Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kulturkampf 2.0

Believe it or not, I'm actually glad that I had so little exposure to the Internet while I was in college. It was only my last year (in 1993, as a struggled to complete the inane requirements for teacher certification in Texas) that I ran across gopher, usenet, and lynx (that was what I would telnet up to in Kansas from my VAX account at Texas A&M, right?)

Most of my friends (including my soon to be wife) were grad students in the A&M English Department. Many were embroiled in debates about the Culture Wars of late 80s and early 90s. Critical theory, multiculturalism, Post-Modernism, Post-Colonial Literature, Foucault, Derrida, the Canon, the Body, The Border. Critical Pedagogy. The flattening of hierarchy, the collapse of high and low culture, the end of the authority, the decimation of institutions, the horrific lack of standards, decent into moral chaos, etc. ad nauseum.

This is what I was exposed to in my upper level English and History classes. This is what we debated and argued. I remember attending a speech Dinesh D'Souza who was denounced (yes, denounced in the Maoist sense) by several African-American students in the shrill terms as a racist. But as a white male, middle class, Liberal Arts major in at an majority engineering school (adding insult to injury the English department shared the same building with the business school, the horror!) who no clue what I wanted "to do" let alone "how to do it" -- I felt like a persecuted minority. Put off reality by going to grad school. In what? Apply for the that MFA program in creative writing? Could I get into the Iowa Writer's work shop. Probably not.

It all seems so trite now (ah, to return to the naivety of age 22, although I remain a reactionary still) as does an Interview with Andrew Keen (the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture) spurred this nostalgic blog entry.

The review in Academic Commons was the most compelling and begins with:
Andrew Keen insists he is neither anti-technology nor anti-progress. Yet this veteran of the dot com era begins his recent book, The Cult of the Amateur (Doubleday/Currency, 2007), sounding much like a high-culture snob pooh-poohing the vulgar masses for having appropriated the Web as their own and, in the process, wreaking potential destruction on our economy, culture and values. Keen's polemic hints less at neo-Luddite dissent than at an underlying bitterness and resentment--at his own gullibility at having been so easily sucked into the Internet dream, and also at those who have taken the technology out of the hands of professionals like himself ("I almost became rich" [p. 11], he confesses in the beginning of the first chapter). Drawing on 19th-century evolutionary biologist T. H. Huxley's "infinite monkey theory," Keen fears what lies ahead when the masses are empowered with far-reaching technology. As the author describes it, Huxley's theorem asserts that if infinite monkeys are provided with infinite typewriters, one of these monkeys will eventually create a masterpiece. Keen updates and reverses the theorem, replacing monkeys with humans and typewriters with networked personal computers; and "instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys--many with no more talent than our primate cousins--are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity" (pp. 2-3). By the end of the introduction, a reader would have just cause to feel a bit insulted

And definitely better than the one in the NY Times
Mr. Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”

Whether or not this depiction is true (and there certainly have been critiques of his facts) which is different question from whether or not this development (some of which is obviously the case) is a bad thing -- this critique seems strangely naive, ignorant of history and recent philosophy.

How many times in past cultural changes/wars have we heard these same arguments?

However it is curious, that the most interesting technological trends (and many such as Free/Open Source software, the ultimate amateur endeavor) of the day seem to be an ultimate fulfillment the prophecies of the postmodern theory I was reading 15 years ago.

If only I had known.

1 comment:

Jason Meltzer said...

Lawrence Lessig's take on the book, and the ensuing discussion, is interesting: