Literature Today With Stanely Mushava
Book: The Cult of the Amateur
Author: Andrew Keen
Publisher: Currency (2007)
The digitally enabled democratisation of information and creative content has been widely lauded as progressive.
Most current discussions loosely converge around such catch-phrases as Web 2.0 revolution, ICTs and digitisation.
One is either in the loop or finding their way in. To be outside is to be branded a laggard as the cosmic ferment substitutes citizens with netizens.
The democratic merits of the revolution are seldom in question. For most, it is the high point of democracy as Web 2.0 protocols level the arena and empower netizens to acquire, deliberate and share information and opinion.
Outside the civic domain, web-based platforms have revolutionised the reception of creative content.
Access to content, from classics to contemporaries, has been vastly enhanced. Artists and writers command new podiums for uninhibited self-expression (or is it pedestals for inflated self-exhibition?)
But not everyone is impressed. The reactionaries, though a wafer-thin minority, range from the laggards and the indifferent to the hostile.
Of the furthermost category, Andrew Keen has emerged as a spokesperson, casting himself into an Ardonite firebrand, complete with a quiver of scathing anti-Web 2.0 polemics.
In “The Cult of the Amateur,” Keen trash talks the Web 2.0 revolution and incriminates it for destroying culture, popularising mediocrity and bleeding the economy.
Keen insists from the outset that he is not punching above his weight, having dabbled with Internet start-ups, including the now obsolete Audiocafe.com, as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur himself.
The fallout point, his backsliding from an insider to a reactionary, was occasioned by what he perceives to the web-based transformation of culture into a dissonant racket.
Keen claims that mediocrity and amateurism have become the new normal as anyone with an opinion can take to blogosphere, YouTube, MySpace or Wikipedia (Facebook now leads the pack) without commitment to quality and authenticity.
He questions the wisdom (or lack of it) of a web-captive generation that has blindly thrown its weight behind a culture which encourages plagiarism and piracy as well as crippling traditional media and creative institutions.
Locally, the implications are precipitate. Around half a year ago, Literature Today posted an instalment, “Zimbabwean literature operating at zero profitability,” which I hoped would jolt stakeholders across the book value chain to action.
Veteran writer Aaron Chiundura Moyo, indicated that he was capping his pen after the publication of his next book, citing measly royalties. Moyo revealed that he has earned less than US$400 from his 14 books between 2000 and 2014.
Few months later, highly regarded Shona novelist Ignatius Mabasa intimated that he was job-hunting.
Mabasa had left his day job to concentrate on writing and publishing, only to reckon with a reality check in the face of proliferate copyright infringement.
While poor sales are not so much a result of electronic duplication as they are of street vending, one may argue that the biggest challenge threatening the sustainability of our literary sector is the digital migration of readers — from Feso to Facebook, from Maidei to MySpace.
While writers can exploit new tools and maintain their stake in the public discourse, visibility does not always translate to profitability, understandably to the demoralisation of our foremost artists.
I keep insisting with a heavy heart that Zimbabwe risks literacy without literature as our emphasis shifts from digging to plowing.
One has to give it up to Keen for his brilliant dissection of the deep end of Silicon Valley but his arrogant, polemical approach weakens his argument more than it aids it. For him, the digital revolution spells the convergence of ignorance, bad taste and mob rule.
His preoccupation with amplifying the downside makes his book a rather misanthropic and subjective caricature instead of the jam-packed trove his book could have easily become, considering his useful research.
While one can concur with most of his arguments, he pitches his argument in high culture mode and alienates most of his audience. He carelessly peddles the idea that unless one is a functionary of the cultural elite, they are not entitled to express themselves.
Ironically, such a position neither protects nor promotes culture but makes it parochial and static. We do need a hedge around culture. It springs wild and free. Class will outlive crass.
He juxtaposes his now obsolete Audiocafe.com digital to YouTube and bemoans the latter’s departure from his own vision.
Whereas he wanted classics and hippies (his personal taste) playing out from every “orifice,” new technology enables anyone access and outlet.
As the infinite replication of Bachs, Chopins and Mozarts, fresh soundbites fine-tuned to the concerns and tastes of their time are streaming in.
Instead of the West dumping down taste to the Rest, we are empowered to speak back and to exchange our own stories.
While mediocrity abounds in ubiquity on the Internet, gems are not altogether absent. Teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (of whom I am no fan) was discovered on a file-sharing site only to break into international acclaim.
The dynamic is that while the Internet is inundate with mediocrity, genius is bound to stand out. It is up to users to separate grain from hay sheaves, a skill universally available.
However, Keen is not altogether beside the point. Transplanting his reservations to the local setting, I have similar revulsion to the torrent of mediocre, lyrically inept and often obscene urban contemporary music which threatens to crowd out polished and mature content.
What used to be an underground culture has been transformed into a household phenomenon, complete with the propagation of drug abuse, sexual immorality and spiritual ambiguity.
Music critic Fred Zindi has castigated artists such as Soul Jah Love, Lady Squanda, Seh Calaz and Guspy Warrior for assaulting culture and promoting “slackness.”
While the popularity of this movement (at home championing “chamba,” “bronco” and vulgarity behind the smoke-screen of ghetto interest) cannot be gainsaid, conscious culture is threatened by this banality bad taste and mob rule.
Yet it would be disingenuous to incriminate the chemistry between the Internet and “263 urban culture” with a generic brush, unless one has to ignore stories of perseverance, transformation, maturity and positive influence such as Jah Prayzah, Tocky Vibes and Sabastian Magacha within the terrain.
Couching deeper into his extremist diction, Keen employs crude, eugenic metaphors for his polemic, caricaturing the unprofessional majority as monkeys.
“For today’s amateur monkeys can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays and novels,” protests Keen.
Again, one sees reason in Keen’s reservations but is bound to be put off by his condescending posture.
Keen incriminates blogosphere of mindless narcissism. “At the heart of this infinite monkey experiment in self-publishing is the Internet diary, the ubiquitous blog,” he vilifies.
“Blogging has become such a mania that a new blog is being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day. We are blogging with monkey-like shamelessness about our private lives, our sex lives, our dream lives, our lack of lives . . .
“At the time of writing there are fifty-three million blogs on the Internet, and this number is doubling every six months. In the time you took to read this paragraphs, ten new blogs were launched,” Keen protests.
Notwithstanding my objection to Keen’s supremacist posturing, I find his observations a welcome intervention against the mindless assault on culture which our generation has unreservedly embraced as development.
One of the soft targets of “The Cult of the Amateur,” Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger acknowledges the validity of Keen’s points but questions his impassioned presentation.
“The book is provocative, but its argument is unfortunately weakened by the fact that Keen is so over-the-top and presents more of a caricature of a position than carefully reasoned discourse,” Sanger points out.
“The Cult of the Amateur” is, on the whole, a pertinent speed trap for our web-captive culture.