Aug 292007
 

1. Howdy, Pardner!
Andrew Keen, in his diatribe, the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, claims to be mainly concerned about “Web 2.0,” though he lards his list of ills with e-mail spam, phishing, online porn and gambling, which don’t really fit. The Internet at present is somewhere between a wild west, a playground, and an experimental laboratory. All sorts of things get tried, standards are few and unevenly enforceable, and certainly there are problems. But what Web 2.0 really offers is the host of opportunities for ordinary people with modest technical skills to seek attention and to play around with related issues, including intimacy and friendship. It is thus very much part of the move away from what we can call the Money-and-Thing-World (or just plain Money-World, for short) to the new Attention-World, which is what I (but not others) have meant all along by the phrases “Attention Economy” or “Attention Society.”

In Money-World, which is also loosely the same as capitalism, the main human interaction is the cash nexus, buying and selling or deal-making. The appropriate attitude in such a world is the poker face —not revealing your inner feelings about whether a proposed deal immensely pleases you or is barely acceptable. What you do not want to do is “lay all your cards on the table”  — at least not until all bets are in. If someone acts too friendly, watch your wallet.

Attention -World is entirely different. The less your reveal who you are and what you think and imagine, the less interesting you are, and so the less it is possible for anyone else to align their mind with you. Even in the height of the industrial economy, the worlds of family and friendship and neighborliness were outside the market. They were mini-attention worlds of intimacy where things were rarely bought or sold, but where how much attention you got, while at issue, was not a huge problem.

2. Shrinking Families

Let us recall too that under the conditions that prevailed in most of the world until quite recently, it made sense to have large families. There was always a considerable risk that children would die very young; at the same time, unless some children lived to maturity, there would be no one to help out on or eventually take charge of the family farm or workshop, no one to take care of the parents in their old age, should they happen to survive. Large nuclear families meant large extended families as well, most commonly, with plenty of aunts and uncles still alive from the parent’s generation when kids were small, and numerous cousins, etc.  And families didn’t tend to move very far from their ancestral spots. So children grew up surrounded by relatives with whom to be close.

Today, in contrast, it is not uncommon to have only one child, or no children. Only children, when they have children of their own, introduce them into a world without uncles, aunts or first cousins. Because of greater geographical mobility, what family remains is often far away. That has two consequences. Today’s young people need attention from non-family more than ever, and the Internet certainly has become a major avenue for seeking this. At the same time, even though the average child has a much higher chance of living a long time than her ancestor did at birth, parents of only one or two children are likely to feel far more worried about slight dangers to them than parents a few generations ago would have done. As a parent himself, Keen exhibits such anxieties.

As attention becomes the leading scarcity and what is most sought after, it is natural that the domains of friendship and intimacy are scenes of play and experimentation. People want to extend their circles of friendship, as they are among the main ways to feel connected, that is, to get attention. Hence: blogs focusing on personal life and intimate feelings; social networking sites in which “friending” is a major exercise, and sites like “Second Life ” and some on-line games in which it is possible to play act, adopting a personality perhaps different from one’s normal one.

“A personality different from one’s normal one,” hints that even one’s “normal” persona is in some degree a construct, a way of acting and even thinking that accords with others’ and one’s own expectations about who one should be. Taking on different personas, with great intimacy, is exactly what novel writing, play or movie acting, much art and much poetry and musicianship are all about. It is the very stuff of “our culture,” the very one that Keen is afraid is being killed.  On the contrary, this move toward greater involvement with the attention world shows great promise of enlarging this culture.

If Keen does want to point to something that might indeed be culture-killing, he would to better to decry the elimination of art, music and sometimes even sports in public schools that are simplemindedly trying to enhance learning by focusing on the “three R’s, and on preparing for tests mandated by the equally idiotic “No Child Left Behind” law, none of which has much to do with the Internet. The actual effect of these seems to be, however, to make the contents of schooling all the less relevant to most students. What teachers offer increasingly little seems to connect with what matters. No wonder students’ life and actual learning does become more Internet connected. School remains a locus of attention getting and paying, but more and more only informally, only outside the class (room) structure.

