[governance] (Fwd) The internet wrecking ball (review of Astra Taylor book)

parminder parminder at itforchange.net
Mon Apr 20 00:21:03 EDT 2015

From: *Patrick Bond* <pbond at mail.ngo.za <mailto:pbond at mail.ngo.za>>
Date: Sat, Apr 18, 2015 at 12:06 AM
Subject: [Debate-List] (Fwd) The internet wrecking ball (review of Astra
Taylor book)
To: DEBATE <debate-list at fahamu.org <mailto:debate-list at fahamu.org>>

New Left Review 92, March-April 2015 <https://newleftreview.org/II/92>

    Emilie Bickerton


Literature on the social impact of the internet has always struggled to
keep up with the breakneck pace set by its subject. First-generation
thinking about the net took form in the early 1990s, when usage was
rapidly expanding with the dissemination of early browsers; it grew out
of a pre-existing thread of technology advocacy that ran back to 60s
counter-cultural consumerism.[1]
magazine, founded in 1993, was its chief vehicle; key figures included
tech-enthusiasts Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Reingold,
with their ‘patron saint’ Marshall McLuhan. This euphoric
perspective dominated throughout the ‘new economy’ boom: the
internet was changing everything, and for the better, heralding a new
age of freedom, democracy, self-expression and economic growth. Grateful
Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace’, delivered from Davos, set the tone:
‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and
steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the
future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.’ Pitted against this,
there had long existed a minor current of critical left writing, also
running back to at least the early 70s; this included ‘left
McLuhanite’ figures such as /The Nation/’s Neil Postman. More
overtly political, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s classic 1995
essay, ‘The Californian Ideology’, skewered /Wired /in its early
days, while on the ‘Nettime’ listserv and in the pages of /Mute/
magazine, writers such as Geert Lovink attempted to forge a real
‘net criticism’. But these voices were mostly confined to the
dissident margins.

With the 2000–01 dot.com <http://dot.com> crash there came something
of a discursive shake-out. It was in the early post-crash years that
Nicholas Carr’s /Does //it//Matter?/ (2004) was published,
puncturing ‘new economy’ hype. But with the Greenspan bubble and
massive state-intelligence funding after 9.11, American tech was soon on
its feet again. Tim O’Reilly’s coining of the ‘Web 2.0’ buzzword
in 2004 captured the returning optimism. The blog craze, Wikipedia and
the first wave of social media all came into play during these years,
and it was now that the landscape of tech giants was consolidated:
Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. The technology discourses of
this phase echoed the developing shape of the Web: with ‘open
source’ (another O’Reilly buzzword) and Wikipedia, it was argued
that undefined crowds could be superior producers of content and code
than named (or paid) individuals.

When a second, much deeper crisis erupted in 2008, American tech was one
of the few sectors to remain relatively unscathed, already moving into
new lines of production: smartphones, tablets, e-readers. The uptake of
these devices brought a qualitative expansion of internet use, blurring
the boundary between everyday life and a ‘cyberspace’ that had
hitherto been conceptualized as a separate sphere. Suddenly it was
evident that all the talk of the internet’s capacity to instigate
far-reaching social change was no mere talk. It was in these years that
a set of more pessimistic and critical voices started to come to the
fore, worrying about the dangers of the Web’s expanding use:
Nicholas Carr’s /The Shallows /(2010), Jaron Lanier’s /You Are Not A
Gadget /(2010), Sherry Turkle’s /Alone Together /(2011), Evgeny
Morozov’s /The Net Delusion /(2011). Carr’s book in particular
became the key expression of a mounting anxiety, even before the Snowden
revelations in June 2013 brought home some of the darker implications of
these developments. But now that the internet was so plainly entangled
in so much of everyday life, and so much of the structure of capitalist
society, it was becoming increasingly meaningless to isolate a singular
technological entity, ‘the internet’, as either simply good or bad.
The main object of net criticism was increasingly coextensive with
society itself, thus making a more social mode of critique plainly the
most pertinent one.

