The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

Overview

Our most valued cultural institutions, Silicon Valley insider and pundit Andrew Keen warns, are being overtaken by an avalanche of amateur, user-generated free content. Newspaper revenues are being siphoned off thanks to free classified ads on sites like Craigslist; television networks are under attack from user-generated programming on YouTube; file-sharing and digital piracy have devastated the music business and threaten to undermine our movie industry. Worse, our "cut-and-paste" online culture robs artists, ...
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Overview

Our most valued cultural institutions, Silicon Valley insider and pundit Andrew Keen warns, are being overtaken by an avalanche of amateur, user-generated free content. Newspaper revenues are being siphoned off thanks to free classified ads on sites like Craigslist; television networks are under attack from user-generated programming on YouTube; file-sharing and digital piracy have devastated the music business and threaten to undermine our movie industry. Worse, our "cut-and-paste" online culture robs artists, authors, journalists, musicians, editors, and producers of the fruits of their creative labors. And in today's self-broadcasting culture, where the distinction between trained expert and uninformed amateur becomes dangerously blurred, truth becomes a commodity to be bought, sold, packaged, and reinvented. In a hard-hitting and provocative polemic that offers concrete solutions on how we can rein in the freewheeling, narcissistic atmosphere that pervades the Web, The Cult of the Amateur is a wake-up call to each and every one of us.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
On his blog, Andrew Keen described The Cult of the Amateur as a short, sharp murder story in which all of us are the victims. A longtime Silicon Valley insider and participant, he grew disillusioned with the Internet renaissance that he had once touted. "What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering," he writes, "is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment." In The Cult of the Amateur, he describes how digital Darwinism is decimating the ranks of cultural gatekeepers, journalists, editors, creators, and other specialists and replacing them with the loudest and the most opinionated bloggers. In addition to its impassioned critique of phenomena such as MySpace, YouTube, and Wikipedia, Keen's book contains important insights about business, political, and social trends.
Publishers Weekly

Keen's relentless "polemic" is on target about how a sea of amateur content threatens to swamp the most vital information and how blogs often reinforce one's own views rather than expand horizons. But his jeremiad about the death of "our cultural standards and moral values" heads swiftly downhill. Keen became somewhat notorious for a 2006 Weekly Standard essay equating Web 2.0 with Marxism; like Karl Marx, he offers a convincing overall critique but runs into trouble with the details. Readers will nod in recognition at Keen's general arguments-sure, the Web is full of "user-generated nonsense"!-but many will frown at his specific examples, which pretty uniformly miss the point. It's simply not a given, as Keen assumes, that Britannica is superior to Wikipedia, or that record-store clerks offer sounder advice than online friends with similar musical tastes, or that YouTube contains only "one or two blogs or songs or videos with real value." And Keen's fears that genuine talent will go unnourished are overstated: writers penned novels before there were publishers and copyright law; bands recorded songs before they had major-label deals. In its last third, the book runs off the rails completely, blaming Web 2.0 for online poker, child pornography, identity theft and betraying "Judeo-Christian ethics." (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Keen (founder, CEO, Audiocafe.com), a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and accomplished technology writer, has produced an extensive history and critique of the evolution of today's Internet, often called Web 2.0, a new term to acknowledge the Internet's new social uses. He looks at wikis, folksonomies, innovations to facilitate open communication (e.g., blogs), media-sharing sites like YouTube, and such social networking sites as MySpace and FaceBook. Keen does not envision great benefits from these new uses. He asserts that the web is being overrun by amateurs, who are destroying the roles of experts. He also fears the demise of longstanding media and advertising conglomerates, the devastation of the intellectual property rights system, and increasing inability to find quality and trustworthy information online. In the end, argues Keen, user-generated free content is "assaulting our economy, our culture, and our values." Keen takes hard-line stances and repeats points again and again rather than letting readers draw their own conclusions. Nevertheless, this book brings to light controversial Web 2.0 issues and is ultimately a thought-provoking read that should be considered by public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/07.]
—Caroline Geck

