The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Ageby Astra Taylor
From a cutting-edge cultural commentator, a bold and brilliant challenge to cherished notions of the Internet as the great leveler of our age
The Internet has been hailed as an unprecedented democratizing force, a place where everyone can be heard and all can participate equally. But how true is this claim? In a seminal dismantling of techno-utopian/b>
From a cutting-edge cultural commentator, a bold and brilliant challenge to cherished notions of the Internet as the great leveler of our age
The Internet has been hailed as an unprecedented democratizing force, a place where everyone can be heard and all can participate equally. But how true is this claim? In a seminal dismantling of techno-utopian visions, The People's Platform argues that for all that we "tweet" and "like" and "share," the Internet in fact reflects and amplifies real-world inequities at least as much as it ameliorates them. Online, just as off-line, attention and influence largely accrue to those who already have plenty of both.
What we have seen so far, Astra Taylor says, has been not a revolution but a rearrangement. Although Silicon Valley tycoons have eclipsed Hollywood moguls, a handful of giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook remain the gatekeepers. And the worst habits of the old media modelthe pressure to seek easy celebrity, to be quick and sensational above allhave proliferated on the web, where "aggregating" the work of others is the surest way to attract eyeballs and ad revenue. When culture is "free," creative work has diminishing value and advertising fuels the system. The new order looks suspiciously like the old one.
We can do better, Taylor insists. The online world does offer a unique opportunity, but a democratic culture that supports diverse voices and work of lasting value will not spring up from technology alone. If we want the Internet to truly be a people's platform, we will have to make it so.
With compelling force and manifestlike style, writer and documentary filmmaker Taylor lays out one of the smartest—and most self-evident—arguments about the nature and effect of technology in our digital age. “Technology alone,” she acknowledges, “will not deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it.” Despite the illusion of a level digital playing field, she observes, there are really only a handful of gatekeepers that provide access to information. “Amazon controls one-tenth of all American online commerce,” for example. She acknowledges that while the Internet allows us to witness amazing feats of inventiveness, “real cultural democracy means more than everyone with an Internet connection having the ability to edit entries on Wikipedia or leave indignant comments.” Taylor suggests that we can promulgate a more democratic culture by “supporting creative work not because it is viral but because it is important, focusing on serving needs as well as desires, and making sure marginalized people are given not just a chance to speak but to be heard.” Taylor’s provocative book has the power to help shape discussions about the role of technology in our world. (Apr.)
“Taylor's critique hits hard... The People's Platform should be taken as a challenge by the new media that have long claimed to be improving on the old order.” Tim Wu, The New York Times Book Review
“Essential... In this idealistic-yet rigorous and clear-eyed-argument, Taylor takes on crucial contradictions... She is the Marshall McLuhan or the Neil Postman of our new digital economy, the lonely voice raising urgent questions we need to answer together, or else surrender our choices to Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon.... If The People's Platform doesn't spark the conversation about the kind of democracy and culture we deserve, then we'll deserve the one we get.” NY1 News’ The Book Reader
“Taylor's smart and nuanced overview of the new media landscape is the best I've recently read and an excellent summary of the mess we're in…. After reading Taylor's brisk and lucid survey, there's no denying that in online media, the market is falling short.” The Boston Globe
“Taylor makes a thorough case that the technological advances we've been told constitute progress-that anyone can start a blog, that we can easily keep up with our friends (and frenemies) on Facebook, that Twitter can foment democratic revolution - are actually masking and, in some cases, exacerbating social ills that have long plagued our society... Compelling and well argued.” Los Angeles Times
“Do you use the Internet? Then you have to read Astra Taylor's The People's Platform, one of the most important books of the year…. Taylor is a clear-eyed writer and a provocative thinker, covering the shifting grounds of how the Internet changes and affects today's culture, from journalism to music. It makes you very wary about having a Facebook page.” Flavorwire
“A bracing expression of intelligent outrage-with the manifesto vibe of No Logo and the prescience of Silent Spring. By delivering a streetwise economic analysis of our technological reality, Taylor leaves her reader feeling at once charged and newly aware of being duped.... A smart and needful reminder that we sacrifice our systems of knowledge and communication to corporate interests at our great peril. More importantly, it reminds us that there is no single destiny for us; that we can, and must, engineer more than machines-we must engineer modes of use.” Globe and Mail (Canada)
“In her excellent new book The People's Platform, Astra Taylor thinks through issues of money and power in the age of the Internet with clarity, nuance, and wit. (The book is fun to read, even as it terrifies you about the future of culture and of the economy.).” The Awl
“Meticulously details how work, education, and the public sphere have been eroded.” National Post (Canada)
“We need books like this. Astra Taylor is a talented documentary-maker who was dismayed by the way her work was appropriated and pirated online. But instead of fuming silently in her studio, she set out to seek an understanding of the paradoxical world that the merging of cyberspace and meatspace has produced. What she finds is a world which is, on the one hand, hooked on an evangelical narrative about the liberating, empowering, enlightening, democratising power of information technology while, on the other, being increasingly dominated and controlled by the corporations that have effectively captured the technology.... The People's Platform will be an invaluable primer for anyone seeking to understand why our networked world isn't all that it is cracked up to be.” The Observer (UK)
“A thoughtful corrective about the nature of a medium that has promoted itself as the great equalizer. Taylor delves deep into a world often assumed incomprehensible to anyone but the archetypal techno-geek. She expertly surveys a broad range of research and opinion, and her conclusions will shake the complacency of anyone who thinks that their computer's firewalls will protect personal privacy and keep them free of the hidden corporate hand surreptitiously shaping their search results.” Quill & Quire (Canada)
“A phenomenally important book… The People's Platform isn’t easy to stomachand that’s because it presents plenty of devastating truths….The People’s Platform is nothing short of a clear-headed gut-check, but Taylor’s message is deceptively simple: That technology is a tool, not a solution. And even if technology has boundless democratizing potential, at current, it hasn’t levelled inequalities.” Fast Forward Weekly (Canada)
“With compelling force and manifest-like style, writer and documentary filmmaker Taylor lays out one of the smartestand most self-evidentarguments about the nature and effect of technology in our digital age…. Taylor’s provocative book has the power to help shape discussions about the role of technology in our world.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The Internet is often lauded as an open, democratic marketplace of ideas and goods in which anyone can thrive. In her sweeping critique, documentary filmmaker Taylor challenges this notion, arguing that networked technology has allowed for greater concentration of power and has reduced transparency. Her well-researched, unsettling, and occasionally downright harrowing book explores the consolidation of popularity; the stubborn digital divide; copyright and piracy; and the pervasive power of advertising…. This provocative populist manifesto on an utterly timely subject deserves a wide audience among policymakers and consumers alike.” Library Journal (starred review)
“One of the more incisive voices among the multitudes delivering their visions of what the Internet is and might become.... [A] well-defined examination of media culture... Not to be skimmed. A cogent and genuine argument for the true democratization of online culture.” Kirkus Reviews
“A persuasive book… The author isn't saying we should rebuild the Internet from scratch but, instead, that we should strive to create a more democratic Web in which users are treated like citizens, not consumers or unpaid workers…. A smart, well-reasoned approach to a highly topical subject.” Booklist
“If you've ever had the uncomfortable feeling that we've taken a wrong turn on the way to the future, Astra Taylor's shocking, utterly rational, and elegant book will have you shaking your fist along with her. This is an essential and overdue indictment of our ailing media culture.” Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet
“The scariest book I've read in a while is also the most exhilarating: there is no better, stronger picture of our bleak new technological landscape and the peppy delusions and deceptions of its profiteers than The People's Platform. But knowledge is power, and Taylor gives us a picture so clear it empowers us to find a way forward through the debris. Read it and revolt.” Rebecca Solnit, author of The Faraway Nearby
“The promise was so utopian, and it really seemed possible! Now we watch as the lauded instrument of ‘creative destruction' ends up in the hands of a few giant corporations. What happened? Is there a way out beyond pulling the plug? In response, Astra Taylor has laid out clear arguments, sobering information, and inspiring insights. There have been a lot of books about how the Internet is changing our world, but this is absolutely one of the best. Beautifully written and highly recommended.” David Byrne, author and musician
“Internet policy books seem only to come in two colors: bright dream or dark nightmare. Enter The People’s Platformit’s a rainbow of insight. With nuance and a light touch, Astra Taylor exposes the fallacies in contemporary digital punditry. Unlike her peers, she has her eyes on a truly democratic politics. Which makes this a rare bookone that can radically change the way we see the future of digital social change” Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing and Stuffed and Starved
“What happened to the Internet revolution? Why, if everything's so different, does it feel like everything's still the same? Astra Taylor breaks it down here with humor, patience, and an unerring moral sense. This is a brave, inspiring, and necessary book.” Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
“Astra Taylor's insights into the ‘missing middle' of our present situation are sane, lucid, and generous. This book adjusted my thinking on several scores.” Jonathan Lethem, author of The Ecstasy of Influence
“In this, perhaps the most important book about the digital age so far this century, Astra Taylor reveals the unacknowledged economic system actually running the net. It's a landscape in which leisure might better be classified as labor and the promise of free culture ends up costing us so much more than money.” Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: Why Everything Happens Now
“Lucid, unsparing, and brilliant, The People's Platform demonstrates how the Internet, hardly a paradise of freedom and equality, has been left in the hands of moguls, oligarchs, and corporate scamsters to produce little more than new forms of exploitation. But it also shows that the utopian promise is not all hot air. Freedom doesn't just happen. It has to be conquered, and this book begins to tell us how.” David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“Why has the invention most celebrated for putting the means of expression in the hands of the people produced a few billionaire moguls and a mass of creative producers expected to work for free? Confronting this core inequality of the digital age, Astra Taylor opens a new front in the battle for sustainable culture-and gives us good reason to think that this is a battle we can win.” Jodi Dean, author of Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies
A filmmaker turns her high-powered intellect not just on the Internet and its effect on our lives, but also on the sociological and economic forces that bend and shape it. Writer, director, documentary filmmaker, sometime philosopher, political activist and self-described troublemaker—not bad for Taylor, who was unschooled until she was 13 years old and has since become one of the more incisive voices among the multitudes delivering their visions of what the Internet is and might become. In her loquacious but well-defined examination of media culture, the author describes her conversations with a wide range of enthusiasts and doubters, ranging from jazz musicians to economists. She finds that, as opposed to the Kickstarter-fueled utopia that some hugely popular creators predict, when examined en masse, the Web tends to exhibit what Taylor deems a surprising tendency toward monopoly, bent by many of the same problems that have nearly destroyed traditional broadcast media and decimated newspapers. To be fair, she also sees this as an era of adaptation rather than extinction, and she asks the hard questions that often go unanswered—e.g., "Do social media nurture community or intensify our isolation, expand our intellectual faculties or wither our capacity for reflection, make us better citizens or more efficient consumers? Have we become a nation of skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation, or are we evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before? Are those who lose their jobs due to technological change deserving of our sympathy or scorn (‘adapt or die,' as the saying goes)? Is that utopia on the horizon or dystopia around the bend?" It's a difficult book to encapsulate simply, one that delves deep into the philosophical nature of people, the complexities of desire, the economics of advertising, the productive chaos of open systems and the value of content in a limitless universe. Not to be skimmed. A cogent and genuine argument for the true democratization of online culture.
In this, perhaps the most important book about the digital age so far this century, Astra Taylor reveals the unacknowledged economic system actually running the net. It's a landscape in which leisure might better be classified as labor and the promise of free culture ends up costing us so much more than money.
If you've ever had the uncomfortable feeling that we've taken a wrong turn on the way to the future, Astra Taylor's shocking, utterly rational, and elegant book will have you shaking your fist along with her. This is an essential and overdue indictment of our ailing media culture.
Internet policy books seem only to come in two colors: bright dream or dark nightmare. Enter The People's Platform--it's a rainbow of insight. With nuance and a light touch, Astra Taylor exposes the fallacies in contemporary digital punditry. Unlike her peers, she has her eyes on a truly democratic politics. Which makes this a rare book--one that can radically change the way we see the future of digital social change.
The Internet is often lauded as an open, democratic marketplace of ideas and goods in which anyone can thrive. In her sweeping critique, documentary filmmaker Taylor (Zizek!) challenges this notion, arguing that networked technology has allowed for greater concentration of power and has reduced transparency. Her well-researched, unsettling, and occasionally downright harrowing book explores the consolidation of popularity; the stubborn digital divide; copyright and piracy; and the pervasive power of advertising. She deplores the resource intensity, hazardous e-waste, and other obscured costs of digital technology, with its obsolescence ensured more by producer-guided popularity than by function, and the ignorance of its users as to these costs. In the midst of an incalculable array of information, our ignorance is all the greater, as the decline of investigative journalism reduces our awareness of local, domestic, and international events, and as Internet companies push the familiar to users with increasing specificity as the universe of personal data available to these companies expands. VERDICT Taylor makes the case for a government-supported sustainable online culture that promotes the public good and encourages journalism and the arts. This provocative populist manifesto on an utterly timely subject deserves a wide audience among policymakers and consumers alike. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/13.]—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus
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Read an Excerpt
When I was twelve years old, while most of my peers were playing outside, I hunkered down in my family’s den, consumed by the project of making my own magazine. Obsessed with animal rights and environmentalism, I imagined my publication as a homemade corrective to corporate culture, a place where other kids could learn the truth that Saturday morning cartoons, big-budget movies, and advertisements for “Happy Meals” hid from them. I wrangled my friends into writing for it (I know it’s hard to believe I had any), used desktop publishing software to design it, and was thrilled that the father of one of my conspirators managed a local Kinkos, which meant we could make copies at a steep discount. Every couple of months my parents drove me to the handful of bookstores and food co-ops in Athens, Georgia, where I eagerly asked the proprietors if I could give them the latest issue, convinced that when enough young people read my cri de coeur the world would change.
It was a strange way to spend one’s preadolescence. But equally strange, now, is to think of how much work I had to do to get it into readers’ hands once everything was written and edited. That’s how it went back in the early nineties: each precious copy could be accounted for, either given to a friend, handed out on a street corner, shelved at a local store, or mailed to the few dozen precious subscribers I managed to amass. And I, with access to a computer, a printer, and ample professional copiers, had it pretty easy compared to those who had walked a similar road just decades before me: a veteran political organizer told me how he and his friends had to sell blood in order to raise the funds to buy a mimeograph machine so they could make a newsletter in the early sixties.
When I was working on my magazine I had only vague inklings that the Internet even existed. Today any kid with a smartphone and a message has the potential to reach more people with the push of a button than I did during two years of self-publishing. New technologies have opened up previously unimaginable avenues for self-expression and exposure to information, and each passing year has only made it easier to spread the word.
In many respects, my adult work as an independent filmmaker has been motivated by the same concerns as my childhood hobby: frustration with the mainstream media. So many subjects I cared about were being ignored; so many worthwhile stories went uncovered. I picked up a camera to fill in the gap, producing various documentaries focused on social justice and directing two features about philosophy. On the side I’ve written articles and essays for the independent press, covering topics including disability rights and alternative education. When Occupy Wall Street took off in the fall of 2011, I became one of the coeditors of a movement broadsheet called the Occupy! Gazette, five crowd-funded issues in total, which my cohorts and I gave away for free on the Web and in print.
I’m a prime candidate, in other words, for cheering on the revolution that is purportedly being ushered in by the Internet. The digital transformation has been hailed as the great cultural leveler, putting the tools of creation and dissemination in everyone’s hands and wresting control from long-established institutions and actors. Due to its remarkable architecture, the Internet facilitates creativity and communication in unprecedented ways. Each of us is now our own broadcaster; we are no longer passive consumers but active producers. Unlike the one-way, top-down transmission of radio or television and even records and books, we finally have a medium through which everyone’s voice can supposedly be heard.
To all of this I shout an enthusiastic hurrah. Progressives like myself have spent decades decrying mass culture and denouncing big media. Since 1944, when Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published their influential essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” critics have sounded the alarm about powerful corporate interests distorting our culture and drowning out democracy in pursuit of profit.
But while heirs to this tradition continue to worry about commercialism and media consolidation, there is now a countervailing tendency to assume that the Internet, by revolutionizing our media system, has rendered such concerns moot. In a digital world, the number of channels is theoretically infinite, and no one can tell anyone what to consume. We are the ultimate deciders, fully in charge of our media destinies, choosing what to look at, actively seeking and clicking instead of having our consumption foisted upon us by a cabal of corporate executives.
As a consequence of the Internet, it is assumed that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.
In many wonderful ways this is the world we have been waiting for. So what’s the catch? In some crucial respects the standard assumptions about the Internet’s inevitable effects have misled us. New technologies have undoubtedly removed barriers to entry, yet, as I will show, cultural democracy remains elusive. While it’s true that anyone with an Internet connection can speak online, that doesn’t mean our megaphones blast our messages at the same volume. Online, some speak louder than others. There are the followed and the followers. As should be obvious to anyone with an e-mail account, the Internet, though open to all, is hardly an egalitarian or noncommercial paradise, even if you bracket all the porn and shopping sites.