3. Friends Don’t Let Friends Miss Out on Culture

With the attention world on the horizon, the growth of experimentation with new kinds of contact and connection, new aspects of friendship and intimacy, comes a sharing of what kinds of things we pay attention to. By apparently befriending or at least pointing to one’s favorite stars, one seeks some of the attention that pull in. That occurs in lists of favorite songs, books, TV shows , etc., on MySpace and Facebook. One can also seek attention through one’s own creations, say by uploading pictures and videos on the same social networking sites or on Flickr, Picasa, Google video, Yahoo video or  YouTube, among others. It also occurs in the straight file-sharing sites, which are closely interlinked with these, in common use.

The social networking sites in particular have some of the aspects of a large party, where attention goes back and forth with banter, and sharing of whatever can be shared. The file-sharing aspects especially bother Keen, because he sees in it a violation of the intellectual property laws.  Here, Keen mistakes legality with culture. Laws that go against culture don’t usually work. Despite heavy enforcement of the US Prohibition laws, from 1920 to 1933, the culture of drinking alcohol certainly did not disappear. The same goes currently for the use of a variety of illicit drugs. One can wonder, in fact, how much of our Culture with a capital “C” would survive the utter end of the drug culture.

Even though culture changes rapidly, there is a way in which the alignments that are behind it work together, with not a strict logic, but nonetheless some kind of rough agreement between various aspects. If a state legislature were to pass a law that, before leaving a parking place, every driver had to salute the flag three times, who would obey unless the police were watching? The law would simply not fit in with current ideas of the relationship between parking and the flag (i.e., no relationship at all.)
In the case of property, we have strong cultural sense of what material property means, as well, say, as what it means to hand over something (such as money) to someone (say, a bank) for safekeeping, and also of our right to our own identity. There are those people who regularly steal all these things of course, but far fewer than, say, illicit drug users or underage drinkers. In all these cases, we understand from a very early age that if we take it the original owner loses it.

This is not the kind of taking involved in the “theft” of intellectual property such as a copyrighted bit of text or music. If I own a physical book, and you are my friend, if you take the book without asking, that is (minor) theft, which you probably feel obliged to refrain from most of the time. On those rare occasions when you give into temptation you might well feel pangs of guilt. (That guilt has nothing to do with fear of going to jail, of course. Who would try to prosecute a friend for stealing an ordinary book, after all? What police department or court would bother with this?) But that does not amount to theft of intellectual property at all. Only if you published the book without the author’s or original publisher’s consent, would you run afoul of this law. Until very recently, that was just not something you had to worry about doing.

In other words, the intellectual property laws, as they have long been understood, were not at all a matter of concern for ordinary citizens. Until recently no one could easily distribute copies of books or records in large numbers without having to use considerably complex equipment, the kind of equipment then found in commercial presses of one sort or another but certainly not in kids’ bedrooms.

Between law-abiding firms, intellectual property laws could fairly easily be enforced and made some sense. But for private individuals they are completely counter to what makes sense. We are constantly passing on ideas, recipes, stories, news, opinions, and more, often with some hope that others will in fact pass them still further on. If we send them to our friends, whether by snail mail or e–mail, pretty much the same applies. If I have a book that I think is worth reading, I could lend you my copy with no thought that this is remotely wrong.

If I record a song and you pass it on to all your friends and they pass it further, why shouldn’t I be delighted, especially if you make clear that I’m the one singing? If you admire a star, who therefore feels rather like a friend, why shouldn’t you feel exactly the same way about passing on a song of hers that you especially love? It’s not theft at all; it’s devotion. Why would she not regard this as a favor?

