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Don’t Scan My Book

From: Andrew Keen To: Kevin Kelly Subject: Death or Salvation?


You say that my book should be called the “Cult of Anonymity” rather than The Cult of the Amateur. :-) Yes, the cult of the amateur and the cult of anonymity do indeed seem to be opposite sides of the same coin. The Web 2.0 amateur, that digital narcissist, seeks to endlessly broadcast himself; the anonymous Internet commentator seeks to endlessly broadcast somebody else. One is all self; the other is no self. Both are toxic. What, I wonder, is the cause of this cult of anonymity? I’m less concerned with spammers, who are no better than common criminals, and more interested in the anonymous reviewers on Amazon who want to express themselves without revealing their real identities. I’m concerned that this cult of anonymity—by fragmenting the self into a series of invented beings—is transforming identity into a hall of mirrors. In a world in which we have no center, what becomes of such traditional epistemological anchors as religious belief, citizenship, or secular morality? Speaking for once like an engineer, I’m not sure that human beings were designed to be driven with such reckless abandon. I’m intrigued by your idea of using code to fight anonymity. You say:

But there is one very effective tool in diminishing anonymity: code. The folks who create online social systems and marketplaces can regulate the degree of anonymity by coding it in or not. Through technological means we can tweak how much anonymity we have. Not by laws, but by code.

So software coders should regulate social systems and marketplaces in order to eliminate anonymity? Interesting idea. But aren’t you then turning codemakers into lawmakers, crowning them as digital engineers of the human soul? In his Republic, Plato wanted to turn philosophers into moral legislators. I suspect a dash of Platonic idealism in your faith in the moral wisdom of coders. But why do you so trust the honesty of coders? Shouldn’t we fear their economic, political, or ethical agendas—especially since they are neither popularly appointed nor transparently accountable? Unlike you, I am not against the top-down legislation of morality and civic virtue. But, in our representative democracy, this legislation needs to be created openly and unambiguously—by elected officials, by accountable judges, and by civic leaders such as schoolteachers and op-ed writers in daily newspapers. I don’t trust codemakers to distinguish between right and wrong any more than I trust American lawmakers to write software code. Let’s leave ethics to the ethicists and code to the coders.

You cite Jeff Bezos’ regret at “allowing anonymous book reviews” on the Amazon site. And you’re skeptical that morality can be effectively imposed from above, by schoolteachers or op-ed writers. But I trust legislation from a schoolteacher or an op-ed writer much more than from a plutocrat like Bezos, whose only responsibility is to his shareholders. You say you aren’t an anarchist and that you recognize the need for “some laws” on the Internet. But, leaving aside Jeff Bezos and his coders, how would you suggest we determine the moral criteria with which we craft these laws? You reject the regulation of morality and civic virtue, suggesting it is neither “effective” nor “sustainable.” You don’t believe in social contracts as a foundation for an ethical consensus. You want laws that are “few, concise, and minimal,” “like the Ten Commandments.” And you seem to believe that this moral code will come out of what you call a “technological matrix”:

My problem with national laws for fixing Internet problems, at least in America in 2007, is that this is a very slow, overly broad hammer for problems that can be addressed faster and more effectively by rewriting, reinventing, and re-imagining the technological matrix that holds them.

Please explain how this “matrix” works. How will it help us save both the Internet and ourselves? I agree that the Ten Commandments represent a simple, concise, and attractively minimal moral framework. Remember #8: Thou shalt not steal—a particularly unambiguous state
ment, which, if applied to the Internet, would find intellectual pirates guilty of blatant criminality. And yet, in your section on digital piracy, you insist on the ambiguity of intellectual property law. For you, the remix artist and the file-sharer exist in the moral “gray zone,” “awaiting clarification of law.” Meanwhile, the music and movie industries are collectively losing tens of billions of dollars a year from intellectual piracy. I don’t see anything gray about this zone. People steal music and movies from their rightful owners. Once again, you see the answer in technological tools, rather than in morality:

The solution for the ambiguity of ownership in an idea economy will come as we develop further tools for regulating people’s behavior, such as digital rights management technology, new instruments of property protection (between patents and copyrights), new methods of adjudicating priority, and new emerging societal norms for fair use. Only then can the law cement—codify—what technology and society allow.

I’ve been in the Internet entertainment business since the mid-nineties, and I see little, if any, evidence of “emerging societal norms for fair use.” I suspect more music is stolen on the Internet today than in 1999. Broad social problems such as rampant intellectual property theft require broad hammers. Instead of “tools” to regulate our behavior, we need to develop a common collective morality that distinguishes intellectual theft and plagiarism from genuine authorship and ownership. Tools don’t regulate people’s behavior; people regulate people’s behavior. Speaking of intellectual-property ambiguity, let me end with a question. What, exactly, do you mean by an “idea economy”? I think I understand the “idea” part, but I’m having trouble with the “economy” bit. Is this your provocative “Scan My Book” vision that you laid out in last year’s New York Times? The one that almost killed old John Updike? Is this an economy in which we give away our work for free and collect money through speaking or other entrepreneurial punditry? I understand the logic of this vision. But aren’t you concerned that it will turn all creative artists into sales and marketing hucksters? (Btw, everyone should buy my book The Cult of the Amateur). Will your vision mean the death of the serious professional creative artist, rather than his salvation? And is this discussion an example of the idea economy? ak Next: What Fundamentalism!

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