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Not Everyone Can Be Kevin Kelly

From: Andrew Keen To: Kevin Kelly Subject: If only everyone was kk Kevin, Have we changed the original question? Now it’s not whether we can save the Internet, but whether the Internet can save us. You believe that it can. … Read More

By / May 31, 2007

From: Andrew Keen To: Kevin Kelly Subject: If only everyone was kk

Kevin,

Have we changed the original question? Now it’s not whether we can save the Internet, but whether the Internet can save us. You believe that it can. The Internet, you say, will get us off our butts and make us more creative and energetic, thereby transforming traditional top-down culture into a participatory culture. To you, the Internet is a radically emancipatory force, the digital version of the ’60s eruption against cultural conformity, political hypocrisy, and ethical mendacity. The networked computer, you imply, frees us both from our own slothfulness and from the dull conventions of mainstream media. What the counterculture couldn’t do, the Internet is now doing. In contrast, I see the Internet as a mirror. It reflects us rather than reforms us. So what you see as creative energy, I view with nervousness. I believe that the Internet culture reflects our deep cultural and political malaise. What troubles me most about contemporary America—the infinitely fragmented self, our instinctive sense of entitlement and moral righteousness, the failure to respect traditional sources of authority, the cult of childish innocence, the privatization of citizenship, media illiteracy—is compounded by the democratized Internet. Your ideal of emancipation through artistic “prosumption” is a metaphysical seduction. I don’t really understand how it works. Nor do I see much evidence of its efficacy amongst the coach-potato class. All I see is a Web 2.0 self-broadcasting culture grafted onto the cacophonous media of talk-in radio and American Idol–style democratization. I think you and I pretty much agree with what’s wrong with America. Like you, I don’t like crap. Like you, I want an energized, well-informed citizenry willing to take responsibility for their actions. Like you, I would relish a future in which people become genuinely creative citizens and community members. I also agree with your arguments about the profound historical significance of all these changes. Yes, this digital revolution is akin to the Industrial Revolution in both its constructive and destructive potential. And, yes, you are right that “the web is all of 5,000 days old.” It may indeed “take another few thousand days to figure out viable systems of law, business practices, cultural norms, and expectations that will reward audiences, creators, and the middle industries. Or it may take a generation, but that is still a relatively short time in the lifecycle of an economy.” Like you, I want people to get off their couches and become responsible, media-literate consumers. Your final question, while obviously rhetorical, is memorably lyrical:

Who can argue against the goodness of having a billion people get off the couches and start making stuff, even if 90 percent is crap? That means 10 percent is great. And not only is that 10 percent more than we had before, I will argue that eventually some of that 10 percent will be superior to the best we get from the established media industry. And even if the greatest is never made by prosumers, it is still wonderful they are off their butts and using the talents that God gave them.

I hope you are right. I really do. I just finished Benjamin Barber’s engaging new book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole. I agreed with everything in the first 336 pages of this 369-page book: Barber’s critique of the cultural consequences of the free market, and his observations about media addiction, voyeurism, and the ubiquity of advertising. And then, just when I assumed Barber would have been totally in favor of my argument in Cult of the Amateur, he turned away from me. On page 337, he introduces the ideal of the creative commons as the solution to what he calls “civic schizophrenia.” Barber suggests that “the idea of the civic calling relies on innovative forms of the traditional commons, including a new information commons rooted in new technology.” So maybe I’m wrong and you, Lawrence Lessig, Barber, and the free culture movement have a point. Maybe this new commons really does have the potential to transform the infantilized American media consumer into a responsible grown-up. So how to (re)make this new citizenship? How do we transform a nation of couch potatoes into a nation of creative, media literate prosumers able to digest complex news and appreciate sophisticated culture? And how do we do this while the institutions and business models of traditional media—publishers, newspapers, record labels, and movie studios—are crumbling all around us? Your strategy is libertarian. For you, it seems, all change comes from within. Your proof? Kevin Kelly. When everyone becomes KK, you suggest, the world will be a better place. The problem is that not everyone can be KK. Not everyone can be a successful author like you and earn money giving speeches and selling your intelligence directly to the consumer. You are a remarkably self-motivated, independent person who trekked around the world, fathered Wired magazine, mothered the new rules for the new economy, uncled the Web 2.0 revolution. You are an exception rather than the rule. Where do unexceptional people, the un-KK’s of the world, get the aesthetic sensibility to make movies, the intellectual training to write books, or the reporting skills to accurately cover politics? Who is going to teach us to become good digital citizens? Will it come transcendentally from within, KK-style? Or will it emerge, in a similarly transcendental
fashion, from the free market? No. Neither solution—what I call the libertarianism of the left (countercultural) or of the right (free market)—works. Good digital citizens need to be nurtured by the state, by schoolteachers and university professors, by authoritative journalists, by parents, by peers, by fellow citizens, by both new and old media companies. The good digital citizen is as trained in listening as in speaking. The test of good digital citizenship is silence rather than noise. So can the Internet be saved? Yes, it can. But only when we stop relying on an idealized self and an equally idealized free market to transport us into the promised land. The Internet can be saved if we save ourselves by synthesizing the vitality of the Internet with the professional authority of the mainstream media. As this catastrophic Bush presidency has underlined, media literacy is the key issue facing America today. But to create a truly media-literate and intellectually disciplined citizen, you need to educate him to critically consume content and entertainment. Otherwise, the lazy television couch potato will be replaced by the equally lazy digital opinionator. And instead of entertaining ourselves to death, we’ll end up creating ourselves into oblivion. ak

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