To understand why the most idealistic predictions about how the Internet would transform cultural production and distribution, upending the balance of power in the process, have not come to pass, we need to look critically at the current state of our media system. Instead, we celebrate a rosy vision of what our new, networked tools theoretically make possible or the changes they will hypothetically unleash. What’s more, we need to look ahead and recognize the forces that are shaping the development and implementation of technology—economic forces in particular.
Writing critically about technological and cultural transformation means proceeding with caution. Writers often fall into one of two camps, the cheerleaders of progress at any cost and the prophets of doom who condemn change, lamenting all they imagine will be lost. This pattern long precedes us. In 1829, around the time advances in locomotion and telegraphy inspired a generation to speak rapturously of the “annihilation of space and time,” Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian era’s most irascible and esteemed man of letters, published a sweeping indictment of what he called the Mechanical Age.
Everywhere Carlyle saw new contraptions replacing time-honored techniques—there were machines to drive humans to work faster or replace them altogether—and he was indignant: “We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.” Yet the spoils of this war, he anxiously observed, were not evenly distributed. While some raced to the top, others ate dust. Wealth had “gathered itself more and more into masses, strangely altering the old relations, and increasing the distance between the rich and the poor.” More worrisome still, mechanism was encroaching on the inner self. “Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also,” he warned. “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand,” a shift he imagined would make us not wiser but worse off.
Two years later, Timothy Walker, a young American with a career in law ahead of him, wrote a vigorous rebuttal entitled “Defense of Mechanical Philosophy.” Where Carlyle feared the mechanical metaphor making society over in its image, Walker welcomed such a shift, dismissing Carlyle as a vaporizing mystic. Mechanism, in Walker’s judgment, has caused no injury, only advantage. Where mountains stood obstructing, mechanism flattened them. Where the ocean divided, mechanism stepped across. “The horse is to be unharnessed, because he is too slow; and the ox is to be unyoked, because he is too weak. Machines are to perform the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease.” Where, Walker asked, is the wrong in any of this?
Carlyle, Walker observed, feared “that mind will become subjected to the laws of matter; that physical science will be built up on the ruins of our spiritual nature; that in our rage for machinery, we shall ourselves become machines.” On the contrary, Walker argued, machines would free our minds by freeing our bodies from tedious labor, thus permitting all of humankind to become “philosophers, poets, and votaries of art.” That “large numbers” of people had been thrown out of work as a consequence of technological change is but a “temporary inconvenience,” Walker assured his readers—a mere misstep on mechanism’s “triumphant march.”
Today, most pronouncements concerning the impact of technology on our culture, democracy, and work resound with Carlyle’s and Walker’s sentiments, their well-articulated insights worn down into twenty-first-century sound bites. The argument about the impact of the Internet is relentlessly binary, techno-optimists facing off against techno-skeptics. Will the digital transformation liberate humanity or tether us with virtual chains? Do communicative technologies fire our imaginations or dull our senses? Do social media nurture community or intensify our isolation, expand our intellectual faculties or wither our capacity for reflection, make us better citizens or more efficient consumers? Have we become a nation of skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation, or are we evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before? Are those who lose their jobs due to technological change deserving of our sympathy or our scorn (“adapt or die,” as the saying goes)? Is that utopia on the horizon or dystopia around the bend?
These questions are important, but the way they are framed tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded. The current obsession with the neurological repercussions of technology—what the Internet is doing to our brains, our supposedly shrinking attention spans, whether video games improve coordination and reflexes, how constant communication may be addictive, whether Google is making us stupid—is a prime example. This focus ignores the business imperatives that accelerate media consumption and the market forces that encourage compulsive online engagement.
Yet there is one point on which the cheerleaders and the naysayers agree: we are living at a time of profound rupture—something utterly unprecedented and incomparable. All connections to the past have been rent asunder by the power of the network, the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and Google glasses, the rise of big data, and the dawning of digital abundance. Social media and memes will remake reality—for better or for worse. My view, on the other hand, is that there is as much continuity as change in our new world, for good and for ill.
Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain—consolidation, centralization, and commercialism—and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive. The Internet does not close the distance between hits and flops, stars and the rest of us, but rather magnifies the gap, eroding the middle space between the very popular and virtually unknown. And there is no guarantee that the lucky few who find success in the winner-take-all economy online are more diverse, authentic, or compelling than those who succeeded under the old system.
Despite the exciting opportunities the Internet offers, we are witnessing not a leveling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement, with new winners and losers. In the place of Hollywood moguls, for example, we now have Silicon Valley tycoons (or, more precisely, we have Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley tycoons). The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors—these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.
