The Literary Review, June 2014
The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
By Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate 276pp £12.99)
It’s often interesting to transpose online behaviours into the real world. We’d think someone unhinged if they gave us a flyer with lots of flattering photographs of themselves and a list of their achievements. Yet this type of self-disclosure is normal thanks to social networking. Astra Taylor argues in The People’s Platform that this change of propriety isn’t so much because digital natives are more narcissistic than other generations but rather they are keenly aware that they are judged by their online selves – or ‘personal brands’ – in a way previous generations were not. The logic of the box office and bestseller has been applied to people, something Taylor laments: ‘To compete, we are told we have no choice but to participate in the culture of disclosure … We live in public in part because we believe we have to.’
Taylor makes a compelling argument that the beneficiaries of the ‘openness’ and ‘free culture’ movement that has so defined the web are not individuals but new media moguls and the advertisers they serve. She is keenly attuned to power, a rare quality among those who write about the internet, who tend to fall into two camps: proselytising techno-utopians or gimmicky contrarians. She argues that only humans can make human systems fairer, more equal and more diverse. Many of the thoughts outlined in the book are other people’s; the style is somewhere between an academic paper and an authorial remix. Many of the topics, too, have been covered before: the fate of journalism in the digital age, problems of copyright, privacy, data mining and the sustainability of art. Nonetheless Taylor deftly synthesises a mass of research and some reportage into a powerful rebuttal of the reigning ideologies of the internet.
Her own voice, interlaced lightly throughout the book, is at its most persuasive when she punctures the evangelism of free culture and openness, perhaps because Taylor herself is part of the creative class. An author and filmmaker, she has experienced at first hand the disastrous effects of openness on the livelihoods of those who produce culture, whether journalists, filmmakers, artists or musicians. She writes: ‘networked amateurism has been harnessed to corporate strategy … populist outrage has been yoked to free-market ideology by those who exploit cultural grievances to shore up their power and influence, directing public animus away from economic elites and toward cultural ones, away from plutocrats and toward professionals’. Technology has no morality but merely reflects the human values we require of it – so the current system reflects the values of those Silicon Valley businessmen who built and benefit most from it. Pushing past the clouds of airy democratising rhetoric, she examines the actual beneficiaries of an online advertising-funded system where creative work is given away by the public for free. It’s certainly not women, minorities or creatives. She quotes research showing that although 40 per cent of private businesses in the US are women-owned, only 8 per cent of venture-capital-backed tech start-ups are; and over 85 per cent of venture capitalists are men looking to invest in other men. Collaborative sites such as Reddit and Slashdot cater to users who are up to 90 per cent male, mostly young, wealthy and white. In fact, it becomes clear that the beneficiaries of the ‘new’ system look remarkably like those of the old one: well-off, well-educated white men, albeit with a few years shaved off.
‘If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system,’ she writes, and that may mean, for example, taking action against men who threaten sexual violence against women online. Openness advocates may decry these attempts at regulation as authoritarian, but such criticism is naive as it ‘ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things’. She also points out the hypocrisy of free-culture cheerleaders such as Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Don Tapscott – all white men of a certain age, working at elite universities and publishing their sermons of openness not for free but via traditional publishers. Leftists, young activists and free-marketers have been duped into promoting an ideology that serves to exploit the public’s work for private gain. She also argues, rightly, that the destruction of institutions such as newspapers and the criticism of professionals have played into the hands of the powerful. Institutions gave individuals power, security and an ability to take risks creatively. Now we are each of us on our own in a desperate lottery to gain attention in a commercial marketplace. Taylor is right to observe that criticising professionals or cultural elites is not striking a blow against the real powers. ‘When we uphold amateur creativity we are not necessarily resolving the deeper problems of entrenched privilege or the irresistible imperative of profit.’ Instead we are ushering in an age of less accountable journalism, less diversity and less risk-tolerant culture.
So, while we take selfies, rant about the mainstream media and rage our twitchfork battles against lone individuals, the powers that be must be smiling to themselves as they quietly amass more power and money. Like children behind the Pied Piper, we’ve been all too eager to believe the fairy tale that we could get something for nothing, greedily using the ‘free’ services of Google, Facebook and Twitter. But we pay one way or another. We can pay directly through public subsidies such as the TV licence and taxes, or indirectly, our data sold, our public culture placed into private hands and our eyeballs targeted relentlessly with advertising. Even advertising isn’t ‘free’. As Taylor observes, ‘Advertising is, in essence, a private tax. Because promotional budgets are factored into the price we pay for goods, customers … end up footing the bill.’ And we’re talking about an enormous amount of money. The World Federation of Advertisers estimates that $700 billion per year is spent on advertising. ‘Surely all that money could be better spent producing something we actually care about?’ It is hard to disagree no matter how much of a free-market capitalist you are. It’s becoming increasingly clear that public goods require public payment. Among her solutions, Taylor proposes a Bill of Creative Rights that enshrines in law respect for labour. It’s a simple idea but one that needs to be re-emphasised to counter the free-culture zealots. That so many have fallen for the fairy tale shows how attractive it is – and why we need a young activist like Astra Taylor to lead the charge.