This is the context for Astra Taylor’s /The People’s Platform:
Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age/. Taylor presents
herself as neither a ‘cheerleader of progress at any cost’ nor a
‘prophet of doom’, condemning change and lamenting what has been
lost. She aims to provide a more nuanced mode of net criticism than
either of these standard rhetorical poles. She is by no means the first
to do so: Evgeny Morozov is another figure who would locate himself
here, taking up a third rhetorical position that distinguishes itself
against the other two and offering less techno-determinist, more
socio-political modes of explanation. But if the occupants of this third
position are right to place themselves here, it might be said that it is
easy now—in the third decade of the Web’s existence—to be right in
this way. What matters is the detail of the diagnosis and what we can do.

Taylor’s ambition, as her subtitle suggests, is to make the case for a
new cultural politics of the digital age. How Web 2.0 affects the
production and distribution of culture touches her in a direct sense.
She is a documentary filmmaker and editor of two books, one on
philosophy, the other on the Occupy movement in the us. She has no
parallel university job to shield her from the growing structural
inequalities she describes; nor for the most part do the musicians,
film-makers, photographers and investigative reporters whose stories she
recounts, working at the coal face of a culture industry that has been
transformed by the internet—but not in ways that /Wired/
predicted. Taylor’s personal background might make her seem an ideal
candidate for Web enthusiasm. She has written in /n+1/ magazine about
her enlightened home-schooling by counter-cultural parents. /The
People’s Platform/ opens with the story of how in 1991, the twilight
of the pre-Web era, the 12-year-old Taylor brought out her own
environmentalist magazine, copying it with the help of a friend’s
father who managed the local Kinko’s and distributing it to bookstores
and food co-ops around Athens, Georgia, in her parents’ car. She notes
how much easier it would have been to get her message out today,
when ‘any kid with a smartphone’ has the potential to reach millions
of readers with the push of a button. In 2011 Taylor helped produce five
crowd-funded issues of the Zuccotti Park broadsheet, /Occupy! Gazette/,
distributed free in print and online. This background is important; she
is coming from a position of high expectations and dashed hopes, not
sceptical resistance to technological change.

/The People’s Platform/ looks at the implications of the digital age
for cultural democracy in various sectors—music, film, news,
advertising—and how battles over copyright, piracy and privacy laws
have evolved. Taylor rightly situates the tech euphoria of the late 90s
in the context of Greenspan’s asset-price bubble, pointing out that
deregulated venture-capital funds swelled from $12bn in 1996 to $106bn
in 2000. Where tech-utopians hailed the political economy of the
internet as ‘a better form of socialism’ (/Wired/’s Kevin
Kelly) or ‘a vast experiment in anarchy’ (Google’s Eric Schmidt
and the State Department’s Jared Cohen), she shows how corporations
dominate the new landscape: in 2013 Disney and TimeWarner’s shares
were up by 32 per cent, cbs’s by 40 per cent and Comcast’s by 57 per
cent. The older tech and culture-industry corporations have
‘partnered’ with the new: at&t with Apple, Disney and Sony with
Google. The major record labels have stakes in Spotify, as has Fox in
Vice Media, while Condé Nast has bought up Reddit. In contrast to the
multiple distribution grids that once purveyed telephony, tv, radio and
film, nearly everything is now carried on cable or wireless
‘unichannels’, monopolized in the us by a handful of giants: at&t,
Verizon, TimeWarner, Comcast.

Their scale is matched by the newcomers. Google, which accounts for 25
per cent of North American consumer internet traffic, has swallowed up a
hundred firms since 2010. With over a billion users, Facebook has
enrolled more than a seventh of the world’s population. A third of
global internet users access the Amazon cloud on a daily basis. As
Taylor pointedly notes, the main source of Facebook’s and Google’s
profits is other firms’ advertising expenditure, an annual $700bn in
the us; but this in turn depends on the surplus extracted from workers
who produce ‘actual things’. The logic of advertising drives the
tech giants’ voracious appetite for our data. In 2012 Google announced
it would be collating information from its multiple services—Gmail,
maps, search, YouTube, etc.—to combine the ‘knowledge person’
(search queries, click-stream data), the ‘social person’ (our email
and social media networks) and the ‘embodied person’ (our physical
whereabouts, tracked by the phones in our pockets) into a single
‘3d profile’, to which advertisers can buy access in real time.
Facebook, which is now bundling users’ offline purchases with their
profiles, ‘to make it easier for marketers to reach their
customers’, as Mark Zuckerberg put it, had a market value of $104
billion on the day of its ipo. Without our ‘likes’ and comments, our
photos and tweets, our product ratings or restaurant reviews, these
companies would be worth nothing.

