The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

By Andrew Keen (Doubleday, $22.95)

As the Bush administration has slowly discovered in the Middle East, democracy isn't always a panacea and it can actually have unintended — and unwanted — consequences. In his self-described polemic, The Cult of the Amateur, Berkeley resident Andrew Keen explores the blowback from another kind of democratization: the liberation of information in the Internet age. Keen, the founder of Audiocafe.com, offers the view of a disillusioned insider who didn't buy into the utopian "Web 2.0" belief that a crowd of amateurs knows better than one certified expert. The Web 2.0 model, Keen warns, is replacing traditional professional gatekeepers (news editors, academics) with hobbyists who don't know what they're talking about. Anyone with an Internet connection, for instance, can "edit" an entry on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. Such democratic principles, Keen argues, don't work when it comes to scholarship or the creation of wisdom: "[T]he real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information." Another serious problem, as Keen sees it, is we often don't know exactly whom we're getting our information from. In one case of online deception, a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart created a fake blog called "Working Families for Wal-Mart" to attack the company's critics while posing as a grassroots group. "All this points to a fundamental flaw with our user-driven content," Keen writes. "We're never sure if what we read or see is what it seems." Cult of the Amateur is at its best when pointing out the shortcomings of the wiki-world as a purveyor of reliable information. Unfortunately, the final few chapters of the book devolve into a harangue about the dangers of Internet porn and online gambling. Readers can always skip those chapters and enjoy the book's provocative opening — or they can save themselves a few bucks and just read Wikipedia's entry on Keen instead. —Will Harper

 
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