Library Journal
Blogs, wikis, YouTube: they're all free, but can you really trust their content? A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur worries about the debasement of knowledge. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Michiko Kakutani
Provocative ... a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the “wisdom of the crowd.” ... [Keen] writes with acuity and passion about the consequences of a world in which the lines between fact and opinion, informed expertise and amateurish speculation are willfully blurred.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
“A powerful, provocative, and beautifully written stop-and-breathe book in the midst of the greatest paradigm shift in information and communications history.”
—Christopher M. Schroeder, CEO, HealthCentral Network (healthcentral.com), and former CEO and publisher, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

“Page after page of really interesting insight and research. I look forward to the much-needed debate about the problems that Keen articulates—which can’t be lightly dismissed.”
—Larry Sanger, cofounder, Wikipedia and founder, Citizendium

“Thoroughly engaging, brightly written pages”
Chicago Tribune

“Andrew Keen is a brilliant, witty, classically educated technoscold—and thank goodness. The world needs an intellectual Goliath to slay Web 2.0’s army of Davids.”
—Jonathan Last, online editor, Weekly Standard

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385520805
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/5/2007
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.55 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

ANDREW KEEN is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose writings on culture, media, and technology have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Fast Company, The San Francisco Chronicle, Listener, and Jazziz. As the Founder, President and CEO of Audiocafe.com, he has been featured in Esquire, Industry Standard, and many other magazines and newspapers. He is the host of the acclaimed Internet show AfterTV and frequently appears on radio and television. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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Read an Excerpt

1

The Great Seduction

First a confession. Back in the Nineties, I was a pioneer in the first Internet gold rush. With the dream of making the world a more musical place, I founded Audiocafe.com, one of the earliest digital music sites. Once, when asked by a San Francisco Bay area newspaper reporter how I wanted to change the world, I replied, half seriously, that my fantasy was to have music playing from “every orifice,” to hear the whole Bob Dylan oeuvre from my laptop computer, to be able to download Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from my cellular phone.

So yes, I peddled the original Internet dream. I seduced investors and I almost became rich. This, therefore, is no ordinary critique of Silicon Valley. It’s the work of an apostate, an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool–Aid and resigned his membership in the cult.

My metamorphosis from believer into skeptic lacks cinematic drama. I didn’t break down while reading an incorrect Wikipedia entry about T. H. Huxley or get struck by lightning while doing a search for myself on Google. My epiphany didn’t involve a dancing coyote, so it probably wouldn’t be a hit on YouTube.

It took place over forty–eight hours, in September 2004, on a two–day camping trip with a couple of hundred Silicon Valley utopians. Sleeping bag under my arm, rucksack on my back, I marched into camp a member of the cult; two days later, feeling queasy, I left an unbeliever.

The camping trip took place in Sebastopol, a small farming town in northern California’s Sonoma Valley, about fifty miles north of the infamous Silicon Valley—the narrow peninsula of land between San Francisco and San Jose. Sebastopol is the headquarters of O’Reilly Media, one of the world’s leading traffickers of books, magazines, and trade shows about information technology, an evangelizer of innovation to a worldwide congregation of technophiles. It is both Silicon Valley’s most fervent preacher and its noisiest chorus.

Each Fall, O’Reilly Media hosts an exclusive, invitation–only event called FOO (Friends of O’Reilly) Camp. These friends of multi–millionaire founder Tim O’Reilly are not only unconventionally rich and richly unconventional but also harbor a messianic faith in the economic the cult of the amateur and cultural benefits of technology. O’Reilly and his Silicon Valley acolytes are a mix of graying hippies, new media entrepreneurs, and technology geeks. What unites them is a shared hostility toward traditional media and entertainment. Part Woodstock, part Burning Man (the contemporary festival of self-expression held in a desert in Nevada), and part Stanford Business School retreat, FOO Camp is where the countercultural Sixties meets the free–market Eighties meets the technophile Nineties.

Silicon Valley conferences weren’t new to me. I had even organized one myself at the tail end of the last Internet boom. But FOO Camp was radically different. Its only rule was an unrule: “no spectators, only participants.” The camp was run on open-source, Wikipediastyle participatory principles—which meant that everyone talked a lot, and there was no one in charge.

So there we were, two hundred of us, Silicon Valley’s antiestablishment establishment, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, gazing at the stars from the lawn of O’Reilly Media’s corporate headquarters. For two full days, we camped together, roasted marshmallows together, and celebrated the revival of our cult together.

