A Culture of One
"In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself." That's the assertion of Richard Edelman, the founder and CEO of one of the world's largest public relations companies. The work of PR professionals has always caused concern from people who believe in the importance of truth-telling. But Edelman's observation suggests that in the communications ecosystem that is the Internet, where everyone is a spinmeister, the very idea of truth becomes less and less plausible. The quote from Edelman is in a new book by journalist Andrew Keen called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Doubleday/Currency). "Today's media," writes Keen, "is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile."
Andrew Keen hasn't always been so negative about the Internet. He almost made a fortune in the 1990s by founding Audiocafe.com, one of the first digital music sites. Keen got involved in that project because he wanted to make the world's best music more available to more people. But the more time he spent among the digirati in Silicon Valley, and the more he heard the utopian pronouncements of its most energized leaders, the more he realized that his view of culture and theirs were at odds. He wanted to expand the audience for great music. The Web enthusiasts wanted to make money by allowing more people to distribute home-made music, no matter how unimaginative and insipid it was, and collect revenue for all of the web advertising that accompanies the narcissism-enabling websites.
Although he doesn't use the phrase, Keen's book is about the loss of cultural authority. He believes that the survival of the very best forms of cultural expression, in journalism, music, fiction, and other disciplines, requires a network of mediation and accreditation. Cultural institutions that nurture the production of the best cultural artifacts maintain teams of editors, critics, producers, and teachers who have advanced in their careers through years of training and evaluation within a guild or tradition. Over time, some of those institutions earn more trust and respect among their peers than do others, their expertise and ability are acknowledged through an organic process of accountability and recognition. Those cultural institutions can be corrupted and standards can become debased. But without some form of institutionalized judgment established over time in communities of expertise, without, that is, some knowledgeable person to tell you your work isn't good enough to be published, cultural expression easily becomes mere self-expression.
When everyone can self-publish by putting up a few bucks for a website, they don't have to face the humiliation of rejection slips. And when a critical mass of people spend more time reading self-published (and often mediocre) writing, and self-produced videos, less time is spent in the company of credentialed creativity. And that translates into declining revenue for established voices and their intermediaries. Keen is particularly helpful in calling attention to how institutions of cultural authority require economic support to continue to operate. They also require a widespread sympathy to the idea of hierarchies, an assumption that some ideas are objectively better than others, that some commentators are wiser than others, that some creative work is, well, more creative than others.
Twenty or so years ago, cultural conservatives were up in arms about higher education's demotion of the canon of great literature. They attributed this abandonment to the anti-Western bias of campus leftists. But surely the ecosystem of ideas and sentiments encouraged by uncritical use of the Web, energized by its defining myth of the democratization of knowledge and culture, poses a much greater threat than all those tenured radicals.
Posted by Ken Myers on 3/13/08