Andrew Keen sounds the alarm: the Internet is being used to spread false information, cheat artists and authors, steal our identities, destroy our reputations, violate our privacy, and lower our standards. He’s right about all of that. As a society, we need more discussion of the Internet’s corrupting influence, and we need to update some laws to reflect the new online reality.
However, Keen is wrong about two crucial points, and it detracts from the value of an otherwise impassioned and clearly-written book.
Web 2.0 is the Internet after the bubble. It’s a brave new world in which everyone is always connected, everyone has access to the world’s information, and everyone gets to participate. And it’s what Keen calls “The great seduction,” because it’s debasing our culture.
Keen is right that our children spend too much time online. He’s right that the Internet is teeming with false information. He’s right that it’s wrong to illegally redistribute digital music just because it’s easy to do. And he’s right that people we meet on the Internet often are not who they pretend to be.
To hear Keen tell it, however, the Old Media offers all of the virtues that Web 2.0 lacks: trained journalists, qualified experts, fact-checking, a clear line between reporting and editorializing, and ethical standards with teeth. For example, Keen points to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Robert Fisk of the Independent in the UK as bona fide experts on the Middle East. Reasonable people might disagree about whether Friedman is as knowledgeable as he is opinionated. But Robert Fisk is well known for his bias against Israel and his belief that journalists should advocate rather than just report the news.
Ironically, Keen uses the example of doctored photos submitted by Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj during the last war between Israel and Lebanon. Keen wants us to remember that Hajj was fired for violating Reuters’ ethical standards. He seems oblivious to the fact that Internet-based citizen-journalists (such as Charles Johnson) have discovered and exposed a series of faux photos, memos, and stories that got past the Old Media’s vaunted gatekeepers.
To wit, the circulation of major daily newspapers is dropping like a rock not just because the Internet is timelier and less expensive, but because consumers are tired of shoddy reporting and editorializing that starts on Page One.
There is one other thing missing from Keen’s analysis: caveat emptor. Sure, there are people selling bad stuff on the Internet, just as there have always been swindlers. We will never enjoy total protection against fraud and deception—unless we are willing to start giving away our freedoms. Personal responsibility has to be factored into the equation.
Keen is right about the dangers of Web 2.0. Instead of trying to revive the Old Media or regulate ourselves to death, however, we need to push for higher standards and update laws where necessary.