Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Cult of the Amateur: Lessig vs Keen

Someone here told me to look at here, where Lawrence Lessig replies to some of the criticisms of Internet 'culture' made by Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur ("How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy ").

Many of Lessig's points are spot on, for example his criticism of Keen's sloppy grammar - "what is puzzling about this book is that it purports to be a book attacking the sloppiness, error and ignorance of the Internet, yet it itself is shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance". He is probably right to say that policy makers should not be concerned (as Keen apparently is, p.115) when the costs of an activity drop because society has found a way to do the same activity more efficiently. There is no point in preserving the living of those who farm trees to make printed books if (I say if) exactly the same social benefit can accrue from disseminating that information through the internet.

However, I take issue with Lessig about the ghastly Wikipedia. Keen claims

Since Wikipedia's birth, more than fifteen thousand contributors have created nearly three million entries in over a hundred different languages—none of them edited or vetted for accuracy (p4).
Spot on. Perhaps an exaggeration: no doubt some of Wikipedia's entries have been vetted for accuracy, and so (as we logicians know) it is literally false to claim that none have been vetted. But most of them haven't, and that will do. Keen disagrees:

this is absurdly false. Wikipedia is constantly edited, and attributions
constantly vetted for accuracy. Indeed, for many of the articles, the level of
editing and vetting is vastly greater than any article published in any
encyclopedia ever.
Not at all. There are superficial attempts at vetting for accuracy, and the level of attempted vetting for accuracy is certainly vastly greater than ever before tried by humans. But trying is not the same as achieving. There have been 911 edits to the Wikipedia article Existence since the first version begun on 1 June 2001, 9 years ago. It is still much worse than the original version (which was not particularly good either). Regular readers of this blog will appreciate this is a subject I have some acquaintance with. The kind of 'vetting' that goes on in Wikipedia is merely superficial. And so it is (in my view) for pretty much all the articles on philosophy, and most of those in the humanities generally.

Lessig suggests that Keen means Wikipedia is not "vetted" by experts.

Or exclusively by experts (for again, experts certainly participate in
Wikipedia). This is related to Keen's obsession (indeed, I'm sure if he has one,
his shrink must have a field day with this obsession) with "experts" and makers
of "taste." So central is this to Keen's argument, it deserves its own
But having read on, I didn't find any argument against this central claim - namely the claim that Wikipedia suffers from not being vetted by experts. In any case, I think the articles speak for themselves. Some parts of Wikipedia are good, much of it is written by amateurs (meaning: non-experts). But the parts that are written by amateurs are generally not good, and the parts that are good are mostly not written by amateurs.

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