Online and offline are not separate worlds, Taylor insists; the internet
in her account has a distinctly ‘earthly’ reality. Broken down into
its three different layers—physical infrastructure (cables and
routers), software (code, applications) and content—it turns into
something more controllable, potentially vulnerable to harnessing. The
current battle over ‘net neutrality’ in the us is a marker of
this—a struggle over the dilution of regulation preventing cable
companies and service providers from slowing traffic down to stifle
competition, or charging extra fees to speed it up. A further question
is whether the principle of equal access could be extended from wired
broadband to wireless connections—not just mobile phones but cars,
watches, fridges, clothes, as the internet-of-things looms ever closer.

If the corporations have prospered in the digital age, what of the
relationship between creative labour and technological innovation? For
the tech-utopians, the Web would be a paradise of collaborative
creativity, with art and knowledge produced for sheer pleasure.
Richard Florida’s /Rise of the Creative Class/ (2002) hailed the
advent of the ‘information economy’, in which workers already
controlled the means of production, as these were inside their heads.
The tension between Protestant work ethic and Bohemian creativity would
be dissolved, as profit-seeking and pleasure-seeking, mainstream and
alternative morphed together. In reality, Taylor notes, the ideology of
creativity has become increasingly useful for a profit-gouging economy.
In a cruel twist, the ethos of the autonomous creator—the trope of the
impoverished but spiritually fulfilled artist—has been repurposed to
justify low pay and job insecurity. The ideal worker matches the
traditional profile of the creative virtuoso: inventive, adaptable,
putting in long hours and expecting little compensation in
return. ‘Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at
Apple’, shopworkers are informed. Graduate students are encouraged to
think of themselves as comparable to painters or actors, the better to
prepare themselves for impoverishment when tenure-track jobs fail to

In Henry James’s ‘The Lesson of the Master’, a young writer
listens with growing alarm to the future mapped out for him by his
mentor, pursuing the path of total dedication to his art. No children,
no material comforts, no marriage—all this would tarnish ‘the
gold’ he has the capacity to create. He resists: ‘The artist—the
artist! Isn’t he a man all the same?’ Taylor’s investigation
of ‘free culture’ arrives at a similar, if gender-neutral, position.
She recognizes that ‘the fate of creative artists is to exist in two
incommensurable realms of value, and be torn between them’: on the one
hand, cultural production involves ‘the economic act of selling
goods or labour’; on the other, it entails ‘that elevated form of
value we associate with art and culture’. What she shows is that, for
cultural workers, conditions in the first realm have worsened quite
drastically, while the promise of the digital era—a level playing
field of universal, democratic access—turns out to offer scant
compensation; to add one’s shout to the digital cacophony doesn’t
create an intelligible debate. A songwriter tells Taylor that it takes
47,680 plays on Spotify to earn the royalties of the sale of one lp,
while iTunes can take a cut of 30 per cent or more. The ‘free
culture’ internet ideology disguises sharply unequal social relations:
the digital giants offer free apps, email and content as bait to hook an
audience to sell to advertisers; struggling independent artists are
supposed to provide their work on the same terms.

Taylor ruefully describes the experience of discovering that her
documentary film, /Examined Life/—interviews with philosophers, two
years in the making—had been posted online by strangers before it had
even opened in theatres. When she wrote to those responsible, explaining
that she would like a few months to recover the film’s costs before it
went free online, she was told (with expletives) that philosophy
belonged to everyone. ‘I had stumbled into the copyright wars.’ She
has no doubt that existing us copyright law is indefensible. In
1978, authors’ exclusive rights to their work were extended for
seventy years after their death, making a mockery of the original
principle of copyright as a reward or incentive for cultural production.
Instead, she argues, it gave a handful of conglomerates an incentive
‘not to create new things, but to buy up tremendous swathes of what
already exists’. /The People’s Platform/ argues strongly for a
reformed copyright system, in essence as a defence of labour, and calls
for a relationship of ‘mutual support’ between ‘those who make
creative work and those who receive it’. Taylor quotes Diderot’s
splendid fulmination:

