How digital culture is hurting art

Five key questions – and answers – from Astra Taylor

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Astra Taylor is the author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” a new book on how information technology and market changes are reshaping art and culture (Amazon, Powells). I asked her five questions about her arguments in the book.

HF – At many points in the book you suggest that new technologies, far from leveling the playing field, are creating their own forms of inequality. How can open technologies lead to very unequal outcomes?

AT - It’s true that our new communicative technologies can create space for many voices, but the Internet also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities. It is open but also unequal.

Contrary to all the hype about the “long tail,” the cultural playing field hasn’t been leveled so much as rearranged. What we are seeing is the emergence of the “missing middle” (a phrase I’ve taken from the political scientist Matthew Hindman). Online the bandwagon effect intensifies: the big can get bigger than ever before, and there are lots of tiny interesting things on the margin, but the in-between is hollowing out. The Internet is a global distribution medium. What once were national brands or celebrities can now be global brands or celebrities. For example, The New York Times and the Guardian are finding international audiences while papers in mid-sized cities falter. According to the 2008 annual State of the News Media report, legacy news organizations actually wield more influence now than before: “Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience than they did in the legacy media.”

I try to highlight a contradiction in the contemporary media ecology. On the one hand, a handful of businesses are rising to become new info-monopolies. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook are now among the biggest companies in the world, siphoning revenue away from other local economies to Silicon Valley or Seattle or wherever, concentrating wealth in the process.

On the other, even as this remarkable concentration is playing out, our relationship with media is becoming more personalized. No one can tell you what to click on, Web sites reflect your preferences, and everyone has a glowing screen of their own. Yet these catered services generally rely on centralized vendors and services, like Amazon or Apple, that control the hardware we are using and the content we consume. This creates a kind of vertical integration behind the scenes. Certain barriers to cultural participation have been removed, and we can all post on social media or comment on articles, but massive asymmetries of power persist. Individually we glean benefits that are orders of magnitude smaller than the benefits for the platform owners who can collect and harness the “big data” generated by our communications.

That’s the big picture. But I also look at the way other kinds of hierarchies carry over from the offline to the online realms. For art and culture makers, the Internet is far from the meritocracy many imagined it would be. Material inequities, stemming from socioeconomic status and gender, affect who is able to participate online. Money and celebrity still dictate who gets attention (front page placement isn’t cheap and neither is a tweet from an A-list star). And algorithms, which tend to show us more of what we’ve already “liked,” and reinforce the already familiar, don’t always help matters. There are many ways in which the digital sphere is less democratic and diverse than we might want.

HF – Many technology commentators argue that we should aim to create a “free culture” of open sharing, swapping and remixing on the Internet. You think that this is a terrible idea for many artists and producers of culture. Why?

AT - Terrible is a strong word. To be clear, it’s not that I’m against “sharing, swapping, and remixing” in principle. I partake of all three. It’s that I think many prominent free culture advocates don’t fully grapple with the fact that these activities are taking place on privately owned for-profit platforms. Free culture enthusiasts are very critical of old media giants and rightly so (Disney especially, because of the company’s role in copyright extension), but they tend to give newer tech companies a pass. That’s what I have a problem with. I believe we need to be equally critical of these new enterprises. My point is that these new tech companies are becoming the Disneys of the digital world, only more ubiquitous and more insinuated into our lives than Mickey Mouse ever was. Disney didn’t track your browsing habits at the mall or read your mail, after all! (And, it should be noted, Disney still exists. The old “dinosaurs” have not gone extinct, but are adapting quite well to the new media landscape).

Of course I understand that the “free” of free culture is supposed to be “free as in speech not free as in price,” as its proponents often stress. I spend a lot of space talking about that fact. But in practice the two meanings tend to blur into each other, as it’s hard to charge for something that people are able to freely access and remix. Ultimately, the free culture position is concerned with control — specifically the controlling nature of copyright. And as a documentary filmmaker I share this concern; fair use is essential to my work, and I wholly agree the current copyright regime is completely obscene, bloated well beyond its original purpose. But as an independent filmmaker and writer, I admit to feeling pinched between two extremes: copyright maximalists who think culture should be owned in perpetuity on one side and free culture idealists who believe creators have no special entitlement to work they have produced on the other. I didn’t see my experience reflected in either position, and working on this book was an excuse to think through all the complexities.

