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The Mega-Question of the Coming Centuries

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: The Holy 1% Andrew, You ask: “Have we changed the original question? Now it’s not whether we can save the Internet, but rather whether the Internet can save us.” Not me! You shifted … Read More

By / June 1, 2007

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: The Holy 1%

Andrew,

You ask: “Have we changed the original question? Now it’s not whether we can save the Internet, but rather whether the Internet can save us.” Not me! You shifted the topic in this direction at the very beginning of our exchange when you wrote: “We are supposed to be discussing whether or not the Internet can be saved. But I’m not sure that this is a helpful way of thinking about the Internet. A better question is whether humankind can be saved.” Remember? As you say, the Internet is a mirror, but like all technology it is a magic mirror, a fun-house mirror. Instead of merely reflecting back our portrait 100-percent intact, it adds something novel to the image, so that we emerge altered. First we shape our technology, and then our technology shapes us. We are in this together. The technium is not an inert surface, but an active force in our lives. Our inner lives are shaped by our language and alphabet, by our tools of seeing, by our notions of law and justice—all of which we have invented; and, once invented, they push back against us. The Internet and other tools are saving us by allowing us to remake ourselves.

Into what? Great question! It’s the mega-question of the next several centuries. What are we? What can we be? What should we be? Every new technology we create, such as the web, forces another iteration of this refrain: Who then shall we be? To answer it we will dive deep into our natures, our traditions, and, most of all, into new technologies.

I don’t know who we are, or who we will be, but I am pretty sure the answer is not “professionals.” Professionals, as you argue in your book, are the chief solution to the messiness and corruption of values brought about by the untidy technologies of the web. In other words, the rest of us are the problem. In your last post you said (emphasis mine):

“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.”

Just to ensure that I’m not taking this sentence out of context, here is one from your book:

“Before the Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been one driven by the careful aggregation of truth—through professionally edited books and reference materials”

But now?

“Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers—our reporters, news-anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show.”

“With the advent of the cult of the amateur, it has become increasingly difficult to determine the difference between readers and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and the product, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not outrightly corrupting, our national civic conversation.”

Wait, there’s more:

“Many unwise ideas—slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears—have been extremely popular with the crowd. This is why the arbiters of truth should be the experts—those who speak from a place of knowledge and authority.”

There are many problems with this old-fashioned idea that the “arbiters of truth should be the experts.” Just because it is an old idea, of course, doesn’t mean it is wrong. But it doesn’t address today’s big questions: Who is an expert? What makes a professional? And why should they be arbiters of truth? Is truth even something that can be arbitrated?

You single out the authoritative professional journalist as a key arbiter of truth and a necessary cultural gatekeeper protecting civilization from the barbarian hordes of monkey bloggers and intellectual vandals. So I wonder, Andrew, are you a professional or amateur? Are you one of our trusted arbiters of truth, having “years of formal training” in the field, a person with proper credentials, a person making his living in journalism and thereby qualified to arbitrate truth for the masses, or are you one of the monkeys, just another “dabbler” with a blog, a mere passionate amateur with something to say, like the rest of us?

In your book, there is no room for anything in between, so I’d really like to know, who am I speaking to right now? Professional guardian, or amateur troublemaker? If you are only an amateur, why should we listen to anything you say? If professional, then by whose authority? And if you are professional, aren’t you uneasy in declaring that the solution to our society’s problems is in letting you be the gatekeeper?

You don’t need to answer these questions, because I can illustrate the same point by directing them at myself. Am I professional or amateur? Well, I have earned a salary in journalism in years past, but I was working for a magazine that I helped to start, so I hired myself! I probably couldn’t have gotten a job elsewhere. I have no college degree in anything, no formal training, and I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life. I run a “monkey” blog and make more money from it than I do from books, so I’d be hard-pressed to say I am a professional. In the past years I’ve self-published most of my books (an indication of amateurism in your accounting), and yet in the media I'm billed as an expert, and I am listed in Who’s Who in America (credentials at last!).

