book review: Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform

The internet, we are all expected to believe, is revolutionary, in several different meanings of the term. In the span of a decade or two, the digitally-connected technologies we refer to as the internet expanded from being populated by a few thousand academics, government officials, and cultish amateurs to a ubiquitous part of contemporary life. No industry has been untouched by this rapid explosion of infrastructure and attention, and none could afford not to engage its customers online. For researchers and teachers, the internet has completely transformed the way we investigate problems and solve them, and has opened up even the most remote classroom to more information than the greatest  libraries in the world could once hold. But it’s not merely the communicative, economic, or academic changes that give the internet its outsized reputation. That reputation also depends on the revolutionary potential of these technologies, their ability to act as agents of change that can empower the little guy against entrenched authority, enable grass roots organizing, even spark revolutions that overthrow dictators. This portrayal of the online world, as a force not just for greater communication or commerce but for emancipation, has spilled out from the cheerleading technology press such as Wired magazine and into general interest publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.

But quietly, a counter-narrative has begun. As the online world has matured, and the initial rush of the potency of these technologies has subsided, critics of the digital utopian narrative have begun to emerge. Astra Taylor’s 2014 book The People’s Platform is a clarion call in that new tradition, a book that could be to digital skepticism what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was to environmentalism. And it offers us a new perspective on the digital tools that we use in our day-to-day lives, a way to appreciate their power while recognizing that they are neither intrinsically good nor bad, but rather can be used creatively or destructively by individuals and society.

Taylor is not the first to throw cold water on the revolutionary potential of the internet and its subsidiary technologies. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010) argued that, when access to knowledge is ubiquitous and nearly instantaneous, we lose some of our independence and ability to think critically. Evgeny Morozov, a longtime critic of digital-era utopianism, published The Net Delusion (2012) in reaction to claims that social media had created the conditions for the Arab Spring and similar political movements, arguing that these simplistic takes distorted history and failed to recognize how authoritarian governments, as well as populist movements, can take advantage of new technologies. Jaron Lanier, an early pioneer of virtual reality turned techno-skeptic, wrote You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013) to document the ways that the new digital era has undermined individuality and the ability of artists and thinkers to make a living, respectively.

All of these writers explored themes similar to Taylor’s, and yet none of them, in my estimation, produced as powerful of a critique. Without being a demagogue or dismissing the very real gains that the internet has brought, Taylor systematically, rigorously undermines the triumphalist narrative. She compares the hype about how the internet has changed the world to the reality, and finds the reality far less positive and more disturbing—in journalism and the media, in the arts, in the economy, and in politics. Throughout, she looks at the outsized claims made by digital utopians, academics and writers and Silicon Valley gurus who have claimed that the internet is a great leveler that will bring power and fame (if not fortune) to the masses. The predictions of prominent commentators like Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, the academics Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig, and tech-industry powerhouses like Larry Page of Google are subject to meticulous review, and found wanting. Rather than being a tool of egalitarianism and liberation, the internet is revealed as a feudal system, one which has actually entrenched old power structures and cut the financial legs out from under entire industries. “In fact,” writes  Taylor, “wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect…. they pose a whole new set of challenges to the health of our culture” (9).

Take journalism. Journalism is a topic of obvious and unique importance in democratic societies, which require reporters and pundits to act as watchdogs over the government and to help alert the public to  risks and problems. The internet has surely increased the ability of the average citizen to engage in this kind of activity, as Taylor acknowledges. Everyone with broadband access can potentially become an amateur journalist, sharing photos, starting a blog, and holding politicians accountable. Taylor summarizes the popular conception of this revolution, the belief that “the Internet has freed us from the stifling grip of the old, top-down mass media model, transforming consumers into producers and putting citizens on par with the powerful” (69). It’s a pleasing idea, and as someone who has engaged politically online myself, on blogs and social media, a seductive narrative. But as Taylor demonstrates, the truth is far less reassuring. Although it’s certainly true that it’s easier than ever for regular people to share their opinions, that doesn’t mean that reporting is any easier. Old school journalism—the brick-and-mortar work of asking questions and finding out facts—remains a very expensive proposition. With plummeting revenues from classified advertisements (thanks to free online alternatives like Craigslist), traditional newspapers have dramatically scaled back their investigative reporting units, including closing extensive foreign bureaus that have provided essential information on foreign events. Even the most dedicated of amateurs could not hope to replicate the type of reporting that led, for example, to the Watergate scandal, reporting that took time, money, and access. “Hit by a double whammy of technological change and a global recession,” writes Taylor, newspapers the country over “cut staff, slashed sections, or closed shop” (80). This has left many major areas of the country without any real professional journalism, meaning that there is no one to keep government and industry accountable.

