts programme Culture Shock here:


I draw attention to this programme because of the presence of ‘Web guru’ Andrew Keen, who argues that various aspects of Web 2.0 (the Blogosphere, social networking websites, Wikipedia etc) are ‘killing our culture’ (whose culture specifically?). Obviously, as a keen blogger (no pun intended!), I have a clear interest to declare, but this doesn’t blind me to some of Keen’s more interesting statements.

He’s absolutely right to argue for personal responsibility online in the same way that we (should) expect it offline, and his argument that ‘we have to shape technology as much as it shapes us’ is powerful and important. Most of us are indeed aware that the internet is a very diverse space, awash with as much spin, opinion and disinformation as it is with useful resources. It’s also particularly vulnerable to extreme expressions, frequently without the backing of academic research. Wikipedia is an insightful example, as anyone who has seen some of the maliciously edited entries will no doubt testify.

He also had an interesting, if flawed, point to make about ‘anonymity’. His statement that ‘anonymity’ (neglecting the fact that complete anonymity on the web is next to impossible for anyone who isn’t a mastermind hi-tech criminal) ‘is a kind of theft’ is particularly audacious. By writing without declaring their true identities, bloggers and volunteer Wikipedia editors are taking without giving anything back, assuming kudos and expertise that they have not necessarily earned or proved. Well, perhaps, but an individual need not necessarily provide their name and address to demonstrate their credentials, even if only in the interests of personal security. Keen argues from this that ‘permissiveness about intellectual property is a vital social question.’ He doesn’t, however, discuss any practical questions about how we might restrict citizens’ contributions to the internet. He also doesn’t attempt to argue why the democratic ideal of freedom of speech should not also apply in the online realm.

It is also a massive logical leap between these positions and the alarmist notion that a ‘cult of the amateur’ is undermining expertise. I’m sorry to disappoint Keen, but I don’t believe that all professional journalists are corrupt rogues being bribed by PR companies or political interest groups. I do believe, however, that they have jobs to do, with specific audiences, business interests or shareholders in mind. This is not to say that any of this is inherently evil, just that it’s worth recognising the factors that may shape the work of professional journalists and experts. The word ‘amateur’ needn’t be negative. In my case, I hope it simply means that I’m not writing with a specific audience in mind; that I don’t have to write about a particular record simply because someone has been ‘kind’ enough to send me a free copy and that I’m relatively unconcerned about backing something that might turn out to flop. I can write about a wider range of music and film, focussing on aspects of art and culture for which I have genuine enthusiasm, thus aiming for a more positive approach.

Of course, I’m free to get things wrong without discipline or censure (and regular readers will hopefully recognise that I usually correct myself when I do) – but I’m also free to correct inaccuracies and errors in the professional media when I spot them. For a recent example, the NME (not a paper particularly respected for its journalists’ knowledge of jazz) reported the sad death of Joe Zawinul, but its news item was riddled with errors, not only claiming that Miroslav Vitous was a guitarist (in fact, he’s one of the greatest acoustic bassists in the world), but also claiming that he and Jaco Pastorius were members of Weather Report simultaneously – an interesting prospect that never actually happened (Vitous left in 1974, replaced by Alphonso Johnson, Pastorius didn’t join until 1976)! Why Keen thinks a professional news reporter for the NME is intrinsically more likely to have ‘expertise’ than me (an individual passionate about a massive range of music), I find a little baffling. Keen talks about individual amateur writers needing to be held to account, but one of our roles can be holding those professionals who fail to check their facts to an appropriate level of accountability themselves!

It’s also worth noting that the lines between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ may not be as clearly demarcated as Keen implies. A number of professional journalists also maintain blogs, where they have more space to exposit their thoughts (no word limits!) and more freedom to express individual views that veer away from a particular editorial line. For anyone interested in music, I would heartily recommend John Mulvey’s Wild Mercury Sound blog at the Uncut magazine website (which very successfully helps promote the magazine whilst challenging some of its limitations), Simon Reynolds’ blissblog or Marcello Carlin’s fascinating and inspired Church of Me as great examples of this.

Keen’s most contentious point is that blogs ‘collectively confuse popular opinion’. This is a wholly misguided statement in my view. Firstly, blogs are by their nature not a collective enterprise but rather the expression of individual views, some more carefully justified than others. In his response to Keen, trend tracker Tim Jackson argued that the phenomenon of blogging allowed individual voices to share some of the power traditionally held by employers, pressure groups, institutions and corporations. Can Keen really suggest that blogs are more influential in influencing public opinion than the tabloid press or broadcast media? This would assume that blogs are far more widely read than they actually are!

Rather flippantly, Keen states that ‘if culture is free then you get what you pay for and it’s usually crap.’ Keen has much of value to say, and his argument that the future of the web should depend more on expertise than hearsay is convincing. Yet his assumption that permissiveness always breeds decline and degradation is dangerous, and fails to credit individual internet users with enough intelligence to select which blogs to read and to corroborate whatever information they may find with other sources. It’s rather frustrating that, in the interview at least, Keen fails to differentiate between those bloggers with clear passion and enthusiasm for their subject, and those self-interested writers simply looking to promote themselves. I don’t feel that by writing and publishing this website, I’m somehow participating in a devaluation of culture, rigour and expertise. Instead I hope I’m helping to challenge commonly held assumptions about where expertise might lie, and perhaps even aid cultural discourse. It’s a fascinating debate, and it seems entirely appropriate that the BBC should give voice to someone emphasising rigour, fact-checking and expertise, important elements in the wider virtue of impartiality. However, the idea that ‘professional’ always equates with qualified and ‘amateur’ always means ignorant is itself misleading.


Anonymous said...

They're old and they just don't get it. Just look at the reaction to social networking sites.

Mr Guy Caradog Morgan said...

Bang on, Paton.

Web time: this freedom of 'amateurs' especially applies to new media comment and opinion - for example, I've learnt more skills and a better knowledge base for my webby job from online, independent sources than I ever would from 'traditional' media - bloggers/seo specialists/e-marketers (and occasionally uber-gurus like Jacob Nielsen) have an obvious self-interest in perpetuating the medium, so naturally so far they've been the most accepting of the prosumer/web 2.0 environment - nevertheless - it'll cross over just as much into other fields, just you wait.

I'm still loving the bombast of your blog. Plus, the new PJ Harvey album is indeed something special. Christ!

Assuming I'll see you this Thursday at the Spitz's last throw of the dice in Spitalfields - if not, looking forward to getting some revisionist Jelly Roll Morton under way next Weds...