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On Andrew Keen…

Andrew Keen makes me furious but I don’t write about him as a rule. Why not? Because you don’t feed the trolls. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so clearly acting like a troll. I mean, you only have to read his post Etes-vous elitiste in which he declares that people have labelled him an anti-Christ and then uses that as a platform to sell his speaking gigs, while the right-hand column of his website lists all his media appearances. He wants to stir up an argument to get attention. We’re not supposed to enable behaviour like this in our children. We have to be firm. He must be placed on the naughty step.

Andrew is the chap who thinks that the whole internet is full of amateurish morons and that nothing rises to the top and that professional media has become corrupted and less good as a result of all this stuff. I could agree with his comments about mainstream media losing the plot if it didn’t seem to be quite the other way around. As far as I can see in the US at least, mainstream news became about entertainment way before the bloggers came along, there’s lots of money in cinema still and Harry Potter sells by the ton. I watched a TV programme about how in the US they sold Life on Earth as basically animal on animal bestial snuff movies. Presumably also the effect of the nascent internet, even if about four people in the world were using it back then. And clearly the blunt utility of Wikipedia counts for nothing, the beautiful pictures in Flickr aren’t worth looking at, Keen’s own blog presumably yet another indication of how low you now have to stoop to make an impact in the world rather than something we should celebrate – another citizen gets to express their opinion and try and persuade the world he’s right.

The thing is about this, all this conversation is a total waste of time. I don’t understand why he gets the traction he does. I mean, what is he actually trying to accomplish? Does he think that the millions of bloggers will get bored and go home if he explains why their voices don’t count? Does he think that Wikipedia will stop being useful to people (even with its inaccuracies) or YouTube will stop being entertaining? No, of course he doesn’t. He can’t honestly think he can accomplish anything. The future comes, for good or ill, whether you like it or not. The best you can do in such a situation is try and work to fix the issues you see. No market for decent commentary and opinion? Look for a business model that could support it! No way that Encyclopedia Britannica can compete with Wikipedia? Well then why not move some of the resourcing of Britannica towards creating a trusted version of Wikipedia? Check articles every so often for factual accuracy, pull them aside and enhance them and make that your business.

The world we have as a result of technologies of the internet is not a world I find particularly troubling, because it’s a world finding its feet and its a world that has also created significant beauty. It’s a world I feel comfortable in, and there is always a market for what people want and often for what people need. I don’t doubt that journalism will survive or resurge but it will have to adapt.

People like Keen are professional complainers, stirring up fights, decrying the state of the world that we find ourselves in without facing the fact that it is where we are and wishing won’t make it not so. If you don’t like the way the world is, then use the tools that exist and push them further and find a way to compensate for the problems that you think the existing technology has created. I’m afraid it’s a clich√© but it’s true. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The world we have is the world we can work with, and anyone wanting to push it back to the fifties will fail.

And that’s what really gets to me. Because it’s pretty clear that he knows this. He’s writing his own bloody blog for a start. He knows he can’t win the battle, but he’s put himself on the side of respectability, trustworthiness, reliability and is decrying all the terrible new things in the world. As I once said of Nick Carr, this is a brilliant strategy to make yourself like a terribly intelligent and responsible, serious person without actually having to go to any of the trouble of thinking. That’s why he’s a troll – because his opinion cannot do any good, cannot change anything for the better, but in its decrying of the nascent environment of millions of people finding their voices for the first time, he can get nothing but attention, media coverage and book-sales. It’s not an appeal to better standards, it’s not an appeal to quality or tradition. It has no aspirations to honour. It’s disingenuous to the core, manipulative of the people, anti-progressive, cynical and hypocritical.

13 replies on “On Andrew Keen…”

I’ve been thinking about trolling myself recently, & wondering if the troll-control techniques we used to have on Usenet might be transferable. It’s self-evidently the same problem, from Usenet post to blog comment to blog post. (Remarks apply only to Keen; I never agreed with your swipe at Carr & still don’t.)
Nice post, anyway, but I thought it lost focus a bit as it went on. I’m not sure how they do what they do (let alone why), but what trolls do is easy to recognise: they get attention by making other people angry. Obsessively angry. Really furiously, obsessively angry. Really furiously, indignantly, righteously, obsessively
disingenuous to the core, manipulative of the people, anti-progressive, cynical and hypocritical
angry. When you feel it coming on you just have to walk away (“Don’t drive angry”). It’s hard, though.

Bravo Tom!
I’ve long since learned the lesson of avoiding such people. Yes I may rant and moan on my blog but I do try and find a way forward.
As several wise people have, no doubt said, if you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t want to change it then tough. I may be paraphrasing.
What really baffles me is that most people acknowledge that the internet is very young, and has a lot of growing and learning to do, yet we are happy to shoot it down and blame all sorts of things of it (I’m guilty of this myself).
Like Mr. Keen, the internet simply needs the odd moment on the naughty step..

