Monkey See, Monkey Do

Throwing Poo at Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur

Three Wise Monkeys, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceThe world needs a stirrer, someone willing to dislodge existing patterns of thought. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. They all worked carefully against the orthodoxies of their times. Andrew Keen tries to ape that sort of iconoclasm in his Cult of the Amateur, but just makes a monkey of himself.

Or does he? Monkeys are far more clever than he seems to think.

First, let’s consider what Keen has to say. He takes issue with Web 2.0, the participatory culture of social networking sites like Facebook, the carnivale of YouTube, the black economy of file sharing and the gabble of blogs. He argues that amateurs are ruining the Internet by dumbing it down, like the infinite monkeys who might – given enough time and typewriters – tap out a masterpiece. In the meantime they’ll just type rubbish and abuse copyright, encouraged by a cabal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, particularly Tim O’Reilly.

Guard Statue, by Jennoit, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, Keen claims, is hard times for the newspaper and music industries, clearly without any understanding of the creative destruction that helps industries grow through innovation. He also frets at the loss of control by “gatekeepers” – editors, journalists, authors and the like, those traditional arbiters of information content. Or you might think of them as bereft zoo keepers now that the monkeys have escaped the enclosure.

Keen initially reserves his monkey comment for bloggers, who he thinks never read – at least books like his to go by comments reported in the Guardian. So I imagine empty shelves around me and – behold! – I feel a tail growing. I want to take Keen on his word, and see how a monkey could suggest that today’s Internet is actually improving the world.

Now where’s my banana.

But it turns out the monkey scenario might not be that good. It’s supposed to be a theory of probability, not a poor analogy. In any case, I check Wikipedia, where “anyone with opposable thumbs and a fifth-grade education can publish anything”. It notes that Thomas Huxley couldn’t have devised the infinite monkey theorem as Keen suggests, because he’d probably never seen a typewriter at the time. Dave Darling’s Internet Encyclopaedia of Science suggests that Huxley’s grandson Julian, a one-time Director-General of UNESCO, is the more likely culprit, with a much reduced number of monkeys.

According to the Galton Institute, Huxley the younger was also President of the Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962, so his remark – if he actually made it – might well have carried the type of supremacist overtones I discussed in my post yesterday.

Not much certainly and a little controversy; bad choice of analogy, don’t you think?

Mnemonic MonKey Pirate, by Ape Lad, with Creative Commons licenceAnd as American psychologists reported in 2003, monkeys have the same sort of learning mechanisms as humans, with a similar ability to bring order to new information. An overwrought, chaotic Internet monkey-house suddenly seems less likely than Keen would have it.

The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has also found that human language is an extended form of primate grooming, which brings individuals together in large groups and allows them to make extended ‘personal’ contact. Blogs and social networking sites in this schema might be e-grooming par excellence, quite possibly overcoming the neurological difficulties with large groups that Dunbar has observed in both monkeys and humans.

So the Internet amplifies our natural ability to communicate, and given that us e-monkeys can easily categorise new data, we’re building a Web 2.0 framework beyond the “never-ending stream of unfiltered, user-generated content” devoid of “gate keepers to filter truth from fiction” that Keen laments.

Another banana please.

Why, then, do we all seem so dumb to Mr Keen? Sure, there’s a lot of crap on the Internet, but monkeys again give us a different sort of clue. Mark Baxter and David Gaffen have reported that contextual shifts can limit learning in rhesus monkeys, just as they can in humans. Maybe Andrew Keen, still bewildered by the failure of his first Internet venture, Audiocafe, hasn’t adapted to the new information framework as much as others have. He’s too worried about manipulative cabals and not what we can learn from cyberspace. His monkeyesque blog certainly seems more defensive than enlightening.

'Consul' The Educated Monkey ... by the Happy Robot, with Creative Commons licence Baxter and Gaffen’s findings offer a bit of a double whammy, really – they’re published in a peer-reviewed academic journal and available for free under a Creative Commons licence. In fact, all of the studies I’ve cited here were published in journals and the results are available for free in one way or another – you just have to follow the links. So much for Keen’s conflation of professional oversight and intellectual property rights. Smart monkeys.

And a final word on professional gatekeepers. When in human form I’m an editor; I run a small department dealing almost exclusively with academic work. I also have a PhD. Am I a gatekeeper? No, I’m just swinging on the fence when no-one’s looking. Gatekeepers might well be an impediment to learning in any case.

Christine Drea and Kim Wallen have found, again through primate research, that uneven social relations can inhibit learning. And what’s more socially determined that a self-appointed elite of gatekeepers avidly defending media “high culture”, as Keen would call it, from the scruffy masses?

There are a good many criticisms of Keen’s position in cyberspace – at least one website is dedicated to just that, and a quick Google search will dredge up many more dissenters, with only the occasional supporter or two. So the book sales must be driven by curiousMonkey, by Thomas Hawk, with Creative Commons licence bloggers like me, a whole horde of people who aren’t prepared to communicate on the Web, or over-ordering, with the remainder bin beckoning.

But what do I know? I’m just a curious monkey in a puzzling world.

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2 Responses to Monkey See, Monkey Do

  1. kim sbarcea says:

    Hi Mike
    Good post! I read this ridiculous book a few months. I had a draft blog post ready to go but the cautious lawyer part of me thought against publishing it due to possible defamation action! I really think that Keen totally misses the point of Web 2.0. However, with amusement, we must note he has a blog (clearly joining the troop of monkeys). You have now saved me from any possible defamation action as I was thinking of publishing my post. But you’ve said it far more eloquently for me!

    cheers
    Kim

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Hi Kim, I actually felt pretty much the same as you at first and delayed posting a while. The book clearly has an aura of aggression about it, so I thought it best to meet it at least partly on its own terms. And I just couldn’t get the idea of clever monkeys out of my head. Metaphors have such jagged edges sometimes.

    Still, now I’m wondering what the sequel will be. I’m positive that there’ll be a sequel – Mr Keen doesn’t seem the retiring type.

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