Thoughts on Andrew Keen, Part 2: The Dangers of the Stasis Mentality

by on October 18, 2007 · 6 comments

In a previous essay, I critiqued Andrew Keen’s thesis that our culture was better off in the age of scarcity than it is in today’s world of media and cultural abundance. In this essay, I want to make a few comments about his latest anti-Web 2.0 rant regarding how, in addition to destroying art and culture, the age of abundance and “amateur” content creation is going to result in the death of advertising.

In an AdWeek guest editorial this week, Keen argues that:

Web 2.0 is, in truth, the very worst piece of news for the advertising industry since the birth of mass media. In the short term, the Web 2.0 hysteria marks the end of the golden age of advertising; in the long term, it might even mark the end of advertising itself.


[F]or the advertiser, media content is indeed losing its value, a value historically derived from its scarcity. This devaluation of media isn’t hard to quantify: It can be measured everywhere, in falling CPM and the failure of social networks to develop viable business models. No new technology—neither the false dawn of mobile, nor the holy grail of personalized, targeted advertising—is going to save the advertising business now. No, the truth is that advertising can only be saved if we can re-create media scarcity. That means less user-generated content and more professionally created information and entertainment, less technology and more creativity. The advertising community desperately needs more gatekeepers, more professional creative authorities, more so-called media “elites” who will curate, filter and organize content. That’s the way to re-establish the value of the message. It’s the one commercial antidote to Web 2.0’s radically destructive cultural democracy.

Oh my, where to begin…

Well, Keen is right about one thing (and only one thing) here: The end of the age of scarcity is certainly shaking up the advertising world. Bob Garfield of Ad Age wrote an interesting set of articles on this issue recently under the title “Chaos Scenario.” (Part 1 and Part 2.) When Bob called me for a comment for Part 2 of that series, here’s what I told him:

“It’s a very different kind of world. The problem is, the expectations are there to capture that mass audience that long ago disappeared. We are witnessing the gradual death of the business models that thrived in that age of scarcity.”

So, in a sense, I agree with Keen that the death of scarcity will challenge traditional advertising arrangements and media business models. Unlike Keen, however, I am not Chicken Little-ish in my outlook of things and I certainly do not believe that the end of scarcity “might even mark the end of advertising itself.” Just because media and advertising are changing doesn’t mean they are dying. They are just evolving. As John Gartner of the Marketing Shift blog notes, “Advertising won’t die. But it will never be the same.”

Indeed, there are some incredibly innovative advertising strategies being developed today in response to the changing nature of media development, distribution, and consumption. For example, I knew the world had changed in a major way when a friend sent me the link to the latest Geico ad that had been posted on YouTube and I spent the next twenty minutes watching a whole batch of new and old Geico ads. [I don’t know who developed those ads, but they deserve a raise! Brilliant stuff.] But I’ve also found myself watching ads in other strange places lately. The Microsoft XBox 360 Marketplace, for example, has many ads and promo clips that I find myself viewing regularly. And yes, I’ve even clicked on a few ads I’ve found on my mobile phone.

But Keen doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge that such innovative changes are occurring or that they might be a perfectly healthy evolution of the marketplace. Instead, he makes the preposterous argument that “advertising can only be saved if we can re-create media scarcity” and that “The advertising community desperately needs more gatekeepers, more professional creative authorities, more so-called media “elites” who will curate, filter and organize content. That’s the way to re-establish the value of the message. It’s the one commercial antidote to Web 2.0’s radically destructive cultural democracy.”

There are times when I am reading Keen’s book and articles like this and I find myself wondering: Does he really believe this stuff, or is he just a savvy idea marketer who understands that the best way to sell books its to be more over-the-top than the last guy?

Sadly, Keen seems to be a true believer in the Coming Cultural End Times and the collapse of all things once sacred (at least that which he holds sacred). As I pointed out in my previous essay about Keen, his view of the world is unapologetically techno-conservative and culturally elitist. Indeed, he is the living embodiment of what Virgina Postrel calls “the stasis mentality.”

Keen’s work really got me thinking about Virginia Postrel’s wonderful book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, which is now almost ten years old. In her book, Postrel paints a brilliant picture of how many debates about technology and progress will unfold in the future. She contrasts stasis thinking with dynamism, and her work is worth quoting extensively here because it perfectly unlocks the mystery behind Keen’s thinking:

How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that “we’re scared of the future” and join Adams in decrying technology as “a killing thing”? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

Indeed it does, and that is the divide that now exists between Andrew Keen and most of the rest of us who have fully embraced (or at least learned to cope with) the sweeping changes brought about by the rise of the Internet, user-generated content, and “amateur” culture in general. No doubt, as Keen suggests, disintermediation has been a destabilizing force. The death of scarcity and the rise of abundance have shaken up the old order. But it is not all for the worse. While the creative destruction of the capitalist marketplace is always difficult, in the long run, it typically brings about better business models and modes of thinking.

But Keen wants to wind back the clock and “re-create scarcity” to save traditional business models. How would that even work? He never seems to get around to providing clear answers to that question, and for good reason: It would likely be incredibly intrusive and destructive. Virginia Postrel perfectly identified the logical implications of the stasis mentality that Keen represents when she wrote:

Stasist social criticism… brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise. This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short-circuit feedback, and trammel progress.

And therein lies the ultimate danger of the stasis mindset that Keen embodies: It isn’t just silly, it’s downright destructive and a significant threat to our liberties.

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