What’s more, some of my friends and acquaintances who rally to the cause of “free culture” argue it is an effective way to subvert corporate culture, defy market values, and create a digital “cultural commons.” I am not convinced getting rid of copyright will get us there; in fact, I argue the opposite is true. Just because you can access culture for “free” doesn’t mean that someone isn’t making money off of it — it just may not be the artist, but rather the company that owns the backend. As I mention in the book, while the free culture perspective is concerned with control, they ignore the issue of commercialism.

Lawrence Lessig, the godfather of the free culture movement, is a good example of this. He is great at sounding the alarm about how the controlling nature of copyright stifles creativity, and he raises many good points. Yet his enthusiasm for the free circulation of information causes him to ignore the commodification of our lives online and the winner-take-all nature of the Web. In his book, “Remix,” he basically says that we should not worry about how we will fund “free” culture, because advances in targeted advertising will solve the problem for us. I strongly disagree. I think you need to worry about the overreach of copyright law and pervasive commercialism.

HF – What does this do to artistic production? Which kinds of artists are likely to do well and which will do badly?

AT - Leaving culture to be funded by marketers is bad not just for creators and consumers but also for citizens, for democracy. I argue in the book that it makes our culture more cloying and compliant. For example, clickbait headlines and slideshows are what you get when you leave online journalism to advertisers. And then there’s the rise of “stealth marketing,” “brand content,” and “sponsored journalism” — all the advertising online that is pretending not to be advertising, because disclosure laws haven’t caught up with technology.

When we don’t fund culture directly, marketers are happy to fill the gap. They don’t care about copyright as they want their messages to spread, to go viral. But do we really want artists pandering to these new corporate Medicis? I admit this is not the most troubling example, but yesterday I saw an interview with a filmmaker who was funded by AT&T to make a series of shorts. He went on at length about the total creative freedom he had. But when you actually watched his videos they were basically mobile phone fetish films. That’s what this model produces.

A lot of people will probably dismiss concerns about online advertising. They feel they can spot sponsored content a mile away or block and ignore ads, or because the ones they see scrolling alongside their Facebook feed or interrupting their Twitter timelines feel irrelevant. But the problem goes deeper than what we see. As info-security expert Bruce Schneier says, “the business model of the Internet is surveillance.” We pay for “free” cultural goods and services with our privacy; every move we make leaves a trace noted by data brokers, and I believe this harms our dignity. Meanwhile the information they collect is amassed and analyzed and we get sorted into “reputation silos” and labeled as either targets or waste, which can reinforce prejudicial treatment. As a White House review noted just last week, the possibility of “big data” fueling housing, employment, and credit discrimination is real and worrying.

HF – You argue that creative producers face a precarious existence, thanks to a Darwinian logic which has swept away many traditional protections, and instead left individuals to manage for themselves as best as they can. Of course, artists aren’t the only people in this situation. Which of the problems discussed in your book are specific and unique to artists and cultural producers, and which are general problems for a much larger class of ordinary Americans?

AT - Though the book focuses on arts and culture I tried to highlight the overlap between artists and other people. In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. I should say that the focus on art and culture was a response to many prominent tech books that use examples from the cultural realm — writing about how the Internet has “liberated” musicians from record labels, for instance — without going into much detail or actually talking to musicians. One thing I tried to do was inquire into the nature of that liberation, its positive and negative facets.

The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition — the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist — someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock — is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.

A lack of stability, security, healthcare, and so on: these are problems artists share with other Americans. Ironically, as the Apple example illustrates, the figure of the artist is invoked to justify these difficult circumstances. Instead I would like to see other aspects of the creative life being spread to other types of work: things like autonomy, purpose, and intrinsic reward. Alas, that’s not the case. In the end, I believe artists need to have solidarity with other kinds of workers, but to do that they would have to let go of the image of themselves as somehow outside normal economic life, as separate from “ordinary Americans.” In the words of John Lennon they would have to recognize they are not completely “clever, classless, and free.”

