Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
by Astra Taylor
Metropolitan Books, 2014, 288 pp.
Let’s say your town or neighborhood still has one of those archaic things called bookstores. If you walk over to the technology section—or, more likely, the business section—you’ll see a whole selection of bestsellers extolling the wondrous effects digital technologies have on life and culture. Thanks to newfound cognitive surplus, the new media gurus claim, everybody can remix and peer produce their way to a networked, cultural cornucopia where amateur content producers work for love, not money. To these authors, these developments are unprecedented. The game has changed, and nothing will ever be the same.
In the popular tech-culture discourse, positive stories and utopian messages are easy sells. Who wants to eat vegetables when candy tastes so much better? Thankfully, as sugar-coated paeans to the power of tech have proliferated, so have sharp, critical accounts. Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform, rises to the top of this list. Taylor provides a much-needed corrective to the techno-booster rhetoric that has dominated the “digital age,” specifically when it comes to media and culture. Taylor’s book sits among the small group of sharp, leftist critiques that focus on injecting political and socioeconomic concerns back into technological rhetoric and practice. And she does so in a way that is at once well-researched, holistic, lucid, and passionate.
Taylor disputes the notion that the conflicts of the digital age are completely novel. “Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted,” she writes, “have carried over into the digital domain—consolidation, centralization, and commercialism—and will continue to shape it.” Technological networks reflect, and often amplify, the power dynamics that have long been a part of corporate-consumer capitalism. Tech companies, especially in social media, give us new ways to engage with each other and spend our time, but the underlying politics of their business models are opaque to the common user. Indeed, the economics of Web 2.0 largely revolve around tech companies enticing people to freely till the data fields and produce “content,” which the “platform” owners can sell off at a premium. It’s profit accumulation with limited waged compensation.
When the stable of writers that Taylor places in her crosshairs do talk about economics, it’s not uncommon for them to appropriate left-wing thinkers, especially Marx, for capitalistic purposes. Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired and an influential tech sage—Taylor rightfully dubs him the “poet laureate of digital capitalism”—and Richard Florida, originator of the “creative class” idea, both exhibit this trend, giving their messages an air of liberating promise while shortchanging any discussion of class and exploitation. “Where earlier visionaries prophesied a world in which increased leisure allowed all human beings the well-being and security to freely cultivate their creative instincts,” Taylor argues, “the apostles of the creative class collapse labor into leisure and exploitation into self-expression, and they arrogate creativity to serve corporate ends.” The goal of the tech companies these “apostles” laud is to extract value, not to help people to try to make a living off cultural endeavors. Their services may allow for some new forms of creativity and even autonomy, but these are wedded to inequity and instability.
Taylor’s critique begins by demystifying the notion of technological change itself. Technology isn’t a force of nature, a storm that blows whichever way it chooses; new technologies do not enter the world as neutral forces. Instead, Taylor directs our focus toward the way powerful players perpetuate institutional structures that primarily benefit a small number of people. Social norms are designed into the systems that make up the infrastructure of our lives; values are written into the codes and algorithms. “Networks do not eradicate power,” she writes, “they distribute it in different ways, shuffling hierarchies and producing new mechanisms of exclusion.” Real issues like social justice, privilege, and exploitation do not dissolve amid dreams of apolitical, networked utopias.
Taylor uses this framework to take a close look at a number of crucial topics related to culture and media systems, including the current state of journalism and news. The sharks in these debates often circle around the same dichotomies—journalists vs. bloggers, old media vs. new—and topics related to attention spans and types of media (BuzzFeed listicles vs. in-depth reporting). Taylor shines light on how many changes the fourth estate is experiencing are, in large part, caused by broader economic imperatives and the spread of market logic.
Proponents of new media claim they’re just giving people what they want, but as Taylor points out, the fact that “people are increasingly drawn toward media they can process in stolen moments on the job” is not evidence of “deep-seated needs and desires.” What can be said definitively is that this model has proved profitable. Now that advertisers make up the fiscal lifeblood for many companies in both the tech and media sector, they are able to “alter the cultural ecology.” The types of works that are supported and encouraged are those that align themselves with what’s easy to sell: apolitical, unchallenging, and innocuous.
Taylor also takes a deep dive into one of the most important legal issues related to cultural production: copyright. Rather than make sweeping claims or unrealistic demands, she provides a measured consideration of the various facets of the law, their history, and the incentives and implications they present. Taylor doesn’t uncritically throw her hat in the ring with the “copyleft” position, which emphasizes free culture (specifically free software), and she finds legitimate faults with both sides. On one hand, current copyright regimes are effective legal tools for corporations to derive profit from the creative work produced by others. On the other hand, copyleft “offers a limited political response to entrenched systems of economic privilege, and it does not advance limits on profitability or promote fair compensation.”
Taylor then advances a set of principles that involve legal changes as well as fostering an overall “ethos of stewardship” with regards to creative works—part of her larger case for a “sustainable culture.” A first step would be to reinforce the principles of fair use and “de minimis” (the idea that some uses of copyrighted material are too trivial to regulate). Another would be implementing laws that “shorten copyright’s duration and eliminate the ability of corporations to endlessly and retroactively extend monopolies on work made by deceased creators.” Ultimately, Taylor’s arguments are in the service of “cultivat[ing] the cultural commons” as a place where both creators and the public can gain the most benefit—rather than freeloaders and companies who are able to privatize and exploit cultural resources.
The People’s Platform is an ambitious work. As a documentary filmmaker, activist, and member of the indie music scene, Taylor has a rare set of bona fides, first-hand experiences with her subject, and an understanding of different perspectives. Her stylistic choices make the radical leftism of her arguments sound commonsensical. This might be irritating to people who want a full frontal offensive. But rather than calling us to abandon or destroy certain ways of thinking and talking, Taylor provides more of an immanent critique of the new tech ideology: showing us what’s wrong, what’s right, and how things need to change. Her book appeals as a work of criticism, a primer for serious thinking about technological culture, and a rallying call for action.
Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and PhD student in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He writes about social justice and political economy of technologies. Find him on Twitter: @jathansadowski.