A Million Monkeys

Andrew Keen is a bit of a curmudgeon. It’s hard to know how much of his own words he actually believes and how much of it he writes simply because it has become his niche, what people expect of him. But he’s still a lot of fun to read. Here’s a brief excerpt from his book The Cult of the Amateur. While it’s a little bit one-sided in its attack on bloggers and musicians and YouTubers and everyone else who creates content on the web today, I think we can all identify to some extent, with his frustrations. It begins with a conversation he had with a San Francisco software producer who was describing his new product.

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“It’s MySpace meets YouTube meets Wikipedia meets Google,” he said. “On steroids.”

In reply, I explained I was working on a polemic about the destructive impact of the digital revolution on our culture, economy, and values.

“It’s ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule,” I said, unable to resist a smile. “On steroids.”

He smiled uneasily in return. “So it’s Huxley meets the digital age,” he said. “You’re rewriting Huxley for the twenty first century.” He raised his wine glass in my honor. “To Brave New World 2.0!”

We clinked wine glasses. But I knew we were toasting the wrong Huxley. Rather than Aldous, the inspiration behind this book comes from his grandfather, T.H. Huxley, the nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist and author of the “infinite monkey theorem.” Huxley’s theory says that if you provide infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, some monkey somewhere will eventually create a masterpiece–a play by Shakespeare [An editorial addition I can’t resist–“It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times!? You stupid money!”], a Platonic dialogue, or an economics treatise by Adam Smith.

In the pre-Internet age, T.H. Huxley’s scenario of infinite monkeys empowered with infinite technology seemed more like a mathematical jest than a dystopian vision. But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture that is blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. This is no laughing matter.

Today’s technology hooks all those monkeys up to all those typewriters. Except in our Web 2.0 world, the typewriters aren’t quite typewriters, but rather networked personal computers, and the monkeys aren’t quite monkeys, but rather Internet users. And instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys–many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins–are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity. For today’s amateur monkeys can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays and novels.