HF – Unlike many technology intellectuals, you don’t want to sweep away existing institutions, but instead to reform them and make them more equal. What would this mean in practical terms?

AT - Yes, and in a way I surprised myself. I come from a pretty radical background. I was “unschooled” as a child (a kind of anarchist homeschooling) and have made my way as an independent scholar of sorts, neither attached to a university or a particular organization. I was also very active in Occupy Wall Street, a movement that expressed many legitimate grievances at institutions, at the government, the big banks, and so on. You could say I have my anti-institutional bona fides.

Nonetheless, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of the tech commentary I came across, which essentially insisted that old institutions — book publishers, newspapers, record labels, libraries, universities, you name it — would be “disintermediated” out of existence and that this was a good thing, step towards a new democratized digital future. I had three main reactions. First, disintermediation, if it’s real, is uneven at best. Advertising hasn’t been disintermediated away, for example, and in various ways new technologies have fortified old power: Snowden’s revelations of the government’s surveillance apparatus is a good example, as is high-speed Wall Street trading. The second reaction was that disintermediation doesn’t acknowledge the new mediators; Google, Facebook and all the myriad data brokers stalking us without our consent. These mediators are not neutral: Google prominently displays its own offerings when you search for things, Facebook hassles users to pay to promote their posts, Amazon charges for prominent positioning on its platform, and so on. There are endless examples. And finally, I’m just not convinced that eliminating institutions is the path to democracy. We need institutions, we need buffers — we just need better ones.

And that’s a challenge. It’s easy to stand aside and cheer the crumbling of institutions that have disappointed us. It’s harder to think about how to actually do the jobs they were meant to do and do them well. Consider journalism. Many tech pundits condemned the mainstream media and argued it was better to just let bloggers and amateurs do that work, insisting that they would be purer for being uncompensated. But it’s not an insult to amateur reporters to say it’s hard to cover City Hall everyday if you have another job that puts food on the table. In the end, as a society we need mechanisms to support people to do serious journalism. I think that means considering publicly financed non-commercial models, and others may disagree. But that’s a debate we should be having instead of just cheering on destruction.

Who Really Owns The Internet?

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Why are a tiny handful of people making so much money off of material produced for nothing or next-to-nothing by so many others? Why do we make it so easy for Internet moguls to avoid stepping on to what one called “the treadmill of paying for content”? Who owns the Internet?

In her excellent new book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor thinks through issues of money and power in the age of the Internet with clarity, nuance, and wit. (The book is fun to read, even as it terrifies you about the future of culture and of the economy.) She brings to bear her estimable experience as a documentary filmmaker—she is the director of two engaging films about philosophy, Zizek! And Examined Life—as well as a publisher and musician. For the past several months, she has been on the road performing with the reunion tour of Neutral Milk Hotel (she is married to the band’s lead singer, Jeff Magnum). We spoke over coffee on the Lower East Side during a brief break from her tour.

Can we solve the issues that you talk about without radically reorganizing the economy?

No. (Laughs) Which I think is why I’ve been so active. I’ve been thinking about this in connection with all these writers who are coming up who found each other through Occupy, and why all of us were willing to participate in that uprising despite all the problems and the occasional ridiculousness of it.

But the economy can be revolutionized or the economy can be reformed, and I don’t discount the latter option. That level of social change happens in unpredictable ways. It’s actually harder to think of a revolutionary event that has had a positive outcome, whereas there have been lots of reforms and lots of things that people have done on the edges that have had powerful consequences. Would I like to see an economic revolution? Definitely. But I think there are a lot of ways to insert a kind of friction into the system that can be beneficial.

This book is about economics, and the amazing, probably very American ability to not talk about economics—particularly with technology, which is supposed to be this magical realm, so pure and disruptive and unpredictable that it transcends economic conditions and constraints. The basic idea is that that’s not the case.

To a lot of people this is self-evident, but I was surprised at how outside the mainstream conversation that insight was. When money is brought up, there’s this incredible romanticism, like the Yochai Benkler quote about being motivated by things other than money. But we’re talking about platforms that go to Goldman Sachs to handle their IPOs. Money is here. Wake up!

