[iDC] Keen as amateur media theorist

Myron Turner mturner at cc.umanitoba.ca
Sat Aug 25 13:21:05 UTC 2007

One of the comments posted to crowdsourcing.com in connection with Jeff 
Howe's piece on Keen refers to a an Scott Mclemee's article on Michael 
Gorman, whose analysis of Web 2.0 is being serialized in the 
Encyclopedia Britannica’s blog. Gorman earlier published an essay in 
Library Journal, referring to "the Blog People," whom he doubted were 
"in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts."
(See http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/06/20/mclemee ).

Gorman has a hieratic predisposition, for which the welter of digital 
information is an abuse of learning, overwhelming the critical faculty:

we are ‘educating’ a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of 
beyond the Internet and of interacting with, and learning from, the 
myriad of
texts created by human minds over the millenia and perhaps found only in 
those distant
archives and dusty file cabinets full of treasures unknown. What a 
dreary, flat,
uninteresting world we will create if we succumb to that danger!

His use of "flat" is very telling; it implies an undifferentiated mass 
of information and reflects the anxieties inherent in critiques of "mass 
culture" that appear during the second and third quarters of the last 
century and had sympathetic literary forebears in writers like T.S. 
Eliot and Ezra Pound, whose intolerable social attitudes were overlooked 
by critics who themselves would have been kept outside the castle walls.

Gorman, of course, is not one of those. He is, by McLemee's telling, to 
put it rather baldly, on the side of "standards". And of course, we are 
all on that side, if we are on the side of intelligent use of 
information. But Gorman's idea of intelligence is washed in the twilight 
of nostalgia--"millenia", "archives", "dusty file cabinets full of 
treasures". I know that world first-hand, having spent numerous hours 
with 16th century texts in the watery light of the British Museum. And 
so I also know that. in the early days of printed books, typography and 
design were also nostalgic, nostalgic for the look and feel of manuscripts.

That nostalgia wasn't just aesthetic; it was for an earlier time when 
culture was more easily managed but difficult to access. To begin with, 
most literate culture was housed in institutional libraries and the 
libraries of the wealthy. One of the interesting sidelights to the early 
printed book is that italic type was first designed to fit more 
characters to a page, so that books would be less expensive for the less 
affluent scholar and easier to travel with. Our own world is the result 
of such cheap knowledge. At first this cheap knowledge presented readers 
with the many of the same dilemmas' as digital information, in 
particular reliability. People had to learn how to read and evaluate 
books. But on the other side, one has to ask how effective was the 
cloistered system of knowledge that antedated printing. In 'How Prints 
Look', William Ivins, gives a fascinating account of the limitations of 
manuscripts for the transmission of technical information. First off, 
physical processes had to be described in words, and many of us will 
know the frustrations of trying to walk someone through a computer 
problem over the phone. But more importantly, even where there were 
diagrams, these diagrams had to be copied by hand from manuscript copy 
to manuscript copy and so suffered the inevitable distortions of manual 
transmission. Standardized, reproducible engraved diagrams made for the 
reliable transmission of technical knowledge and techniques.

Renaissance intellectual life grew out of a tradition of respect for 
authority. With the wide dissemination of cheap knowledge through books, 
education outgrew the safe boundaries of cloister and castle, the 
knowledge base grew, and the old authorities were often found unreliable 
or reprized in new ways. Cheap knowledge challenges old knowledge. We 
may have to have our critical faculties alert when we Google a topic, 
but on the other side we never know what we may come up with that we 
never would have found before.

In all of this, I am reminded of Bejnamin's distinction between 
"auratic" and reproducible art. Auratic art is in the keeping of the 
privileged, while mechanical reproduction in effect cheapens it, by 
making it widely available. Benjamin's description of auratic art 
radiates nostalgia, but he never lets that nostalgia get in the way of 
his belief in the value and utility of art in the age of mechanical 
reproduction. We continue to live an attitude of ambivalence about both 
art and information.

Myron Turner

Howe, Jeff wrote:
> Not true. I¹m a longtime contributing editor at Wired Magazine, a blogger
> (crowdsourcing.com) and have something of my own stake in these arguments as
> I¹m writing a book on the ways in which peer production and other forms of
> group problem solving are changing the nature of production. Like many of
> the people on (and off!) this list, I found Keen¹s arguments to be
> dangerously misleading. When the book was still in galleys my editor at
> Wired and I decided we should force Keen to defend some of his more
> indefensible positions (not everything in the book is indefensible). While
> we declined to run that particular mano-a-mano interview in the pages of
> Wired (his attack on Wired¹s Chris Anderson threatened to make us look
> vindictive), I did run it on my blog
> (http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2007/06/andrew_keens_cu.html). I
> subsequently debated him at the Strand Bookstore in New York (broadcast on
> CSPAN) as well as on a very short, very unsatisfactory segment on Fox News.

Myron Turner

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