The Internet was back! And unlike the Gold Rush Nineties, this time around our exuberance wasn’t irrational. This shiny new version of the Internet, what Tim O’Reilly called Web 2.0, really was going to change everything. Now that most Americans had broadband access to the Internet, the dream of a fully networked, always-connected society was finally going to be realized. There was one word on every FOO Camper’s lips in September 2004. That word was “democratization.”

I never realized democracy has so many possibilities, so much revolutionary potential. Media, information, knowledge, content, audience, author–all were going to be democratized by Web 2.0. The Internet would democratize Big Media, Big Business, Big Government. It would even democratize Big Experts, transforming them into what one friend of O’Reilly called, in a hushed, reverent tone, “noble amateurs.”

Although Sebastopol was miles from the ocean, by the second morning of camp, I had begun to feel seasick. At first I thought it was the greasy camp food or perhaps the hot northern California weather. But I soon realized that even my gut was reacting to the emptiness at the heart of our conversation.

I had come to FOO Camp to imagine the future of media. I wanted to know how the Internet could help me “bring more music to more orifices.” But my dream of making the world a more musical place had fallen on deaf ears; the promise of using technology to bring more culture to the masses had been drowned out by FOO Campers’ collective cry for a democratized media.

The new Internet was about self-made music, not Bob Dylan or the Brandenburg Concertos. Audience and author had become one, and we were transforming culture into cacophony.

FOO Camp, I realized, was a sneak preview. We weren’t there just to talk about new media; we were the new media. The event was a beta version of the Web 2.0 revolution, where Wikipedia met MySpace met YouTube. Everyone was simultaneously broadcasting themselves, but nobody was listening. Out of this anarchy, it suddenly became clear that what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated. Under these rules, the only way to intellectually prevail is by infinite filibustering.

The more that was said that weekend, the less I wanted to express myself. As the din of narcissism swelled, I became increasingly silent. And thus began my rebellion against Silicon Valley. Instead of adding to the noise, I broke the one law of FOO Camp 2004. I stopped participating and sat back and watched.

I haven’t stopped watching since. I’ve spent the last two years observing the Web 2.0 revolution, and I’m dismayed by what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen the infinite monkeys, of course, typing away.

And I’ve seen many other strange sights as well, including a video of marching penguins selling a lie, a supposedly infinite Long Tail, and dogs chatting to each other online. But what I’ve been watching is more like Hitchcock’s The Birds than Doctor Doolittle: a horror movie about the consequences of the digital revolution.

Because democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. As I noted earlier, it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions.

I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people–more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.

We—those of us who want to know more about the world, those of us who are the consumers of mainstream culture—are being seduced by the empty promise of the “democratized” media. For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth.

Truth, to paraphrase Tom Friedman, is being “flattened,” as we create an on–demand, personalized version that reflects our own individual myopia. One person’s truth becomes as “true” as anyone else’s. Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile. To quote Richard Edelman, the founder, president, and CEO of Edelman PR, the world’s largest privately owned public relations company:

In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself. (1)

This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.

Need proof? Let’s look at that army of perjurious penguins–“Al Gore’s Army of Penguins” to be exact. Featured on YouTube, the film, a crude “self-made” satire of Gore’s pro–environment movie An Inconvenient Truth, belittles the seriousness of Al Gore’s message by depicting a penguin version of Al Gore preaching to other penguins about global warning.

But “Al Gore’s Army of Penguins” is not just another homemade example of YouTube inanity. Though many of the 120,000 people who viewed this video undoubtedly assumed it was the work of some SUV–driving amateur with an aversion to recycling, in reality, the Wall Street Journal traced the real authorship of this neocon satire to DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C., public relationships and lobbying firm whose clients include Exxon-Mobil.2 The video is nothing more than political spin, enabled and perpetuated by the anonymity of Web 2.0, masquerading as independent art. In short, it is a big lie.

Blogs too, can be vehicles for veiled corporate propaganda and deception. In March 2006, the New York Times reported about a blogger whose laudatory postings about Wal–Mart were “identical” to press releases written by a senior account supervisor at the Arkansas retailer’s PR company. (3) Perhaps this is the same team behind the mysterious elimination of unflattering remarks about Wal–Mart’s treatment of its employees on the retailer’s Wikipedia entry.

