The ‘culture’ he refers to, however, is not merely that of ‘Americanism’: the American way of life, or American values. Rather, he specifically means the culture of professional opinion makers and commentators, which was nurtured in the past through the newspaper and television media, paid for by consumers and advertisers.
It is this, in particular, which Keen believes is now being overthrown by the person who posts their opinions on their own blog, or who posts on the professional blogs, as if their amateur contributions were of equal value to those of the professional. This, Keen argues, is being exacerbated by the provision of sites like YouTube which makes the contributor into the news story, or Wikipedia which makes the opinionated into the expert.
Keen’s second major thrust is quite simply against internet theft — specifically the mass sharing of music and video files — which he argues is threatening the music and film industries by draining them of income.
With all this, he is also concerned about the intrusion of the internet into people’s personal lives, and the vulnerability of the wealth of personal data it contains.
Finally, he expresses an old-fashioned parental concern about the amount of pornography and sexualised content accessible to children and young people.
What depressed me about Keen’s book is the realization that in many respects he is right. Perhaps he is too dismissive of Wikipedia, the online-encyclopaedia which can be edited by anyone who wishes to contribute. Personally, I use it quite a lot, though I must say I trust it only for simple facts like dates, definitions and so on. I would certainly not use it, as some students apparently have been doing, as an authoritative, ‘stand alone’ source.
However, Keen is certainly right about the theft of intellectual property and, most importantly from my own viewpoint, he is right about the whole cult of the amateur. As Keen observes, the internet plays into the hands of the contemporary view that ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’, and allows them to express it on a variety of subjects without the influence of the restraints which act on traditional communications media.
The internet commentator does not have to establish a reputation for truth and accuracy in order to earn a living before they express their views. They do not have to demonstrate professional competence in the subjects on which they wish to hold forth. Nor, in most cases, are they subject to the laws of libel which impact on newspapers and television.
In the last few days I have noticed this particularly over the situation regarding Richard Wood’s non-ordination. On three well-known websites, Ship of Fools, Fulcrum and Thinking Anglicans, I have seen all sorts of opinions expressed about what Richard thinks, what he was trying to achieve, how and when he arrived at his decision, the involvement of others, and even, most ridiculously, opinions about what will be the likely next moves.
Not infrequently, conjecture by one contributor has been treated as fact by another, in an internet version of ‘Chinese Whispers’. Thus, on Ship of Fools, the statement that Richard “thinks the bishop should have been excommunicated by the Church” (which is simply untrue) is greeted with the response by another contributor, “What a knob”, which is certainly un-Christian.
The result is to create a culture where, as the title of the Guardian’s op-ed website puts it, “Comment is free.” Yet the footnote to that site completes the quote from C P Scott, “But facts are sacred.” And in a culture where comment is not only free but easy, the need to establish the facts is being widely ignored.
As Keen warns, the internet is thus fast becoming a place where, if people so wish, two plus two equals five. Why should it not, if that is their opinion, to which they are entitled? The answer is, because you cannot build bricks without straw, and you cannot build an intellectual culture without intellectual content, which should follow well-established rules.
Most of us, it must be admitted, know next-to-nothing about anything. Perhaps if we thought about this before we next blogged or posted a comment, the world would be a better place.
Revd John P Richardson
19 July 2007