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.

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