Indeed, the advertising industry is flourishing as never before. In a world where creative work holds diminishing value, where culture is “free,” and where fields like journalism are in crisis, advertising dollars provide the unacknowledged lifeblood of the digital economy. Moreover, the constant upgrading of devices, operating systems, and Web sites; the move toward “walled gardens” and cloud computing; the creep of algorithms and automation into every corner of our lives; the trend toward filtering and personalization; the lack of diversity; the privacy violations: all these developments are driven largely by commercial incentives. Corporate power and the quest for profit are as fundamental to new media as old. From a certain angle, the emerging order looks suspiciously like the old one.
In fact, the phrase “new media” is something of a misnomer because it implies that the old media are on their way out, as though at the final stage of some natural, evolutionary process. Contrary to all the talk of dinosaurs, this is more a period of adaptation than extinction. Instead of distinct old and new media, what we have is a complex cultural ecosystem that spans the analog and digital, encompassing physical places and online spaces, material objects and digital copies, fleshy bodies and virtual identities.
In that ecosystem, the online and off-line are not discrete realms, contrary to a perspective that has suffused writing about the Internet since the word “cyberspace” was in vogue.1 You might be reading this book off a page or screen—a screen that is part of a gadget made of plastic and metal and silicon, the existence of which puts a wrench into any fantasy of a purely ethereal exchange. All bits eventually butt up against atoms; even information must be carried along by something, by stuff.
I am not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather to recognize that we’ve lived with it long enough to ask tough questions.2 Thankfully, this is already beginning to happen. Over the course of writing this book, the public conversation about the Internet and the technology industry has shifted significantly.3 There have been revelations about the existence of a sprawling international surveillance infrastructure, uncompetitive business and exploitative labor practices, and shady political lobbying initiatives, all of which have made major technology firms the subjects of increasing scrutiny from academics, commentators, activists, and even government officials in the United States and abroad.4
People are beginning to recognize that Silicon Valley platitudes about “changing the world” and maxims like “don’t be evil” are not enough to ensure that some of the biggest corporations on Earth will behave well. The risk, however, is that we will respond to troubling disclosures and other disappointments with cynicism and resignation when what we need is clearheaded and rigorous inquiry into the obstacles that have stalled some of the positive changes the Internet was supposed to usher in.
First and foremost, we need to rethink how power operates in a post-broadcast era. It was easy, under the old-media model, to point the finger at television executives and newspaper editors (and even book publishers) and the way they shaped the cultural and social landscape from on high. In a networked age, things are far more ambiguous, yet new-media thinking, with its radical sheen and easy talk of revolution, ignores these nuances. The state is painted largely as a source of problematic authority, while private enterprise is given a free pass; democracy, fuzzily defined, is attained through “sharing,” “collaboration,” “innovation,” and “disruption.”
In fact, wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect. The companies that provide these and related services are quickly becoming the Disneys of the digital world—monoliths hungry for quarterly profits, answerable to their shareholders not us, their users, and more influential, more ubiquitous, and more insinuated into the fabric of our everyday lives than Mickey Mouse ever was. As such they pose a whole new set of challenges to the health of our culture.
Right now we have very little to guide us as we attempt to think through these predicaments. We are at a loss, in part, because we have wholly adopted the language and vision offered up by Silicon Valley executives and the new-media boosters who promote their interests. They foresee a marketplace of ideas powered by profit-driven companies who will provide us with platforms to creatively express ourselves and on which the most deserving and popular will succeed.
They speak about openness, transparency, and participation, and these terms now define our highest ideals, our conception of what is good and desirable, for the future of media in a networked age. But these ideals are not sufficient if we want to build a more democratic and durable digital culture. Openness, in particular, is not necessarily progressive. While the Internet creates space for many voices, the openness of the Web reflects and even amplifies real-world inequities as often as it ameliorates them.
I’ve tried hard to avoid the Manichean view of technology, which assumes either that the Internet will save us or that it is leading us astray, that it is making us stupid or making us smart, that things are black or white. The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people’s platform, we will have to work to make it so.
Copyright © 2014 by Astra Taylor
Meet the Author
Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her films include Zizek!, a feature documentary about the world's most outrageous philosopher, which was broadcast on the Sundance Channel, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers. Taylor's writing has appeared in The Nation, Salon, Monthly Review, The Baffler magazine, and other publications. She lives in New York City.
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