I honestly have no idea if I am a professional or amateur, and frankly it doesn’t matter to me or, and more importantly, to anyone else. I know only this: I am not keeping the gate. Don’t follow me. Find your own path. Listen to me only as a fellow traveler. Believe what I say if it makes sense to you. That’s how the real world has always worked in any case, even in the days when “professional” was an honorific and a signal of status, like “Lord” or “Duke.” It is especially true now, when the rank of professional has been eroded by the ability of amateurs to master the most arcane field. In fact, in one of the few parts of your book where you report data, Andrew, you make this very important point:

“In January 2006, Edelman PR’s ‘Trust Barometer’ revealed a dramatic societal shift, in whom we trust, from traditional media, to trust in ourselves and our peers. In 2003, only 22 percent of American respondents reported trusting a ‘person like yourself or your peer.’ In January 2006, just three years into the Web 2.0 revolution, this had more than tripled to 68 percent.”

We’ve come to see that professionals are not the arbiters of truth. Even our own doctors (the apex of credential professional status) may not know as much about our own ailments as we acquire through our own research. Most working actors, photographers, and athletes are technically amateurs. Most inventors are amateurs. Amateurs have played and still play a key role in the natural sciences.

The mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson, who spent his whole life in academic institutions, and is a bona fide professional if there ever was one, writes:

“When we look at the wider society outside the domain of science, we see amateurs playing essential roles in almost every field of human activity. Amateur writers such as Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys do as much as the professionals Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky to plumb the heights and depths of human experience. In the most important of all human responsibilities, the raising of children and grandchildren, amateurs do the lion’s share of the work. In almost all the varied walks of life, amateurs have more freedom to experiment and innovate. The fraction of the population who are amateurs is a good measure of the freedom of a society.”

Amateurs have their faults. There is no better spokesperson for the ills of the amateur than you. I agree with you that amateurs on the web have brought us rumor, conspiracy, and narcissism run amok. Untrained enthusiasts are messy, imperfect, hard to control, unlikely to take the long view, and they gravitate to base instincts and appetites. The same faults plague democracy and free-market economies.

The argument against democracy is that if you let ignorant, untrained amateurs try to navigate the complex details of governance, you get dumb mob rule, the worst of crowd politics. That argument is accurate. You encounter similar problems when you run an economy by having ignorant amateur citizens decide prices, inventory, and future innovations. Letting amateurs run the media is equally messy. Amateurism is a terrible way to run these institutions—except in comparison to having them run by professionals!

As a father who is often uneasy with our ego-filling popular culture (we’ve never had broadcast or cable TV at our house; my kids have grown up without it), I sympathize with your long list of negatives. I don’t sympathize with your solutions about what to do about it (state intervention and more cultural gatekeepers) for two reasons. One, I find it very easy to turn off anything we object to. It’s not hard to unplug, stop driving, live simpler, go back to the land, get offline, or whatever. Two, I really do believe that most people are like me: a good person, eager to do good and help others if given a chance and the means to do so.

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, says he built his empire on the belief in human benevolence, which many critics told him was utopian. He made his billions by building an auction system around the idea that total strangers could trust each other—including buying a car unseen—if you gave them the tools of trust and assumed the best at the start. You could fill a library with all the rotten scams that have been committed on eBay, but, in the end, there’s been more happy cases of trust between strangers than not. That’s why it’s still growing.

Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who I don’t know much about, said a marvelously true thing: “There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much.” “Not much” is all we need. Only a few percent of the transactions on eBay are fraudulent, which means a much higher percent are benevolent. When we look around the web, we may find a lot of it objectionable. But more of it is wonderful. Even if 49 percent of everything made is horrible, that leaves 51 percent good. So long as we can create 1 percent more than we destroy each year, that 1 percent compounded over decades produces civilization.

So I am a 1 percent optimist. That differential is what moves us forward. Give me 1 percent more good than evil, and we can make progress, even if we sometimes have to look hard to find that one percent. I spend my days focused primarily on the 1 percent “not-much-better” because I think that is where we find God and holiness. I acknowledge the need to work on our weaknesses, which are often substantial (49 percent!). But for me, the Great Work being done by the web, and technology in general, lies in the holy 1 percent.

I appreciate your clarity in writing and your willingness to debate these ideas. Thanks for your gracious spirit, and thanks as well to our hosts at Jewcy.

—kk

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