People like Keen are professional complainers, stirring up fights, decrying the state of the world that we find ourselves in without facing the fact that it is where we are and wishing won’t make it not so.
I find this argument a bit baffling – surely you could say the same of anyone who writes on the comment pages of the Guardian? Is Polly Toynbee a ‘troll’? Is there never any value to analysing a situation in the knowledge that your analysis won’t alter it? Would you really say the same if he was attacking something you happened to dislike?
To me, Keen’s book is a regrettably muddled and imprecise expression of an argument that is actually quite important and worthwhile about the limits of mass amateurisation. Lots of people agree with him, although of course you wouldn’t know that from the blogosphere.

I’m not sure I follow your arguments Tom. You seem to be saying two things — first that Keen is talking nonsense (which I mainly agree with), second that there’s no point him saying what he believes.
I don’t agree with the latter. Well, one can say Keen shouldn’t say anything because he’s talking nonsense, but you seem to be saying there’s no point anyone saying what they believe about the world, because the future will happen anyway. I don’t think you really believe this…?
Anyway, Weinberger on Keen is quite good if you haven’t seen it.

Having seen Keen in the flesh at the RSA last night, I think there’s a fair bit of sensationalism behind what he says and the way he says it. He’s trying to get a rise, and judging from your post he’s succeeding.
It was interesting to hear the MD of Encyclopedia Britannica disagree with keen and then to hear Keen get quite aggresive in his response.
This debate is not new – as a friend informed me after the Keen debate, when the manuscripts went from hand written to print, people thought the sky was falling and that was hundreds of years ago!

My point about Keen is that he makes arguments about the problems with the modern world without actually there being any way whatsoever to undo them. And his entire rhetoric creates no way out of it. There’s no way to redress the rise of the idiots in his plan, so the world is stupid, we’re all doomed and you’re all a bunch of twats who need a good punching.
Seems to me that doesn’t accomplish very much except get a lot of people riled up and shouting about him in public to sell his book. And he must know that. So his only motivation can be to sell the book.
If he wanted to be helpful, he would spend his time identifying the problems and looking for ways to fix them, or proposing mechanisms to make Wikipedia work more effectively or honourably (in his mindset). He does not do so because he doesn’t care about making the world better. He just wants to be the centre of a really big shitstorm that makes him into a celebrity.
Polly Toynbee and the rest of the commentators are commenting on an environment where public pressure can change a person’s mind or policy. It would take a pretty dramatic shift in the world for people to declare the internet an inherently bad thing and step back from it and go back to tilling fields and reading Chaucer or whatever he’d rather we were doing.

Oh Tom, if you can stand it, you’ve got to watch Keen’s appearance on The Colbert Report last night. The guy came across like he’d been angry all day, and within 30 seconds Colbert was baiting him gleefully. Even given that the premise of the show is that Colbert baits guests who are never quite sure how to play along, it was great.

Dunno, this reminds me of that Voltaire quote:
Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect[/mass amateurisation] in horror. But what shall we substitute in its place? you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?
Also, what if there was some calamitous situation that Polly Toynbee knew could not be altered by any amount of public pressure? Better just to ignore it than to be labelled a time-waster?
Anyway, Keen’s first objective surely wouldn’t be that we stop using the internet, it would just be that we stop hyping a lot of this stuff, and entrusting our futures to it, with such abandon. He’s trying to be a counterbalance against uncritical neophilia. As I said, I think Keen has a worthwhile argument but has done a terrible job of making it – and it is possible for someone to have a worthwhile argument and be an unpleasant attention-seeker at the same time.

He’s trying to be a counterbalance against uncritical neophilia … it is possible for someone to have a worthwhile argument and be an unpleasant attention-seeker at the same time.
I’m not sure. I think a c-b. against u. n. is an excellent idea, given that there’s lots of u. n. about – I’ve read Weinberger’s response to Keen, for instance, and thought it deserved a thorough frisking*. But although that’s the position Keen occupies, that’s not what he’s doing with it. There’s a point where active personal unpleasantness – trolling, flamebaiting, etc – actually becomes the message, and I think Keen’s on the far side of it.
*To reveal the logical gaps and unstated assumptions concealed about its person.

So Keen could do a wonderful thing if he stopped making this about him. By all means have a debate about the issues of expertise & quality in an anarchic online environment. But can we loose the bitter self-publicist first please?

I’ve been thinking about trolling myself recently, & wondering if the troll-control techniques we used to have on Usenet might be transferable.
It’s certainly about time that the term ‘print troll’ or ‘mass media troll’ were popularised.
I don’t quite think Keen qualifies as a troll, though. He’s a professional curmudgeon, and there’s always going to be a market for curmudgeons, just as the one line of dialogue we all remember from A Christmas Carol will continue to be ‘Bah, humbug.’

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