Should Jarvis debate Keen?

Jeff Jarvis wants your advice. He’s been asked to debate Andrew Keen and he doesn’t know what to do:

Andrew Keen and his publisher have asked me to debate him about his book, The Cult of the Amateur, in New York in June. I’m asking your advice because I’m torn.

The problem is that Keen’s book is the worst of link bait. It’s link whoring. Or should I say talk-show prostitution? It’s frilly lace tempting those who want so much to dismiss this change. He tries to push every internet button he can. Like others, Keen wants to be the contrarian’s contrarian. But that only makes him a double negative. It makes him a curmudgeon, a conservative trying to hold onto the past, a mastadon growling against the warm wind of change. Now I’d be fine having an debate about what the change means and what’s good and bad about it, but Keen makes it all bad with sloppy generalities and blanket insults — like the very worst blog. It’s simply not a good book or a compelling argument.

Do we give this attention? Do we play wack-a-mole with these tiresome arguments? Or do we just ignore it with the sure knowledge that it will go away in an act of self-extinction?

It’s obvious to me that he should, so I told him this:

Of course you should debate Keen.

After a turn at balanced assessment of the influence of amateur writing on the Internet circa 2002-4, you’ve recently gone whole-hog in the cheerleading camp for all things amateur. You wrote one of the best analyses of the toxic effect that bloggers had on the Howard Dean campaign, one in which you acknowledged the echo-chamber effect that cut Dean off from the mainstream and any hope of winning the nomination. Somehow you managed to satisfy yourself that the problems you saw in 2004 have gone away, or never mattered much to begin with.

So your angle should be “I once thought the way Keen does, but now I don’t, and here’s why.” If you arrived at your current position through a process of reflection, it should be very easy to wipe the floor with Keen and expose him as the real amateur. That will kill his book sales and establish the legitimacy of your new vision.

The fact that Keen is your opponent and not any of a half-dozen other people who’ve written about the negative trajectory of the Internet shouldn’t bother you, as any old prop will do.

You once said that Kool-Aid drinking conferences such as O’Reilly’s Emerging Technologies would do well to invite critics and curmudgeons. You can make them part of the debate by engaging Keen.

Don’t wimp out, stand up for what you believe.

Back in the Golden Age of Blogging, 2002, I was very enthusiastic about the potential of blogging and the Internet generally to improve the quality of civic discourse and such, because I believed it was a way to bring experts into discussions that had heretofore been handled by the iterate generalists who practice journalism. Instead of dealing with complex issues in terms of vague analogies, expert bloggers would be able to explain deep technical issues in ways that intelligent people could grasp them. This hasn’t panned out for two reasons:

1) Experts often lack perspective on the issues surrounding the areas of the expertise. When the phony Dan Rather memos emerged, typography experts quickly exposed them as fakes, which they were, but that ended the story on favors that Bush received in his National Guard service. So the big story was sacrificed to the small story.

2) The most influential bloggers aren’t experts in any particular subject matter, they’re simply skilled at self-promotion and pandering: the Daily Kos and MyDD, for example, hyped the bogus “net neutrality” issue to drive up their traffic and increase their influence with the public. It’s a nonsense issue, as the regulations that side propose are the only real harm the Internet faces in the immediate future.

So not only has “citizen journalism” and its relative “peer production” failed to bring informed opinion out of the woodwork, they’ve damage the quality of civic debate. Those who continue to bang that drum uncritically have a lot of ‘splaining to do, and shirking debate isn’t the way to go about their business.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *