Cult or Culture?

I’ve just caught up with some of the Multiliteracies tasks (Electronic Village Online 2009) from two weeks ago, including the debate between David Weinberger and Andrew Keen on Weinberger’s All Things are Miscellaneous. Here’s some first thoughts.

The Weinberger-Keen debate is a hoot. Weinberger of course (!) is right, more or less, and Keen is wrong, mostly; that much is easy. However the interesting thing is, why? The fundamental difference between their approaches is that Weinberger sees the changing structures in the new media environment as giving rise t0 changing roles and opportunities for all – readers, writers, consumers, producers – which in turn are helping to create a more participatory and democratic culture. Weinberger is enthusiastic about these developments – very enthusiastic.

Keen however sees in all this a collapse of cultural authority, with the arbiters of knowledge falling from their pedestals, and being replaced by a free-for-all where any Tom, Dick or Harry can have their say, and there’s no-one left to tell us what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong.

He talks up the role of ‘traditional’ media in promoting cultural values, and claims that they have always allowed talent to rise to the surface. No-one, he says, has been prevented from having their work published just because they’re black, or female.

Well, where do you start? With generation after generation of black people deprived of liberty, education, economic independence, civic participation, perhaps? Something similar could be said for women, of whatever race, and in whatever part of the world.

Keen is trapped within an old-fashioned, restricted, patrician definition of culture, which is essentially conservative, despite his protestations, and never did adequately describe cultural processes anyway. What is glaringly absent from such a view is the question of social class, and its political ramifications – this is no surprise, as conservatives rarely recognise these issues. Our ‘traditional’ media cost a lot of money to run, and they have always been funded by the social, political and economic elites. They mostly represent the values and/or interests of those elites, whether the cultures they promote are considered ‘high’ or ‘low’. The new media gives the rest of us a chance to escape this stranglehold, and that is what makes conservatives nervous.

It’s great having the debate on video – the contrast between the confident, hyperactive, gabbling Weinberger and the nervous, defensive, hesitant Keen is telling, and the body language is fascinating. Keen clearly felt himself to be in the lion’s den, and some of the floor speakers seemed to relish their chance to play at being lions.

The debate is from June 2007, and 20 months is a long time in the new media world. I wondered how these two would approach these issues now. The change in title of Keen’s book, from one year to the next, gives an indication of the path he has taken:

2007: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture

2008: The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, Myspace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-generated Media are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values

I look forward to the follow-up: How YouTube caused the credit crunch (2009)

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2 Responses to “Cult or Culture?”

  1. Mary Di Mónaco Says:

    Great post, Michael! So clearly worded. It’s funny that you mention their body language. That’s something that also caught my attention: unlike Weinberger, Keen never makes eye-contact, as if determined not to yield an inch of his position, not to open his eyes to change.

  2. Vance Stevens Says:

    Thanks for reminding us of your post Michael. I agree with all you say (Leigh Blackall referred to Keen once as a fascist), yet I’d like to mention also the deference that Keen and Weinberger show one another. I’m not sure which version of the debate you watched but the fact that there was more than one suggests that the two went out on a road show of some sort. Also, Keen has been respectably interviewed on BBC, and of course there’s the talk at Google which I think we link to. His views are not ignored. Perhaps he provides a credible counterpoint to the characterization of the mechanism that Weinberger (and Shirkey, etc etc) laud so convincingly. Perhaps it’s that once we’ve taken him into account, our own position becomes more strengthened and balanced. In any event many do encourage him to air his opinions, and this is why I think this debate is, as you put it so well, a hoot.

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