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.

  One Response to “Keen Review/Riff PART II: Social Networking vs. Gulags”

  1. Fascinating reflection, Michael.
    I’m new to “attention economy”, and very glad for this perspective as it serves well to describe my experience of various relations and their transition throughout my life. The vast logical gulf between awareness, mindfulness given in a spirit of discovery, and control of public manipulables for financial gain seems bridged by perceptual-functional focus upon underlying relations of attention. Much sense is sure to come as this valuation of shared awareness seeps further into my life’s reflection. An integrating perspective at many levels. Thank you.
    namaste, Pierre

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