If you consider that the very same move towards Attention World (or in other words the true Attention Economy) enlarges the motives to exhibit friendliness and intimacy and increases the attention to cultural expressions of all sorts, then you should also see that inevitably these move towards weakening the kinds of constraints that are summed up in intellectual property laws and especially copyright. The Internet extends rather than diminishes the reach of expressive people who make “Culture” with a capital “C” through precisely the same motives and mechanisms that undercut intellectual property laws. Keen is completely wrong when he suggests that weakening these laws will weaken culture.

4. Artists Without (Stock) Portfolios!

Keen’s concern is that having, e.g.,  music passed along at no charge would lead to an enormous problem.  He implies the stream of new compositions, performances, songs, and the like would run dry. But certainly if you include all postings on the Internet, the exact opposite is happening so far.  More music is being recorded than ever before, in more styles, both new and old. Even old recordings are now available for a wider audience than ever. Keen cites his own favorite Tower record store as the world’s largest, but clearly, the Internet must offer far more, if we include all the offerings of any sort, paid and free, MP3 format or net radio, along with mail-ordered CD’s, tapes and records, new and used. The low-paid clerks who took jobs at Tower because they loved music, and whose advice Keen cherished, have been replaced by tens of thousands of fans, reviewers, etc., mostly unpaid, but nonetheless deeply enthusiastic about their favorite stars. By listing every venue of live performances as well, the Internet has undoubtedly helped new audiences form. Fans of new musical niches, and the desire to get the attention of these will probably ensure an even larger  supply of musical performance.

Is all this music good? Of course not, whatever your standards of goodness. But it was not all good before, either. There was a period in my life when I felt no good music had been written since Bach died, in 1750.  Others have felt that the pinnacle of music was Gregorian chant before the monasteries were closed, or the early days of New Orleans jazz or the period of Mississippi rural blues. Some people would insist the best was Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven, or the mid-period Beatles, or the Grateful Dead, or Tu’uvan throat singers before they were spoiled by fame. There have to be some who insist it was Brittney Spears before marriage ruined her or Puff Daddy before he became too much of a mogul. Audiophiles might insist the only good recordings are old LPs or even 78s, while others might argue that nothing but a live performance is real music. Most of these views have nothing to do with the existence of the Internet, one way or the other. It only adds a new wrinkle to a very long debate.

Contra Keen, people who love music are not going to stop making it just because they can’t anymore make millions of dollars. (Assuming they can’t, which is far from clear. J.K. Rowling is a writer, not a musician, but her works are heavily pirated, yet she ahs apparently grossed about a billion dollars for the Harry Potter heptad.  Some musicians too still have their bling, their Lamborghinis and their jets.). There have always been plenty of highly talented, hardworking and even innovative musicians who never made enough money through their music to live on it, just as, for the last century, at least, wonderful poets kept writing even though very few have been able to make even a meager living thereby.

5. Steelworkers Don’t  Sweat

Keen’s repeated theme is that “professionals” that is those who in the past earned a good living from their attention-getting activities deserve the same living now. After all they have earned this by the famous “sweat of their brow” and their talent. But how do we tell how much they deserve? Presumably Keen would say that number should be determined in the marketplace. But markets change too, based on changed conditions. The market is in this sense a tautology: whatever people in fact earn is what the market decides. Keen is not at all bothered it seems that factory workers who gave various brand names their reputations constantly lose their jobs to automation or to China.  I guess they don’t sweat.

To return to Attention-World, the conditions by which people get attention and what material needs or desires they reap as a result are not permanent and never have been. Certainly some refuse to adjust to new changes, or do adjust, but not with pleasure. When the baby-boom generation was growing up in the late 50’s and early sixties, and rock music came into fashion, quite a few in the business world realized that the record companies were sitting on a potential goldmine. Like book publishers a little later, these companies were bought up and consolidated, and a vast number of artists were signed to multi-record, multi-year contracts, which often contained clauses highly unfavorable to those artists, many of whom signed when they were young and unsophisticated. The more lucky and canny singers, musicians, composers, etc., became very rich, while others fared much less well. This had little to do with what Keen sees as the reason for the rich rewards for those who got them: “the sweat of their brow” and their talent.

