by Elisabeth Donnelly)
Do you use the Internet? Then you have to read Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, one of the most important books of the year. In it, Taylor (a writer, activist, and documentarian whose films include Zizek! and Examined Life) argues that the promised utopia of online culture is built upon a lie; in reality, the amorphous mass that we call the Internet is actually a place of great inequality, where the people’s interests are in hock to corporations and billionaires who just go by different names these days, whether it’s Google, Apple, or other Silicon Valley monoliths. 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. I had the chance to talk to her about what we can do to create a sustainable Internet culture, and whether institutions like the library can survive.
Flavorwire: What can everyday regular citizens do to navigate the digital world without being, um, an algorithmic tool of the Facebook patriarchy?
Astra Taylor: I think awareness is always the first step to any kind of action, and we underestimate how much value that brings, just being conscious of the context in which we’re operating. I think that it sort of can change our behavior, in the sense that things that feel like obligations. Whether they’re social or professional obligations, suddenly they’re put into this context of an economic imperative that doesn’t benefit us, and I think that can have an effect on our behavior. In simple ways, trying to support cultural institutions that do create things that we value, there are ways my behavior’s changed, like paying a two- or three-dollar-a-month subscription to Triple Canopy or The New Inquiry or whatever enterprise is beginning, that I believe in and I want to see out in the world. Also, I pay for my email. Using FastMail is as good as Gmail as I’d rather have an email brand that [isn't] using me for advertising.
But there, you get into issues like, do you have to pay for privacy or to pay for cultural content? And that’s a political problem I get into in the conclusion. Which is ultimately a social problem, and it needs social solutions, and that’s where we’re behind, because it goes against the grain of our entire culture. This is a political problem and it needs a political solution.
In the past, we solved the predicament we were heading towards with totally commercialized media by creating a little space for public media. We’re so far from enacting any of the cultural legislation that’s common in other countries. I think having conversations about them is where we have to begin. It would be such a change of consciousness in the American context. I really think we can’t shop our way into a better world. We need to think about collective remedies, like the prospect of privacy laws that put some brakes on the advertising industry, data mining, tracking, and stuff like that. Besides cultural legislation and cultural institutions, the basic legal protections in the US are really weak compared to other countries.
What you’re saying about “shopping our way into a better world” reminds me of what George W. Bush said after 9/11, when he encouraged us to go shopping.
You don’t want to fall into the trap of, one dollar equals one vote, because the problem is the massive underlying asymmetry of power. The whole point of the book is to underscore the way that this system actually allows a small number of companies and individuals to kind of suck off the wealth of the digital sphere and hoard the wealth [in ways] that’s affecting our basic dignity and communications. There’s such an imbalance there, and there needs to be some laws imposed, but that’s beyond the scope of the individual to manifest. So we have to figure out ways to aggregate our voices as citizens.
But that’s an age-old political problem: it’s never easy to organize, it’s never easy to be a labor organizer, it’s not easy to be a climate activist. There’s not an easy fix. Look at after the financial collapse; passing any legislation that reigns in the banking sector has proven to be so difficult.
There’s an interesting story going on in upstate New York, where Sean Eldridge, the 27-year-old husband of one of the original Facebookers, Chris Hughes, is running for office in the Hudson Valley. It’s classic carpetbagging, and they’re spending a lot of money — Politico just ran a hit piece on him — but with a new establishment.
I don’t know very much about Chris Hughes, I know he bought The New Republic, and he’s a slightly different phenomenon than the lobbying games these tech giants are getting into. I have some figures in the book about how much they’re spending in lobbying. They are, and they need to be for their self-interest, a power base in Washington. We as their consumers, as users of their products, need to analyze the way they’re influencing politics or spending money.
Even a few years ago, we could be like, “These tech companies are upstarts, vanquishing the old guard.” But what we’re seeing is they’ve so quickly become absolutely not that, and they’re playing the politics game so well.
It’s weird to me that with the development of technology, people embrace it blindly with no eye to what the consequences are. I’m thinking of the media making Twitter a necessity, for example. Why do you think that the media is invested in saying, “Yes, let’s all be on Twitter without realizing the drawbacks”?
There have been people like Robert McChesney, political economist, who writes about the way that the media under-reports on things like consolidation, corporate interests in the media space, and stuff like that, but I think you’re pointing towards a different kind of problem and I’m not sure what the answer is. A lot of journalists would be very wary of my suggestion in the book that we need a public media. A lot of journalists would say that we don’t need a government-based solution for the crisis of journalism. Maybe philanthropy and nonprofits are solutions.
There’s a desire for some sort of way for the market to fix the problem, that the problems will fix themselves, that we’re just in a transitional place. Maybe there’s hope that these tools are disorienting, but maybe they will fix in the problem. In some ways they are, but we need to talk about the business level underneath them.
I’m not sure if journalism can survive on the largess of billionaires.
What’s more risky, waiting for billionaires or watching for the public to finance this social good? There are so many structures that human beings have thought out and made work. You can create firewalls between funding and the institutions being funded. It’s not rocket science. But waiting for one or two billionaires…
You were born in Canada but grew up in Georgia, and have mentioned that there’s a “Canadian subtext” to your book. What is it?
Just the fact that I’m saying that the state could have a role to play. And that’s contrary, particularly in the tech world where the government is viewed as the ultimate evil entity. We have the NSA debate, the public schools don’t work, everything’s broken and we need the market to fix things, and don’t regulate the Internet, and there are all of these examples in all of these places. I think for me to say, hey, actually to the serve the public interest, you may need these structures that are here to do it, that feels like the Canadian part.
Do you worry about the future of libraries? What do you think will happen to the library?
I feel worried for the future of libraries in that the funding is so low and librarians I know are on edge about budget cuts. But it’s not so much a concern about whether they’ll still have value, or whether there’s still a place for them. Libraries are still really popular, and you can see this in the case of the NYPL and the way that public opinion has mobilized to try to stop this renovation plan. I think somebody described the redesign as a glorified Internet cafe. The redesign, what they’re trying to do is to stay relevant, but ultimately it’s not just about the library’s utility, it’s also a real estate deal. And the reaction of the public [to the NYPL's plan]: look, we have wifi.
I have a dear friend who’s working at the library in Chattanooga, which is one of the rare states where the budget is increasing, and she’s doing all of this neat stuff with technology: bringing in 3-D printers, teaching web-use skills, all of these public services that are really necessary beyond making books available for people. I’m bullish on the need for libraries. I’m pessimistic about our ability as a society to come together and pay for their small sanctuary if our public services are under attack.
The library’s one of the few civic spaces we have left. People are feeling like there’s no other ways for these online platforms and services to be run, it’s our destiny to have them be privately run, and yet we invoke the analogy of the library or archive all the time. To me it says that we find it realistic that Google will be our archive when it’s an advertising company. We’ve seen them get rid of services that are not profitable (Google Reader), and we’ve seen them demote things like Google Scholar. That’s realism, where it’s unrealistic to think we’d build on the success of the library with a national repository for knowledge, arts, and culture?
Libraries exist and they’re open. Libraries exist with all these values we invoke in the digital sphere, but there are very few people thinking about how we might build upon them.