Sunday, December 16, 2007

You is published!

Alex Good on Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur:

Keen is clear on the fact that culture follows the money. And he's right. The problem is that there is no money in the content of culture, in being a creative, cultural producer. The great Internet successes on the Internet are not in the content business. Starting at the top with Google, which is described, accurately, as "a parasite." The content of the top Web 2.0 Internet brands - Google, MySpace, Yahoo!, FaceBook, YouTube, Blogger, even the film review resource Rotten Tomatoes - is all outsourced or user-generated. These sites produce virtually nothing of their own, they simply exist as platforms. And they are the new Internet economy's big winners.

Content, then, is for losers. Content is crap. Copyright on the Internet? Why even bother? Mere content isn't worth it.

This is the real threat to our culture, not the assault on our traditional institutions. Those institutions can, at least in theory, transform themselves into more viable forms. The problem is that the Internet represents perhaps the final step in the process of our rejection of the very notion of culture having any value at all. This is a disillusionment the human spirit will find hard to survive.

Keen's book has received considerable attention elsewhere on the Net -- predictably, critical. I can't comment on the book itself, but I have to say that I think the argument surrounding it presents a slightly misleading dichotomy. Either the Internet is "gate-less" (the pun implicit in this phrase not worth commenting on) and allows an unending stream of poorly written gibberish, or it is an opportunity for greatly expanded creativity.

Obviously, most Net commentators tend toward the latter position. And obviously, most commentary written by people who work for mainstream media outlets tends toward the former. On the surface, the moral of the story seems to be the timeless one that what we ourselves term logic is often a pattern of thinking which follows self-interest.

But I think there's another way of viewing this debate, and it is to think of the Internet as simply a vehicle for publication akin to publishing itself -- or more accurately, what we intuitively define as publishing. What tends to be forgotten is the absolutely amoral aspect of technologies, and the degree to which their advent simply creates the potential for doing things we have always done, but more simply. (I could write a long post on whether anything related to computers is, strictly speaking, "simple" -- for example, I had to wrestle with my software just to write this post. But in any case, at their best computers enable new activities.)

Like it or not, the moment one posts something online, it is published. That it has not cost much money to produce and may not be worth reading is of no more relevance than the fact that a lot of the TV shows and movies that have the highest production values are also not worth watching. The Internet allows new forms of writing to exist. Despite putting some of my work online, when I'm honest with myself I realize it's taken me a long time -- a struggle of overcoming internalized resistance
-- to fully recognize this.

Of course, a lot of online writing is crap. But some isn't. Some of it is golden. And some -- too very depressingly much -- contemporary published work is, if not exactly crap, then bloated and lacking the sting and focus of brilliance. How this current state of affairs will sort itself out is anyone's guess.

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