Keen quotes the singer-songwriter Paul Simon to the effect that “Web 2.0” has ruined music, because it is now impossible to get record companies to front a million dollars for him to produce one of his new records. This merely shows his lack of economic imagination. If his fans want to hear a new record from him, and if there are enough of them, it would be easy for him to appeal to them directly over the Internet and raise that money, and that’s only one possible means. (Another would be to get volunteers to work together over the Internet to help produce the album at much less cost. Or maybe he could simply dig into his own pocket — perish the thought. )

I hate to say this, but Simon is spoiled by the particular era in which he made his name. Before recordings existed, and for several generations afterwards, his custom of spending a million on producing an album would have been viewed as meaningless, absurd, or ridiculously excessive. Mozart ended up in a pauper’s grave, but we still have his wonderful music. The great blues pioneer Robert Johnson was even poorer. No one alive today has ever heard Beethoven play the piano. In my book, Paul Simon’s efforts, while enjoyable, are not in their league or anywhere near it. I shed no tears over his plight.

Another thing that changed the appreciation of music was the advent of television. Elvis was talented and had a good voice, but what made him a star was the way he wiggled his hips, just out of camera range, on the Ed Sullivan show. Soon every band on TV had to jump, twist and gyrate or remain unseen by the vast TV and music video audience. Today, that style influences even grand opera. I recently caught a truly wonderful version of Don Giovanni by the San Francisco Opera, in which the singer playing the Don had to leap about athletically and only one soprano remained immobile in the traditional style. We may not see the like of Pavarotti for some time, for the simple reason that no tenor of such unathletic girth will be considered right for any part, no matter how wonderful and expressive his or her singing. Opera lovers will both lose and gain by this, which is just another example of the ceaseless transformations of culture before and during the rise of Attention  world and the  time of Internet, some having to do with the latter, and some not.

6. Destroying Culture in Order to Save It

One of the great failings of Soviet and Chinese Communism was in the hope to create a new culture. “New Soviet Man,” or the people who had been “reeducated” in the Chinese Cultural Revolution were to have attitudes and feelings different from what had been transmitted or emerged without special pushing out of the previously prevailing culture. Getting rid of old patterns and habits proved hard; one result was sending people to gulags or reeducation camps for extensive punishment or enforced attitude changes. Whatever was done there did not much stick. In calling for a dramatic cultural change around intellectual property, which is what he really does, Keen seems to endorse nearly as draconian measures, as do the major corporate holders of copyrights. Threatening jail for individuals ignoring copyright is unlikely to work any better than the gulag. It is in reality destroying culture in the claim of saving it. It is death.

Aug 172007
 

——Part I of a review of (and riff on) Andrew Keen’s the cult of the amateur.

A hundred and eleven years ago, the “modern” Olympic games were born, emphasizing what could have been criticized as a conservative “cult of the amateur.” There were strict rules that only pure amateurs could compete, which meant, of course, that only people of independent means could enter. This neatly kept out representatives of the “great unwashed” or, in other words, the laboring classes. They of course did not have spare money to throw around, so they could only afford to participate successfully in sports if they somehow found a way to be paid to do so. Only quite recently did the International Olympic Committee alter this. We now have the “cult of the professional” in sports. One of its dire effects may be that in order to win or even to join a good team, with all that money (and attention) at stake, athletes are too tempted to use some variety of performance-enhancing drug.

However, today’s conservatives, as exemplified by Andrew Keen, have also come a long way. Instead of criticizing the whole notion of professionalism, Keen earnestly endorses it, because he doesn’t like what “amateurs” are doing on the Internet. His subtitle is how today’s internet is killing our culture. [His or his publisher's chi-chi lack of caps, btw]

1. Whose culture?

If Keen means the culture that most Americans now participate in, which definitely includes the Internet, his sub-title simply makes no sense. The Internet is hardly killing whatever it fosters. Does he mean the gentleman’s culture of a century ago? No, evidently not. He exhibits no awareness of its very existence. His prime example of how everything is being ruined now is the closing of his favorite Tower Records mega-store in San Francisco. As many people do, he thinks back with more nostalgia than realism to the “golden age” that just happened to coincide with his being, I would guess, about twenty.

