The second generation of the Internet has arrived. It's worse than you think.
11:00 PM, Feb 14, 2006 • By ANDREW KEEN
Is this a bad thing? The purpose of our media and culture industries--beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people--is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent. Our traditional mainstream media has done this with great success over the last century. Consider Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo and a couple of other brilliantly talented works of the same name Vertigo: the 1999 book called Vertigo, by Anglo-German writer W.G. Sebald, and the 2004 song "Vertigo," by Irish rock star Bono. Hitchcock could never have made his expensive, complex movies outside the Hollywood studio system. Bono would never have become Bono without the music industry's super-heavyweight marketing muscle. And W.G. Sebald, the most obscure of this trinity of talent, would have remained an unknown university professor had a high-end publishing house not had the good taste to discover and distribute his work. Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural "flattening." No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion--Socrates's nightmare.
WHILE SOCRATES correctly gave warning about the dangers of a society infatuated by opinion in Plato's Republic, more modern dystopian writers--Huxley, Bradbury, and Orwell--got the Web 2.0 future exactly wrong. Much has been made, for example, of the associations between the all-seeing, all-knowing qualities of Google's search engine and the Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Orwell's fear was the disappearance of the individual right to self-expression. Thus Winston Smith's great act of rebellion in Nineteen Eight-Four was his decision to pick up a rusty pen and express his own thoughts:
The thing that he was about to do was open a diary. This was not illegal, but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death . . . Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off . . . He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act.
In the Web 2.0 world, however, the nightmare is not the scarcity, but the over-abundance of authors. Since everyone will use digital media to express themselves, the only decisive act will be to not mark the paper. Not writing as rebellion sounds bizarre--like a piece of fiction authored by Franz Kafka. But one of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience.
SPEAKING OF KAFKA, on the back cover of the January 2006 issue of Poets and Writers magazine, there is a seductive Web 2.0 style advertisement which reads:
Kafka toiled in obscurity and died penniless. If only he'd had a website . . . .
Presumably, if Kafka had had a website, it would be located at kafka.com which is today an address owned by a mad left-wing blog called The Biscuit Report. The front page of this site quotes some words written by Kafka in his diary:
I have no memory for things I have learned, nor things I have read, nor things experienced or heard, neither for people nor events; I feel that I have experienced nothing, learned nothing, that I actually know less than the average schoolboy, and that what I do know is superficial, and that every second question is beyond me. I am incapable of thinking deliberately; my thoughts run into a wall. I can grasp the essence of things in isolation, but I am quite incapable of coherent, unbroken thinking. I can't even tell a story properly; in fact, I can scarcely talk . . .
One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.
Andrew Keen is a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic. He blogs at TheGreatSeduction.com and has recently launched aftertv.com, a podcast chat show about media, culture, and technology.