What Andrew Keen does not understand

Via a local newspaper last Friday I was introduced to the reactionary thought of Andrew Keen (a self-proclaimed “leading contemporary critic of the Internet”) who is doing a book tour through Europe to launch his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur in which – among other things – he states that “real” writers do not blog. A conspirator of thought of Keen, Marshall Poe, states that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, but a repository of common knowledge.”

Both Andrew Keen and Marshall Poe completely miss the point of blogging, Wikipedia and the nature of the internet in general. Even more, it’s not just that they don’t understand. The fact is is that they are fundamentally and ethically wrong.

1) A. Keen and M. Poe underestimate the importance of information access in the third and fourth worlds (and poor people everywhere) to a repository of books, encyclopedias and common knowledge:

Extremely knowledgeable people are paraphrasing information from a canonical list of books into Wikipedia, towards a new and yet unseen educational perennialism . People in such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso now have access to verifiable info and would not have it, if it were not for Wikipedia.

2) A. Keen and M. Poe underestimate the importance of common knowledge.

Common knowledge is good. We need common ground when discussing subjects. An encyclopedia=common knowledge copied from books (or from expert’s own minds). When Marshall Poe states that “Wikipedia is … not an encyclopedia, but a repository of common knowledge,” he forgets that people such as David Hume before him stated that “nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach on the province of grammarians, and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine they are handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern.”

3) A. Keen and M. Poe fail to see what makes Wikipedia an interesting place for people who do have access to physical libraries:

For those of us who live in the First World, who do have access to the physical books, Wikipedia discloses info on the nature of knowledge and the social construction of knowledge via such features as the “what links here” and “disambiguation” pages.

I do not feel that strongly about points 2 and 3, which is intellectual nitpicking which makes no difference to the stomachs of people in the world, but point one, information access in the third and fourth worlds, is something I feel very strongly about and leads me to conclude that Keen and Poe do not have their hearts in the right places.

4 thoughts on “What Andrew Keen does not understand

  1. lichanos

    As an old-style linear thinker deeply attached to the feel and smell of printed pages, I feel a tug of affinity for critics like Keen and Poe, however, in the end, I think you are right – they are basically wrong.

    It seems to me that their views would apply to pre-Net print culture as well, i.e., there is a lot wrong with it…so should we get rid of all of it? After all, people read tabloids and swallow all sorts of absurd ideas. I think a lot of what gets people like them going is that they can’t deal with the transition going on now. Yes, a lot of people don’t seem to know how to use the Net critically – they don’t have a good sense of the value of the editor, experts, etc. etc. but they are learning fast. The novelty is waring off and educators are starting to take it all seriously as something that must be dealt with. A new generation is growing up in school with these common resources, and the more intellectually ambitious ones – as is always the case – are appreciating what’s what with the various information sources available to them.

    And though the Net is not a panacea, does not bring wealth and prosperity wherever it trails its wake, surely it’s better for people in small settlements all over the world to have access to it than not. It’s obvious, no?

  2. Ned Baker

    This reminds me of Jeff Jarvis’s ongoing recent comments regarding the future of journalism at his blog, which I’ve enjoyed reading. It’s foolish to view the electronic and print worlds as an either-or proposition. However, I haven’t read Keen or Poe so I can’t say I’m familiar with the specifics of their arguments. I just subscribed to Keen’s blog and requested Cult from my library. So I’m confused: does that make Keen a “real” writer?

    As far as Wikipedia’s reliability, well, this has been discussed to death. I’ll just say that I suspect the most vehement critics have an outsized trust in the printed word.

  3. jahsonic


    I’m glad we agree 100% on this one. I went from a techno-utopian to a sometime techno-pessimist, but I am still a firm believer in free content. So I agree: obvious.


    I’m not familiar with their Keen and Poe’s arguments either beyond what I read in the article, and welcome their writing as a counterpoise to Lawrence Lessig’s work on the commons.

    Also, your point about a “real” writer, what is a real writer these days. And what is the difference between a “published” writer and “unpublished” writer?


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