    What property can a man own if a work of the mind—the unique fruit
    of his upbringing, his studies, his evenings, his age, his
    researches, his observations; if his finest hours, the most
    beautiful moments of his life; if his own thoughts, the feelings of
    his heart, the most precious part of himself, that which does not
    perish, that which makes him immortal—does not belong to him?

Contrary to tech-enthusiasts’ hopes for new forms of creative
collaboration, the majority of online cultural content is produced by
commercial companies using conventional processes. The internet has
steepened the ‘power curve’ of cultural commodities, Taylor notes,
with a handful of bestsellers ever more dominant over a growing
‘tail’ of the barely read, seen or heard. Netflix, which occupies 40
per cent of us bandwidth most evenings, reports that the top 1 per cent
of its inventory accounts for 30 per cent of film rentals; YouTube’s
ten most popular videos get 80 per cent of total plays. Taylor laments
the hollowing of the middle strata—less conventional works that
nevertheless resonate beyond a specialist niche.

The ‘missing middle’ is particularly relevant when she turns from
film and music to journalism. The news industry is another ravaged
environment in the digital age, with local and rural papers in the us
hit especially hard; the number of reporters covering state capitals
halved between 2003 and 2009. Even in the booming Bay Area, the /Oakland
Tribune/ shrank from two hundred reporters in the 1990s to less than a
dozen today. As Taylor points out, while you can now access the nyt,
British /Guardian/ and Canadian /Globe & Mail /with a single click, your
home-town papers have likely shut down. Her defence of the profession is
a classic one, based on the idea that journalists should act as
democracy’s watchdogs against ignorance and corruption, calling
politicians to account and bringing events from around the world out of
potential obscurity and onto front pages—paper or digital. In modern
newsrooms, however, in-depth international reporting is all but extinct:
by 2006, she writes, American media, both print and broadcast, supported
a mere 141 foreign correspondents overseas. Budgets are channelled into
developing digital editions and online magazines, like /The Huffington
Post/; news aggregators such as Gawker or ‘contagious media’ sites
like Buzzfeed proliferate. Yet the time-bomb hanging over foreign
correspondents was ticking long before the Web. Here again, new problems
are generally old problems with a different face: trends already evident
in the 90s underwent a dizzying acceleration as the digital era took
hold. The original newspaper model had used profits from print
advertising to fund its most expensive but often least read
international pages by bundling audiences together—crossword
aficionados and business-page readers with sports and celebrity-gossip
fans. Online, a newspaper’s sections are split and audiences
unbundled, allowing readers to go directly to the news they want without
having to glance at—or pay for—anything else.

aol’s guidelines for the new-model /Huffington Post/ suggest the
orientation of the future: editors are to keep their eyes glued to
social media and data streams to determine trending topics, pairing
these with search-engine optimized titles—often barely literate, but
no matter if they top results lists—and drawing on thousands of
bloggers as well as staff writers to push out a non-stop stream of
condensed, repurposed articles. Those determining the content of the
magazine are already locked in a ‘most popular’ feedback loop.
Meanwhile, the rapid-fire output of news agencies that run to a
‘hamster wheel’ tempo—wire-copy writers may be expected to churn
out ten stories a day—is becoming the only source from on-the-ground
reporters around the world. Agency journalists may be good reporters,
but their remit is to stay faithful to the neutrality commitment of
their employer and only say what someone else, usually in an official
position, has said already.