The people at the top are making money.

In that conversation about creativity and work, there’s so much ire directed at cultural elites. And rightly so. Newspapers suck. They’re not doing the job that they could do for us. Book publishers publish crap. Cultural elites deserve criticism. The punching bags of this Web 2.0 conversation all deserve it. But when we let the economic elites off the hook, that’s feeding into the tradition of right-wing populism. Ultimately, the guys getting rich behind the curtain aren’t being treated as the real enemies.

You mention that when you wrote to people who posted your films online, you either received no response or a very angry response.

One thing I took away from that experience is that it’s almost as though people really believe that the Internet is a library. “I should be able to watch on YouTube a full-length film about philosophy. It’s a library, it should be full of edifying, enlightening things!

My response was that I spent two years making this film, and I want a window—I didn’t ask them to take it down forever, I asked for a grace period of I think two months. Conceptually, we’re not grasping the fact that even though there are private platforms that increase our access to things, first those things have to exist. How have we not thought through how these products are funded?

I empathized with the person on the other end, who wanted these films. I made them because I hoped that people would want them. But I can’t invest another two years of my life in an esoteric and expensive production if all I can do is put it on YouTube and pray that it goes viral.

And even if it goes viral, you might not make any money from it.

Right. The whole model doesn’t work in that context. And I can see both sides. Especially on the copyright issue. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re so dependent on gleaning from the world, gleaning from other people’s creations. You’re not always the author of the words on the screen. I don’t want some closed, locked-down scenario where every utterance is closed and monitored by algorithms who have no ethical imperatives and have no nuance and who don’t understand fair use.

Another person I’ve talked to for this series is Benjamin Kunkel, who said his introduction to Marxist theory is already a bit antiquated because of Jesse Myerson’s Rolling Stone article, which recommends, among other things, a universal basic income. As I was reading your book, I was thinking about how a universal basic income might help.

I actually mention universal income in passing, in the chapter that looks at the enthusiasm for amateurism that was actually a bit more prominent a few years ago, when I started writing. “We finally have a platform that allows non-professionals to participate!There were things in that conversation that were so reminiscent of utopian predictions from centuries past about how machines would free us to live the life of a poet. “We’ll only work four hours a day.Why didn’t those visions come to pass? Because those machines were not harnessed by the people. They were harnessed by the ruling elite.

I was struck by how ours is a diminished utopianism. It wasn’t that we would use these machines to free us from labor; it was that now in our stolen minutes after work we can go online and be on social media. How did it come to this, that’s that all we can hope for? And the answer is in how the economy has been reshaped by neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it over the last few decades.

The idea of labor-saving devices has been around. Oscar Wilde, Keynes. But it was pretty common in the 1960s, when there was a robust social safety net. So I think you’re exactly right, that we need something in the public-policy and social sphere, not the technological sphere, to address these issues.

It’s great that people are talking about a universal income, at least in our little tiny circles. You step outside bubble of the young intellectual left of New York, and people will say: What the fuck are you talking about?

We think this idea is getting traction, but it’s because we all follow each other online and we’re all reading the same magazines. Not everyone is reading Kathi Weeks or Ben Kunkel in their free time. I don’t agree with Ben that his book is out of date because of that one article in Rolling Stone. We need to keep harping on these basic concepts.

I think it’s a ripe time for it, considering recent research into the employment prospects for millenials. College indebtedness is insane right now. That’s why I got involved with StrikeDebt. When the economy is forcing you to separate the romantic idea of what you consider your calling from what you have to do for money since there are no fucking jobs that have anything to do with your degree, you start to think that maybe a universal income might make a lot of sense.

If the economy won’t support you to do what you love for a living, you’re already halfway there.

Can you talk about Occupy and how you got involved?

I was working on this book before Occupy, and the tech realm was where a lot of our political hopes were being invested. If you think back, there wasn’t a vibrant protest movement in the US. Instead, there was this idea of democracy through social media, and technologically-enabled protests abroad. That might account a bit for why I gravitated towards this subject.

