Web 2.0--the folly of amateurs?

A provocative new book warns that society stands to lose more than it gains from the democratization of the digital world, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.

Andrew Keen doesn't fit the profile of your garden-variety bomb thrower.

But make no mistake about this erudite British-born entrepreneur: He is out to rattle Silicon Valley and the geekerati by detonating many of the comfortable myths attending the Web 2.0 era.

In a deliciously subversive new book, The Cult of the Amateur, which debuts in June, Keen recounts the many ways in which technology is remaking our culture and society. Anyone familiar with Keen's previous work from his blog will recognize the terrain here. Keen is a gloomy elitist--in the best sense of that term--wistful about a politer, more thoughtful era, but one that's destined to get trampled underneath by the amoral onslaught of the Internet.

Keen may cost himself a few dinner party invitations. Then again, he's not interested in currying favor with bloggers or would-be new media moguls . In fact, I assume he would just as soon welcome their scorn for his book as a searing indictment, a latter day "J'accuse" lamenting the harm he believes they have inflicted upon society.

The subtitle of his book states his thesis bluntly: "How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture, and our values."

Keen bemoans the advent of "an endless digital forest of mediocrity" as the number of new blogs doubles each six months.

Them be fighting words, to be sure, and Keen is being purposely provocative. But he's worth reading. Keen's not writing from the uninformed point of view of a technophobe. In his previous life, he was the founder of Audiocafe.com. That said, he's not at all happy about where things are headed, bemoaning the advent of "an endless digital forest of mediocrity" as the number of new blogs doubles each six months. Here's a typical snippet:

"If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture. Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite , that they've undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can't tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com."

Keen finds little to celebrate in the rising cult of the amateur. Same for the emerging age of citizen journalism, and he frets about the growing influence of short-form bloggers at the expense of the wisdom of long-form essays of scholars and experts. He worries about the wisdom-of-the-crowd phenomena represented by the likes of Wikipedia or YouTube and the impact they're having on an ADD-prone generation that embraces editor-free news sites. Technology is our friend? Don't kid yourself, is Keen's response. The crowd has often proved itself to be anything but wise. We may have strong opinions but so many of us remain uninformed.

He may be exaggerating for effect, but this is more than just the polemic of a tart-tongued writer. Technology is not intrinsically good or evil. But when communities lose longtime brick-and-mortar music outlets because of digital plagiarism, or newspapers close because bloggers pick their bones clean, this is more than the necessary price of progress. We're losing something valuable that's never coming back. Our world is changing and Keen says it's time to stop and take stock before it's too late.

Early drafts of Keen's book have drawn scorn from some corners of cyberspace. But his is a principled conservative warning in the spirit of Edmund Burke. Don't we wish one hundred years ago that our forefathers had taken a serious look at how the automobile might change society? (Though they did invent the driver's license.)

Keen obviously stacks the argument in his favor. He could have devoted another several chapters to recount any number of ways in which the digital world is improving our economy, our culture and our values. But these days there is no shortage of cheerleaders to wave that banner. Keen set out to disrupt our complacent notions about how society is being reorganized.

He may be too late to stop history. Still, it's an important message to hear.

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