Blogs are increasingly becoming the battlefield on which public relations spin doctors are waging their propaganda war. In 2005, before launching a major investment, General Electric executives met with environmental bloggers to woo them over the greenness of a new energy–efficient technology. Meanwhile, multinationals like IBM, Maytag, and General Motors all have blogs that, under an objective guise, peddle their versions of corporate truth to the outside world.

But the anticorporate blogs are equally loose with the truth. In 2005, when the famous and fictitious finger–in–the–chili story broke, every anti–Wendy’s blogger jumped on it as evidence of fast–food malfeasance. The bogus story cost Wendy’s $2.5 million in lost sales as well as job losses and a decline in the price of the company’s stock.

As former British Prime Minister James Callaghan said, “A lie can make its way around the world before the truth has the chance to put its boots on.” That has never been more true than with the speeding, freewheeling, unchecked culture of today’s blogosphere. It doesn’t require the gravitas of a world leader to appreciate the implications of this democratized media. In a flattened, editor–free world where independent videographers,
podcasters, and bloggers can post their amateurish creations at will, and no one is being paid to check their credentials or evaluate their material, media is vulnerable to untrustworthy content of every stripe—whether from duplicitous PR companies, multinational corporations like Wal–Mart and McDonald’s, anonymous bloggers, or sexual predators with sophisticated invented identities.

Who is to say, for example, that a Malaysian prostitution ring didn’t sponsor the famous YouTube video of the sexy Malaysian dancer? Or that the Englishwoman in the YouTube video eating the chocolate and marmalade cookie isn’t really being paid by United Biscuits Incorporated?

Who is to say that the glowing review of The Cult of the Amateur on Amazon.com that might have led you to purchase this “brilliantly original” book wasn’t authored by me, posing as an enthusiastic third party?

As I’ll discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, truth and trust are the whipping boys of the Web 2.0 revolution. In a world with fewer and fewer professional editors or reviewers, how are we to know what and whom to believe? Because much of the user–generated content on the Internet is posted anonymously or under a pseudonym, nobody knows who the real author of much of this self-generated content actually is. It could be a monkey. It could be a penguin. It could even be Al Gore.

Look at Wikipedia, the Internet’s largest cathedral of knowledge. Unlike editors at a professional encyclopedia like the Britannica, the identity of the volunteer editors on Wikipedia is unknown. These citizen editors out-edit other citizen editors in defining, redefining, then reredefining truth, sometimes hundreds of times a day. Take, for example, July 5, 2006, the day Enron embezzler Ken Lay died. At 10:06 A.M. that day, the Wikipedia entry about Lay said he died of an “apparent suicide.” Two minutes later, it said that the cause of death was an “apparent heart attack.” Then at 10:11 A.M., Wikipedia reported that the “guilt of ruining so many lives finally led him to his suicide.”4 At 10:12, we were back to the massive coronary causing Lay’s demise. And in February 2007, just minutes after ex-Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith died in Florida, her Wikipedia page was flooded with conflicting, speculative versions of the cause of death. As Marshall Poe observed in the September 2006 issue of the Atlantic:

We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars…But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean…The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability. (5)

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother insisted that two plus two equaled five, transforming a patently incorrect statement into the state–sanctioned, official truth. Today, as I discuss in Chapter 7, there is potentially an even more threatening Big Brother lurking in the shadows: the search engine. We pour our innermost secrets into the all–powerful search engine through the tens of millions of questions we enter daily. Search engines like Google know more about our habits, our interests, our desires than our friends, our loved ones, and our shrink combined. But unlike in Nineteen EightyFour, this Big Brother is very much for real. We have to trust it not to spill our secrets–a trust, as we will see, that has repeatedly been betrayed.

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Table of Contents


Foreword     ix
Introduction     1
The great seduction     11
The noble amateur     35
Truth and lies     64
The day the music died [side a]     97
The day the music died [side b]     114
Moral disorder     141
1984 (version 2.0)     164
Solutions     184
Web 2.0 and politics     206
Notes     215
Acknowledgments     223
Index     227
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 9 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You'll Agree More Than You Disagree

    A fast, absorbing read about the dark side of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. Is the "user-generated" society born by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter actually harming our society? Has expertise become devalued? And what happens when search engines know everything about you?