The ascendant model for news in the advertising-driven digital era is to
offer us what we’ve read about before, whether this is the price of
oil or the latest tennis results; major internet services shape content
according to algorithms based on past behaviour. We can personalize the
news, ‘curate’ and share content, but in the process, ‘what we
want winds up being suspiciously like what we’ve got already, more
of the same—the cultural equivalent of a warm bath.’ News
aggregation is about ‘capturing eyeballs’. As one young toiler
in ‘the salt mines of the aggregator’ explains: ‘I have made
roughly 1,107 times more money linking to thinly sourced stories about
Lindsay Lohan than I have reporting any original news.’ Independent
online news sites can be starved of funds. After the /Baltimore
Examiner/ shut down in 2009, journalists tried to set up a web-based
in-depth reporting site, /Investigative Voice/, along the lines of
/Voice of San Diego/, /MinnPost/ or /ProPublica/. It seemed, Taylor
writes, ‘a shining example of what many hope our new-media future
will be’, combining ‘the best of old-school shoe-leather
journalism’ with the internet as ‘a quick and affordable
distribution platform’. The reporters pioneered ‘episodic
investigative journalism’, posting and updating revelations of
government and police department malpractice, inviting reader input.
After barely a year, they were broke. Taylor’s contact took a job with
a local Fox affiliate, so he could see a doctor.

/The People’s Platform/ ends with a manifesto—in itself a more
ambitious move than those of most books on digital culture, even if
Taylor’s demands seem disappointingly limited after what has gone
before. She shrinks from the thought of nationalization—there is no
equivalent here to Evgeny Morozov’s ‘Socialize the data
centres!’—and disparages the free-software movement pioneered by
Richard Stallman and others as ‘freedom to tinker’. Instead she
calls for more regulation of the service providers and major platforms;
improved broadband provision; introducing a kind of Glass–Steagall of
new media, to force a separation of content creation from communication
and thus prevent a new round of vertical integration; levying a tax on
the advertising industry; pressuring Silicon Valley to pay tax at higher
rates; more public spending on the ‘cultural commons’, the arts and
public broadcasting (the education system gets no mention). In the
‘copyright wars’, she opts for reform rather than abolition
or ‘copyleft’. More broadly, Taylor argues that the ideology
of ‘free culture’ promoted by Web enthusiasts has centred on
distribution, obscuring and ultimately diminishing the people and social
supports that underlie cultural production. She seeks to redress the
balance by way of a more ‘ecological’, long-term mentality, drawing
on the politics of ethical consumption and ‘fair trade’ to call for
culture that is ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair’, as opposed to ‘free’.

In many ways, /The People’s Platform/ is strongest on the detail,
nailing highly specific targets (such as the myth that e-readers are a
boon to the environment; according to a /New York Times/ report, one
Kindle consumes the resources of four dozen books and has the carbon
footprint of a hundred). Taylor provides a valuable and demystifying
account of the current American cultural landscape. Strong on empirical
documentation, the book is weaker on conceptualization or structural
analysis. There is a sense that much of the material here remains on the
surface. Though her stated aim is to uncover ‘the socio-economic
forces that shape technology and the internet’, all we are given on
this front by way of explanatory causes is a passing mention of
shareholder value. Politically, Taylor situates herself as ‘a
progressive’—the book abounds in phrases beginning
‘progressives like myself’—which would seem to refer to that
section of American opinion located around the left of the Democrats,
/The Nation/ and /Democracy Now!./ She shares its strengths—a powerful
sense of moral indignation and hatred of injustice—and weaknesses, not
least a parochialism that can be blind to the world beyond America’s
borders and a failure to analyse the Democratic Party’s functional
role for Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

/The People’s Platform/ never confronts the fact that the Obama
Administration has not only presided over the continuing expansion of
the global surveillance state but has been exceptionally cosy with the
Valley elite. While Google, Facebook /et al/. have been enthusiastic
backers of the Democrats, a revolving door has seen staff and ideas
continue to pass between tech and intelligence ‘communities’. There
is surprisingly little in Taylor’s book on the digital heroes who have
incurred the Silicon President’s wrath: Manning, Snowden, Swartz. Yet
their actions have done more than most tomes of net criticism to reveal
the power relations of the digitalized world. Similarly, Taylor’s
manifesto might have been stronger had she looked across the Rio Grande.
That so much of the global infrastructure of the Web, both hardware and
software, is owned by American corporations has different implications
outside us borders. In pursuit of what Stallman has called
‘computational sovereignty’, the Lula government in Brazil began
funding free-software projects—‘free’ in the sense of /libre/,
rather than /gratuit/—over a decade ago. The Correa government in
Ecuador has taken the same path. A more comparative, internationalist
approach might also have shed greater light on what conditions allow
online investigative journalism to succeed; in France, the
subscription-based /Médiapart/ has flourished since its foundation by
former /Le Monde/ editor Edwy Plenel in 2007, breaking some of the
country’s biggest stories of political corruption.