For someone a little older than Keen, Tower could be viewed very differently than with deep nostalgia. It was part of the replacement of purely local record stores with larger, deeper-pocketed and more profitable stores that were part of national chains. (My personal favorite once was Leopold’s records in Berkeley, an offshoot of the Associated Students of UC, a store that actually was replaced on the same spot by the Berkeley branch of Tower, which many of my friends long boycotted as a result.) The same fate also befell local bookstores, as chains such as B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Crown crowded them out by treating books like canned spaghetti. These chains in turn feel prey to mega-stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble who simply went the earlier chains a few better before falling in turn to the likes of Amazon. Up to the last step, all this was before the Internet had much impact, but it was in a way part of the same process that has now led to Internet retailing of books and records, and even to the free “file-sharing” of recorded music that Keen so much decries.

Even local record and bookstores haven’t always been with us. Before about 1900, for instance, live music was the only kind that could be heard. Orchestras, bands and choirs abounded, and amateur musicians playing at home for parties or just the family were common. Many have rued their decline. Bookshops go back longer, perhaps to the eighteenth century, but before that, one could mostly buy a particular book only from its printer. And of course, when printed Bibles first became available, they were decried by the “professionals” of the era, the Roman Catholic hierarchy who saw the right to interpret scripture as far too dangerous for amateurs — that is, lay people. Go back a couple of millennia from that and you come to Socrates objecting to the invention of writing as debasing memory abilities. (Ironically, we would have long forgotten Socrates’s plaints if Plato hadn’t written them down.)

2. Wading into culture

“You cannot step in the same river twice,” says Plato’s Socrates, quoting the even older Heracleitus. That is certainly true of culture. It has to be in constant flux. Let’s think about culture a bit and see why.

“Culture” has several meanings, some much contested. But one meaning is pretty well established by now: A particular moment’s “culture” refers to all knowledge the humans in question currently have, along with their full repertoire of meaningful practices — excepting only those that inevitably result from genetic endowment or from physical laws such as the law of gravity. You may fall asleep for purely biological reasons; that you sleep in a bed is an aspect of culture. That you set an alarm and get up because you have places to be is also part of culture. So is your understanding of why you do this. Every kind of intentional practice you thus engage in has meaning, and that meaning too is part of your culture.

This wide meaning of culture, we should note, encompasses practices of all kinds, certainly including economic ones. An economy is an aspect of a culture. Yet at the same time, economic patterns tremendously influence all sorts of cultural possibilities.

The word “culture” derives from a Latin word that means tending or attending to or worshipping, but it took on its own current meaning in a roundabout way. Farmers attend to the plants they are thereby “cultivating.” Metaphorically, parents also attend to and cultivate their children, by teaching them by explicit lesson and by example what the world is. (In order to be thus cultivated, children have to pay attention, they have to align their minds to those of the adults, as best they can.) Through some degree of mutual attention, meaning gets passed on, until children are capable of paying attention on their own to other than their parents.

One’s culture is thus the residual matrix of prior alignments — prior attention that has shaped one’s mind. It’s presence allows the individual to create new meaning of some sort, for instance as a way of getting attention and/or acting in the world. Imagine the first generation that developed, say, language. Their children would have grown up in a very different milieu from that first generation’s. As a result, those children would have seen and understood the world differently from the prior generation, and would have thus had a different culture to pass down to their own children, who in turn would again have been raised in a different environment, and accordingly have grown up with a different culture. A culture can only cease changing if it ceases being culture, it would seem, and becomes, in essence totally stereotyped knowledge and practices, no different from instinct. You don’t live exactly your parent’s life, so you cannot keep exactly her culture.

