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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The People's Platform

Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

Astra Taylor




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