The internet is often described as an attention economy, and yet as many aspiring online journalists will tell you, getting attention is not the same thing as making a living. Consider  the story of Baltimore-area journalist Stephen Janis and his now-defunct website The Investigative Voice. In many respects, Janis would seem to have done everything right. After having been laid off by the Baltimore Examiner, one of many once-celebrated newspapers that has been economically devastated in the internet era, Janis started his site out of a perceived need for what Taylor calls the “nitty-gritty beat coverage that no one wants to invest in anymore” (84). The site was an immediate success, breaking big stories, drawing a modest but enthusiastic audience, and finding a comfortable niche for itself locally. But despite the quality of its content, The Investigative Voice struggled in terms of access and in terms of sustainability. Lacking the immediate potential to go viral and attract lots of clicks, it was very hard for the site to generate ad revenue. And though he was a well-known reporter with real connections in the city, Janis found it much harder to get access to important people and information without the imprimatur of a paper like the Examiner. Taylor extensively quotes figures like Lawrence Lessig who claim that institutions like newspapers are dinosaurs in the new era, and yet when it comes to having the kind of clout necessary to open doors, it seems that institutions still matter. Working long hours for almost no money, Janis and his collaborators eventually called it quits, and The Investigative Voice was shuttered. It’s a sadly common reality on the internet: success in terms of praise, recognition, and attention in no way ensures financial stability.

Nowhere is Taylor more convincing than in her discussion of how the internet has (and has not) changed life for artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Herself an established, respected documentary  film director, Taylor has great credibility to demonstrate how the reality of professional arts and media has not matched up with utopian predictions. Taylor talks openly about the problems with the older models of media production and show business, describing them as closed, hierarchical systems that typically rewarded only those who were already connected and successful. One of the strengths of Taylor’s book is her refusal to romanticize the old systems as she critiques the new. As she writes, “in discussions of digital culture, complex dynamics are reduced to stark, binary terms” (169). Her own habits are far more nuanced. But even with nuanced, the portrayal of the basic economics of the culture industry is stark and frightening. Widespread digital piracy has severely reduced revenues in the music industry, for example, and digital streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify have not come close to replacing them. A similar dynamic has begun to happen in the world of filmmaking, with technologies like Bit Torrent and faster broadband access making movie downloads easier and easier. And despite the fact that piracy is often described as an attack only on rich corporations, Taylor demonstrates how independent, low-budget artists like herself are feeling the squeeze. She interviews Jem Cohen, himself an acclaimed independent filmmaker, who reflects his disappointment on finding that a low-budget documentary he directed had appeared on file sharing sites before it had even debuted publicly. “Sometimes we need to remind ourselves,” Taylor quotes Cohen as writing,  “that the relationship between those who make creative work and those who receive it should be one of mutual support” (167). But with illegal file sharing simple and ubiquitous, and the online cultural attitude largely laissez faire, few on the consumer side hold up their own end of the bargain. The result is not the level playing field we were promised but instead an online economy where the Googles and Facebooks rake in millions and artists are increasingly unable to make ends meet.

Taylor’s analysis expands into politics, education, and the labor market, demonstrating how internet technologies have concentrated power in the hands of a few large entities and undercut the ability of individuals to make a living. But there is some hope. Taylor does not believe that the genie of technological change can be put back into the bottle, and would not try even if she did. Rather, she advocates for seeing technological change in terms of potential—the potential for both good and bad. “A more open, egalitarian, participatory, and sustainable culture is profoundly worth championing,” she writes, “but technology alone cannot bring it into being” (232). Instead, we must recognize that internet culture will be what we make it. Taylor advocates for a new spirit of conscientious consumption of online media, and she sees a new spirit of digital skepticism as emancipatory rather than pessimistic. If the people who read, learn, debate, shop, create, and engage online work together to make the internet into the accessible, egalitarian space we were promised, “only then,” writes Taylor, “will a revolution worth cheering be upon us” (232).

I read books I enjoyed more in 2014 than The People’s Platform. But I didn’t read any books that were more important. It’s hard to imagine a more timely argument, or one more worth making.