Language is one aspect of culture. It is a scaffolding allowing — indeed almost requiring — new sentences, never before heard, and so the passing on of new thoughts. That process acts on language itself, adding new meanings, along with new words and ideas, while altering pronunciation and grammar too. Words form a network of meanings that depend on each other, and anything new added to this network alters it, changing near meanings slightly and then further off ones. As the relationships among meanings change, new words and new combinations of words must come into play. Since a word’s sound is affected by the adjacent word, the sounds change along with the new patterns. Old grammar no longer works or sounds quite right, and new grammatical rules are born.

The study of comparative linguistics reveals such changes throughout the recorded history of (mostly written) language. Archaeology shows the same sort of thing seems to have happened with tools and artifacts of all sorts. Though records are far scantier, the same seems to hold for music, dance, and every variety of mundane practice — from travel from one village to the next, to tree-pruning, to shoemaking. Nothing ever remained just how it had been.

Not all cultural change has moved a the rapid pace of today, of course. In the past, many innovations were purely local, and often on a very small scale. But even Egyptologists see differences in the output of the many different dynasties that followed each other for thousands of years. Even before that, going back tens of thousands of years, there were steady — if usually small — changes in the artifacts left behind.

3. “Culture” as in Vulture

There is, of course another — actually older — meaning of the word “Culture,” though it comes from the same source. It is not so much human knowledge and practices in general, but rather knowledge of what are considered great and significant works of art, philosophy, science, and other things that have to be learned through lengthy and careful study, or at least through reasonably detailed and close attention. (This often comes via a formal and elite system of education.) This meaning of culture is also highly contentious. Is there “high culture” and “low culture,” “mass culture” or “highbrow culture” ? And where do “geek culture” game culture,” and so on, fit in?

Certainly, in the past, a considerable exposure to what was labeled high culture was a sort of ornament that entitled those so exposed to claim social leadership and superiority. Such was knowledge of the “classical languages” of Latin and Greek and the ancient works written in those languages. (Andrew Keen claims to have been “classically educated,” and this may be what he means, though that kind of classical culture is certainly not what he is striving to save.)
It makes no real difference whether the works in question are paintings, novels, videos, musical compositions, scientific theories or even computer software or games. Whichever ones are considered essential to any sort of being cultured or cultivated, or simply “in,” attention to them does shape the minds of those so cultured.

Every small child who has had stories told or read to her will make up stories of her own; every artist who admires works by past artists will be inspired in some way as a result. Alignment with any significant work will itself take some degree of dedication, and it will almost always lead to some desire to try to do something like what the creator of that work has done. This is a nearly inevitable part of paying attention: aligning your mind to someone else’s includes feeling some of the drive they did to create in that or some similar medium; it also involves wanting to get attention in somewhat the same way they seem to have wanted it. Again, the inevitable outcome is new Culture — now an outpouring of would-be homages, variations, pastiches, parodies, responses, negations, or works intended to break the boundaries of whatever conventions first inspired them.

The greater our access to Culture, the more attempts at more of it there will be, and the sooner past will become prologue and the old forms will give way to new. In Keen’s terms then, the more intense our cultural life, the faster we “kill” it, by overwhelming it with the new. Even though most attempts at emulation or response don’t live up to their models, plenty still do, and we need not worry about culture or Culture drying up.

4. “Today’s Internet”

In all human history, the rate of social and cultural change has never been as fast, as intense, as widespread as it is now, as humans become linked and connected through the Internet and related means. Change at this pace is naturally confusing, difficult to evaluate, often confounding and disturbing. So Keen’s anxious jeremiad is only to be expected, and perhaps is even useful as an exhaustive compendium of complaints about the Internet. One of the problems, though, with what he has to say is that he lacks all sense of the flow of history.

Keen takes it that technological change is inevitable. That is much too simple. Technological changes matter and become common only when new the new inventions strike a chord. Keen just does not like the chord struck. He is a firm advocate of greed for money as a motivator. He even once went so far as to host a conference about the Internet called “Where’s the Money?” However, much as he honors monetary greed, he is disgusted by the desire for attention.

