John, the Evilutionary Biologist, points us to an interesting new article about how the “Web 2.0” is killing traditional and authoritative media outlets entitled “Thinking is so over.” The article, which is essentially a summation of a new book called The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, bemoans the ability of what Keen essentially refers to as talentless-nobodies to overthrow authorities on wikipedia and put out asinine assertions as if they were truly researched. Rather than opening up a town square where ideas could be shared, Keen sees the current manifestation of the internet as harmful to professionals in the media, and Keen (along with the article’s author, John-Paul Flintoff) make some rather dramatic analogies in an attempt to strike fear into the hearts of the Western consumer;
But talent is “the needle in today’s digital haystack”, says Keen. In a world without newspapers, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV stations there’ll be nobody to discover and – no less important – to nurture talent. The result could be no less catastrophic than Pol Pot’s decision to eliminate talent and expertise in Cambodia by mass execution.
“Once dismantled, I fear that this professional media – with its rich ecosystem of writers, editors, agents, talent scouts, journalists, publishers, musicians, reporters and actors – can never again be put back together. We destroy it at our peril,” says Keen.
Yes, because the “rich ecosystem” of professional talent is always good and never has done anything wrong or tried to take advantage of the consumer. While Keel and others bemoan music piracy, I find it interesting that they don’t blame record and entertainment companies for hearing the wake-up call; CD’s have been available for two and a half decades and they still cost a bundle. Musicians have to eat, yes, (and, interestingly enough, they make most of their money off tours and merchandise, the money from the records usually going back to the company) but the common practice of making money off big-ticket acts and then pumping out a stream of terrible copy-cat bands to fill out the roster isn’t cutting it anymore. I’m not going to spend 10-15-20 dollars on a new album when I have no idea what most of the > or = 10 songs (not so long ago the average CD I purchased had at least 13 tracks) sound like. This has been remedied somewhat by streaming audio and promotional material, but the entertainment industry still wants to figure out a way to fleece the average customer. If you haven’t already, the PBS Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool” is a must-see when it comes to have trends are started and capitalized amongst the #1 demographic with money to burn: teenagers.
Likewise, while it is possible for wiki-addicts and bloggers to put out there ideas and opinions all over the web without much prior research, I’m not entirely comfortable with the major news companies being owned by mega-conglomerates controlling news sources either (i.e. Disney owning ABC). NPR isn’t flawless, but I remember one incident in particular where major news outlets reported a story about a suicide bombing the Middle East, but largely ignored the ongoing tale of how people in the neighborhood who had been friends previously turned on each other, resulting in a horrific bloodbath fueled by the desire for revenge. While Keen may be right that larger news outlets have more resources to launch big-time investigations, I think it is important to have many independent perspectives available on a given topic rather than relying on corporate-controlled news sources.
I also think the greater ability to share on the internet is important as far as science goes; Wikipedia might not always have the best content in its entries, but it is usually no worse than any other available encyclopedia and many papers and references I otherwise might not have access to are open to me. Rather than having to run down to the library and hope to find a particular paper available or request it and wait, I can click a link leading to a researcher’s profile page listing their work and see the paper right away, and such abilities (in addition to online journals like PLoS) are a boon to helping people who have an interest gain greater understanding of a topic. Keen might be right that errors (especially in old blog posts) may not always get fixed and are still floating around on the internet, but it seems like he’s more afraid of the internet replacing hired science writers, and given some of the science writing in newspapers and magazines these days I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing.
I haven’t read Keen’s book, but perhaps what he is missing is that the “Web 2.0” is a backlash against media control; people have their own ideas, opinions, and perspectives and now have a great new opportunity to share them. Indeed, most movies these days are sequels or adaptations, many TV shows seem derivative of others than have come before, music seems rather bland, and mass-media in general seems to be stagnating. Even for my own part, I am amazed that I can write up my thoughts or opinions on a scientific paper or TV interview and have that scientist comment on my blog and make corrections (as has happened previously with Lawrence Krauss and Thomas Holtz, among others), and if used correctly I think the internet can do a lot of good for revitalizing thought and discourse. It’s not a cure all, and it sure has some big problems, but I won’t cry if Sony doesn’t make as much money this year or if Katie Couric’s ratings dip, and hopefully the internet will continue to change the way we acquire and transmit information for the better.