Pick Your Cult Wisely

IconImageOverall, I can’t say I agree with the idea of the “Cult of the Amateur” by Andrew Keen, a book with the humble subtitle “How Internet Is Killing Our culture.”  I don’t think the internet is killing our culture (we were doing fine on our own).  I don’t feel a read-write culture is necessarily bad, though he does.  I’m not worried over remixes. He did cleverly hit on the idea that some undermining of jobs could have vast economic impact.  But in the end, his concern that amateurs of one stripe or another are unfairly lionized and squeeze out/exploit/ignore “real” talent was an important point, but also one he missed at the same time.

So I think he’s right and wrong. Let me clarify.

The Cult of the Amateur (a phrase I do like even if I disagree with Ken) has been with us a lot and is with us today, Internet aside.  It’s risen again and again in America, often as a kind of anti-Intellectualism.  It’s the idea that, someone with inexperience may be more valuable than someone regarded as an appropriate authority.  It doesn’t take much to find it, from politicians who claim they’re outsiders to “from nowhere” stories of authors and actors.  We kind of like the idea of the Amateur Rising, whose sheer purity and lack of knowledge somehow elevates them.

It’s always been with us.  The internet just kind of catalyzed it and let it make cat videos.

What Keen seem to long for, and many of us do (even if we don’t admit it) is to see proper Authority recognized.  We want people who know what they’re doing.  We want people who have authority to do what they do.  We want to know the people doing important things are the right people. We want the anointed to be there.

The problem is that Authority is also abusable and doesn’t necessarily mean competence.  It doesn’t take much effort to look at some pundits and journalists who are clearly out of touch, churning out the same columns.  It’s in academia that’s inbred idea-wise.  It’s “authorities” in the corporate world who crash economies despite being supposedly so Authoritative.

The Cult of the Authority is, in a way, as damaging as the Cult of the Amateur.  I’ll go as far as to say they also create and support each other.  How many people who came from nowhere as Amateurs become Authorities (just as many “reforimist” politicians end up loving political pork they were supposedly going to fight)?  The Amateur and the Authority fight with each other, and blend into each other at the same time.

For those of us navigating the career world, the creative world, and the real world, this is kind of a pain.  On one end we’ve got people who think their half-baked novel is the next Shakespeare, and on the other moribund game companies who are really sure that we need Call Of Brothers In Arms II: Brother Harder, the rise of Mecha-Hitler.  I could even go into politics, but it’d just depress you.

What we really need, to be slightly sarcastic, is more emphasis on a Cult of the Expert.

We need to emphasise, respect, seek, promote, and become people whose skills are validated (and not just because they got a big advance on their next cookie cutter novel or another adjective in their title).  The Cult of the Expert as it were is about looking for people who proved they can do something.  Not anoited from On High by out-of-touch Authorities.  Not rising from obscurity declaring themselves so special because they’re an Amateur.  Experts are people who put their money where their mouth is and get the results they say they’ll get (without us messing with their results).

So when you pick role models – and you have and will – look for Experts.  Real experts.  People to respect for succeeding by really doing something, not riding a wave or being anointed by someone equally clueless. People who are proven.

Be an expert.  Just like in school, show your work, so you can get the job, teach the class, help others.  Show results.  You’ll be an important role model to others.

Push for expertise.  In hiring, hire people with real certifications.  Get training for your employees.  Help people find classes.  Show your friends and colleagues how to get results and make people aware of them.

We don’t need to worship Amateurs for being Amateurs, or the Authorities for just being declared Authorities.  We need to seek and become Experts.

And as a final note, don’t be too harsh on those who fell into the Cult of the Amateur or the Cult of the Authority.  It happens.  It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to you.  We can just work to get out of that trap.

– Steven Savage