    I came at this book from the position of agreeing with Keen on expertise, so I enjoyed his central thesis that in the new world of the "amateur expert", we can no longer distinguish between someone whose opinion matters and someone talking out of their posterior. However, Keen adopts a scorched earth policy -- attacking Google, iTunes/Apple, online gambling, and even the old warhorse pornography -- which left this amateur's eyes a little sore from all the rolling.

    Keen is a good writer, and his subject important, so this book is highly recommended. Read it, and then talk about it. Not blog about it like I'm doing -- he wouldn't like that.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Fascinating and Provocative Look at the Web 2.0 World

    Keen's argument is that the web amateurs and the spewing forth of their work in the user-generated world threatens our very culture. (He would perhaps even have a problem with this book critique). Yet, his descriptions of the effects of music piracy and copyright violations make sense. The Web 2.0 world if accepted uncritically can cheapen our culture. Keen's book is littered with data as well as stories that capture the effects of what he terms "the cult of the amateur" where amateurish media publications are raised to the same level as Shakespeare or the Beatles. It's cautionary message was a worthwhile read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2007

    inaccurate and irrelevant

    I watch him make his case for the book online on cnn and I have to say that while the theme is interesting, the argument is as useful as yesterday¿s expired ad. His main reasoning is that people should go back to the good old days where we used to pay 20 dollars a cd to purchase a one song we like, read printed text to save the journalist¿s job, and avoid anything free online because they are evil and worthless. It really sounds like hearing an overbearing and control freak for a father decides to expand his code of conduct at home into a book to enlighten the public mass. If I really want to have someone edit what I read, show me what to see on tv, and tell me where to surf on the internet, I would go to China, Burma, Russia, or any of the totalitarian regimes out there that existed in this world. He lashed out angrily at the anonymity online as this voids the user¿s responsibility and encourages vulgarity. But he fails to consider is that it¿s the anonymity and the lack of user¿s responsibility/ accountability that allows to world to protest over the injustice that occurs in Burma. His reactionist view belong in only one place..at home where he can micromanage his own son. He should leave the rest of the world alone, and let people waste their time as they see fit.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2007

    Overly Alarmist, but Thought Provoking

    It is supremely ironic that I am writing a book review in a medium that the author completely deplores. This book makes an attempt to prove that some portions of the Internet, more specifically, the application of Web 2.0 technologies, is eroding some of our cherished American values. Some examples discussed include the scourge of 'on-line' gambling, 'on-line' pornography, and the decline of the recording and publishing industries. These phenomenon and others are used as proof that as more Internet technologies supply the masses with powers previously reserved to webmasters, the professionalization of the workforce, artistic industries, and the quality knowledge will decline. The book has two weaknesses. First, it dresses up old problems as new problems. For instance, the author points to intellectual property 'IP' theft, which has existed for centuries, through Web 2.0 technologies as responsible for unraveling all incentives for the forces of creativity. While there is little debate that these technologies facilitate and distribute the fruits of this type of theft more quickly, the author fails to draw a comparison to the way IP theft used to be executed. This simple parallel would highlight the degree to which thieves have been able to cause more harm, but the strength of this argument is lost with evidence-light anecdotes. The second weakness is the application of contradictory arguments and arguments of convenience. On more than one occasion the author discusses the importance or benefits of capitalistic market forces and then argues that as Web 2.0 technologies, which broaden and diversify the market, will somehow collapse certain market segments. For example, the author argues that on-line music services are besting the legacy CD distribution-based music industry and this is reducing the recording industry's ability to discover and fund hot talent. The author chooses not to point out that in the traditional music market that it costs a record company about $5 to produce a CD with 15 songs that sells for $10. Today that same CD can now be sold on-line for $.99 a song or $15 for the entire CD and with reduced costs 'such as packaging and shipping'. In summary, the author's perspective prompts the reader to question their beliefs and attitude toward the changing Internet, but the quality of evidence presented needs improvement.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2007

    Good book...if you can trust my review.

    Speaking as an amateur I found this book very interesting. I found myself not always agreeing with the author about the downside of the 'Web 2.0', however, his reasoned arguments and statics do tell a chilling story. It is a very quick read, which is surprising considering all of the topics covered in the book. But as an anonymous review I recommend this book for anyone who thinks our culture is going to heck in a hand basket, hope you can trust me?

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    Posted December 12, 2010

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    Posted January 16, 2010

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    Posted April 30, 2010

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    Posted October 26, 2008

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