Like a feudal lord who saw lust for fighting and loyalty as primary virtues but decried “mere” commerce as loathsome and petty, Keen stands up for the capitalist virtues, but does not get that a new kind of economy is growing robustly, and that the desires that hold sway in this new economy are mostly what determine which new Internet offerings are likely to catch on. Blogs, social networking sites, and sites that allow easy uploading of and searching through pictures, videos, music or blogs themselves— are the very stuff of “Web 2.0” that Keen especially opposes. But they catch on — that is, are adopted by many — because they hold out the potential of considerable attention, even though the sheer arithmetic means that in most cases they cannot really deliver it.

I have dealt with these subjects many times before — not least in an Internet radio interview conducted and “broadcast” by Keen himself.[The site has now been taken down.] For convenience, I will reprise the argument in outline here. In all past history, the great majority of people were engaged, in one way or another in wresting from nature and then forming for human use material things, from food and clothing to machinery, etc. The incredible increases in productivity brought on by industrial capitalism, have now ended that mode of life. Human energies, whether we like it or not, have thus been freed to move in new directions. The primary direction taken has to do with the new prime scarcity: that of attention from other human beings. An increasing percentage of the world’s people, wherever they are, and in whatever part of their waking day they find themselves, devote their energies to paying attention, to receiving attention or to seeking it.

The new technologies make these quests possible on an ever-enlarging scale. One day soon, all six or seven or eight billion people on earth might form one huge potential audience for each of us. More than ever, our culture as well as our new economy of attention becomes a system of creating more culture. A culture of cultural intensification, in other words. And since each of us has only limited capacity for paying attention, that means, inevitably, a faster giving up of part of the old to attend to the new.

Naturally, this is disconcerting to anyone who has put energy and thought into becoming adept in what was. To some degree, cultural learning is about retention. No one could learn to speak, if every day the people around her had abandoned yesterday’s words, meanings, and grammar for entirely new ones. Or suppose you looked in your closet and discovered that the clothes that somehow had entered it overnight did not have the sleeves and legs and fasteners that you were used to and had to be put on in some way you had to newly discover. Just getting dressed would be a significant obstacle. We can pay attention to the new only to the extent we master a set of habits or routines we can rely on that allow us not to pay attention just to navigating the “background”. Too rapid cultural change is akin to one of those nightmares in which you find yourself in a somewhat familiar place but cannot manage to locate people, items or doors you expect to find.

This may suggest that cultural change is a problem akin to global warming that will destroy us if we do not find some way to rein it in. We can imagine that cultural change alone could become comparable to the chaos experienced today by the inhabitants of Baghdad as a result of America’s ill-considered invasion and the opposition it engendered. That example suggests cultural change foisted from outside on a population helpless to deal with or control it. Clearly, that can happen, but I would argue it is not the main mode in which change is occurring now. Instead, the main forces that change our culture are limited by the degree to which we —or at least many of us — adopt the new culture. Inevitably, the young can adopt new culture faster than the old, but , given that the median age is climbing as children per capita decline and life expectancy grows, teenagers alone are in no position to dictate to all of us. We adopt new culture fast, but not faster than we can.

Cultural conservatives always have another argument, of course. It is that the prior culture contains inherited wisdom that will be lost if we abandon its specifics. Andrew Keen does not really spell out this argument, but I think he implies it. The problem is that if we look at past history, we do not see eras with monopolies on wisdom. The stone age? The Roman Empire? The World War II era with it’s touted “greatest generation”? The sixties? Hardly. 1990 is equally suspect.

Certainly, old wisdom may be lost, but new wisdom can also be gained. In fact, what is wise depends on context, so that much of what was the old wisdom would be today’s stupidity. Inheritance alone cannot tell us what is wise; we have to keep coming up with new ways to do that. And we have no way to measure relative wisdom, so we can only keep striving for wisdom in current terms. Critics would have to argue that we can’t do that, or aren’t trying. If that’s Keen’s point, he is not convincing — as I will explain further in the next installment.