While Taylor’s dismissal of free software as ‘freedom to tinker’
captures something real about its /prima facie/ narrowness as a
political programme, she misses the peculiar way in which this very
narrowness gives rise to significant implications when we broaden the
frame and examine a more social picture. While the individual user may
not be interested in tinkering with, for example, the Linux kernel, as
opposed to simply using it, the fact that it can be tinkered with opens
up a space of social agency that is not at all trivial. Since everyone
can access all the code all the time, it is impossible for any entity,
capital or state, to establish any definitive control over users on the
basis of the code itself. And since the outcomes of this process are
pooled, one does not have to be personally interested in ‘tinkering’
to benefit directly from this freedom. With non-free software one must
simply trust whoever, or whichever organization, created it. With free
software, this ‘whoever’ is socially open-ended, with responsibility
ultimately lying with the community of users itself.

While this issue of trust might have seemed narrowly geeky a few years
ago, as our lives become increasingly mediated by software
infrastructures, and especially post-Snowden, it is quite apparent that
such things can have major political ramifications. For example, it is
not unusual for non-free software to come with secret ‘backdoors’
that can enable third parties to collect information about users.
Intelligence agencies can turn on the microphone or camera on your phone
to find out what you’re doing or saying. With free software, the
problem is significantly reduced, since there is a world of users out
there attentive to such risks, ready and able to fix them when they are
found. These questions—and the ability to avoid surveillance or subtle
forms of technological interference by third parties—have an obvious
relevance for journalists, activists, committed intellectuals and
cultural workers, the subjects at the heart of /The People’s Platform/.

It is apparently still quite possible to live mostly beyond the purview
of Big Tech and the surveillance state, and a truly vast ‘commons’
exists that can support that independence. The use of non-tracking
search engines such as DuckDuckGo, instead of Google, can significantly
shorten the trail of one’s data footprints, as can a
security-conscious email provider like Kolab (especially when combined
with encryption), or a free activist one such as Riseup or
Inventati/Autistici, rather than an ad-based service such as Gmail,
which feeds on its ability to analyse your inbox. A federated social
network such as Diaspora can replace Facebook; instead of Google’s
Android, smartphones and tablets can run the free-software Replicant
operating system; Owncloud can provide the same functionality as
Dropbox. The list could be expanded: prism-break.org
<https://prism-break.org/en/>, run by one Peng Zhong and based, perhaps
only virtually, in northern France, offers a wealth of suggestions.

The major obstacles to a large-scale exodus in that direction are,
first, the self-reinforcing tendency towards consolidation, which makes
it very easy to join, for example, Facebook, and quite hard to leave;
and second, the straightforward temptation of corporate services that
are free and easily accessible, while the alternatives tend to cost time
or money, or both. Still, a cultural politics of the internet should be
grateful for the work of free-software programmers and would do well to
draw upon the possibilities it opens up. Since WikiLeaks and the Snowden
revelations, there have been signs of an emerging alliance between
hackers and journalists, as evidenced by /The Intercept/, the online
platform launched by Glenn Greewald, Jeremy Scahill and
documentary-maker Laura Poitras. Taylor is surely right that we need to
address the underlying socio-economic forces that shape digital
technologies. Yet against such powerful foes, an effective strategy will
aim to open multiple fronts; real advances, however small, should be
welcomed. The twist to James’s story was that the Master, having
dispatched his epigone to Switzerland in the name of art, promptly
married the young man’s beloved. The lesson, in other words, was
entirely worldly. Today’s young cultural workers may have learned that


Astra Taylor, /The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in
the Digital Age/, Fourth Estate: London 2014, £12.99, paperback 277 pp,
978 0 0 0752 5591

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