The elitist in Andrew Keen, the elitist in me

On: January 4, 2010
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About Hania Piotrowska
My New Media interest grew out of studying Media Studies and Marketing during my undergraduate education at Maastricht University. After obtaining my Bachelor's degree I took a year off to work at a Public Relations company in Warsaw, Poland. This is where I had a possibility to Media Studies with Marketing, as the company's PR projects were executed mostly online. Using Internet platforms like blogs, Facebook, flicker and such to create a company's image was a really interesting experience and I think I'd like to further explore possibilities of combining New Media with marketing.


Who doesn’t like to listen to Andrew Keen talk? Perhaps his most famous appearance was made on the Colbert Report, where he had an interesting exchange of opinions with Colbert about whether or not the Internet is worse than the Nazis. Keen is known for his “elitist” approach to the Internet and claims that the democratization of means of expression is essentially a bad thing. No matter if you agree with Keen’s vision or not, you have to agree that he’s a good speaker. And so he was at the Me You and Everyone We Know is a Curator conference on December 19th, 2009 in Paradiso, Amsterdam.

My line of thought while listening to him talk at the conference went along these lines:
1) Ok. This is going to be interesting. I wonder what kind of twisted claims I can expect to be uttered this time.
2) Wow. This all makes perfect sense!
3) Wait a second. Does it really?

Keen seems to have a capability of magically pulling the audience into his own world by the means of erudition and colorful claims. I greatly enjoyed listening to him speak but even when he was done talking and the magic charm wore off, I still agree with a lot of what he was saying.

The core of his argument lied in the claim that curators are essential for maintaining our culture. Overall, the masses have a poor taste and should be guided by the people “trained in good taste”. His another strong claim was that “the Google algorithm is doing away with a skilled librarian, human individual is done away with”. The masses are hostile to curators and instead decide themselves what is worth paying attention to. A fetish is built around free, which doesn’t necessarily mean of value. However, the idea of free is of course not free – we lose our culture. I am not too sure if indeed this is entirely true. But then again, I’ve never been a big believer in the Culture Industry (both Adorno and Horkheimer were often mentioned by Keen, along with Marx). I  would rather add losing our privacy to this equation. Keen’s criticism on Google included the fact that it sells advertising but doesn’t share revenue with its users. I don’t really see this as a viable business plan. Also, I’m not sure if Mr. Keen if familiar with Adblock Plus, I would highly recommend installing it to Mozilla (for free, the dreaded word!) to avoid feeling violated by online ads.

Another interesting point made by Keen was his depiction of a curatorial vicious circle:  “Curators add value to content. The value is being undermined. The more curators you fire, the more culture you lose, the less you can charge for the content”. Therefore, “we have to maintain our authority, but there is no need to be as obnoxiously elitist as myself“. I agree with Keen when he says that “it’s not enough to pick up the means of production, you need to be skilled to use it”. It pains me sometimes to see the works of amateurs, self-proclaimed “artists” who’s main appeal is supposed to be their lack of skills. Even street artists are meant to be artists and their work of quality (see e.g. Banksy). I don’t fully understand Keen’s vision when he said: “Museums have to stick to their guns, they are still controlling the physical. Stick to the physical, don’t let yourself you diluted by the online. The physical will always have value.” There is some amazing online art and doing away with it altogether is just ignorance. I don’t see why only the physical is meant to be valuable and the online the ugly sister. What about museums of contemporary art? Should they also not be diluted by the online? Would that not be a terrible omission?

Keen also envisioned that we are on the brink of the new culture war: authority needs to be rostored. However, this cannot be done overnight. People like Sarah Palin represent the “the less you know, the more you know” attitude (which I guess exists due to the lack of authority enabled by the Internet?) and, Keen says, perhaps we have to live through worse than Palin. Then we will re-learn to understand that authority is of essence and we, after all, need people to tell us what to like and not to like. (The peak of Keen’s elitist views was reached with the declaration: “I don’t like the word curator. I prefer gatekeeper”. The word “gatekeeper” was used as a positive term).

I do agree with Keen on a vast number of issues. I too, to a certain extend, am an elitist. I do not agree that people have good taste. In my opinion, they mostly have terrible taste. However, I don’t see why this has to be a bad thing (other than I would prefer people to have good taste). Let them enjoy Dan Brown, Hannah Montana and Lady Gaga. As long as we have access to variety (mostly enabled by the Internet!), I’m good. I enjoy a slight curatorial interference. For example, reading blogs is my favourite voluntary subjection to authority. I would never decide to treat is as gatekeeping or the-source-of-the-ultimate-truth, however. Merriweather Post Pavillion is not my album of 2009, even though most sources say it is. When we look at the world’s most popular museums, we see that they all are heavily curated. The fact that YouTube also plays an important role in our culture, doesn’t mean that we want LOL cats at the Louvre (although that could be an interesting experience).

The conference itself was a great experience and an excellent example of why good curators are of essence. The speakers represented various fields and standpoints. I couldn’t help but feel that the organizers put a lot of thought into designing the whole event and choosing guests. The conference left me inspired: I looked up a lot of the organizations mentioned, plus joined one (Upload Cinema which is a “film club that takes the best web films to the big screen”).

Morgan and Thomas posted comprehensive overviews of the whole day. Also, Morgan did an amazing job or transcribing Bruce Sterling’s powerful speech and Tjerk uploaded parts of Andrew Keen’s speech.

Other statements by Keen from the Me, You, and Everyone We Know is a Curator conference:
– If you want to be curators, you need to think and act as curators.
– Internet has essentially destroyed the digital value.
– My fear is not that the Third World will not have the Internet. My fear is that it will. The Internet will re-collonize the Third World.
– The only way the Old Left can survive is by embracing authority (e.g. Wikipedia)
– Curators can say: “I know more than you”. I’ve spent 30 years studying art, artists… I doesn’t make me a better person, won’t help me go to heaven.
– Curator as an educator towards the next generation.

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