Then Occupy happened. If anything, it distracted me from The People’s Platform. I wound up putting out five issues of the Occupy Gazette with n+1. Then I got roped into, or rather I roped myself into, this offshoot of Occupy called StrikeDebt that has been doing the Rolling Jubilee campaign.

But my work with the Occupy campaign suffused my analysis more and more. Calling attention to the economic elite fits very well into Occupy’s idea of the ninety-nine percent and the one percent. The amount of value being hoarded by these companies is just mind-boggling.

So these projects did go in tandem. Both of them are thinking about power today. In this book, I was trying to think through how power operates in the technological sphere generally, but particularly in relationship to media. So no longer are you just watching what’s been chosen for you on television. Now you’re supposed to be the agent of your own destiny, clicking around. But there’s still power; there’s still money.

People will say, “How can you criticize these technological tools that helped people overthrow dictators?We constantly use this framework of the people against the authoritarian dictator. There was a lot of buzz about how social media empowered the protests in the Middle East which mostly turned out to be false. But what about the US? There’s no dictator. There’s a far more complicated power dynamic. The challenge of our generation is how you build economic association and aggregate economic power when you’re not going to be doing conventional workplace organizing, because there are no jobs, let alone stable, long-term jobs.

So, this is depressing. Could you talk about solutions?

The solutions aren’t that radical: The library model that we project on to the Internet but that doesn’t quite fit—we can invent something analogous to it. There are lots of cool things we could be doing. But we’re locked into this model that’s really stupid and inefficient: the advertising model. That’s the most ridiculous way to create these services and platforms. The advertising model is commonsensical because it’s common, but it’s not sensical.

What would socialized social media—and non-social media—look like?

Ben Kunkel has an essay where he talks a bit about this. But first, we have to get away from the idea that the government is the bad guy. One thing that we’ve learned in the wake of the NSA scandals is that the public and private sectors are really intertwined; government surveillance piggybacks off of corporate surveillance. It might be less technological and more about funding things for their own sake. If you look at countries with robust cultural policies, under the broadcast model a lot of them instate quotas. There would be a lot of protectionist regulations, and they would invest in their own work.

Quotas are complicated, obviously. But you can look to the model of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting wasn’t a government propaganda machine. Liberals and conservatives both worry that this would create something bland. But when public broadcasting came under fire, it was usually for being too edgy and provocative. There are mechanisms that you can introduce to prevent whatever visions of sad iron-curtain art you have in your head.

One thing that comes up a lot in some liberal critiques of Edward Snowden is that he might be a libertarian.

I don’t know Snowden, so I can’t comment on him. But I think that a lot of us are libertarians. Libertarianism is the default ideology of our day because there’s something deeply appealing about the idea of free agents—people on their own in charge of their own destinies. That has to do with the retreat of institutions from our lives, which results in an inability to imagine a positive role for them to play. We’re still dependent on institutions; we just don’t recognize it or give them much credit.

This ubiquitous libertarianism, particularly in tech circles, was a major target of my book. All of these things you want these tools to bring about—an egalitarian sphere, a sphere where the best could rise to the top, one that is not dominated by old Goliaths—within the libertarian framework, you’ll never get there. You have to have a more productive economic critique.

But I also think that if you’re on the left, you need to recognize what’s appealing about libertarianism. It’s the emphasis on freedom. We need to articulate a left politics that has freedom at its center. We can’t be afraid of freedom or individuality, and we need to challenge the idea that equality and freedom are somehow contradictions.

At the same time, even on the radical left, there’s a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions. When we criticize institutions that serve as buffers or bastions against market forces, the right wins out more. It’s a complicated thing.

When I defend institutions in this book, I knew I might provoke my more radical friends. The position that everything is corrupt—journalism is corrupt, educational institutions are corrupt, publishers are corrupt—sounds great. And on some level it’s true. They’ve disappointed us. But we need more and better—more robust, more accountable—institutions. So I tried to move out of the position of just criticizing those arrangements and enumerating all their flaws and all the ways they’ve failed us. What happens when we’ve burned all these institutions to the ground and it’s just us and Google?

One of my favorite aspects of your book is your emphasis on the physical aspects of the Internet. It reminded me of the scene in Examined Life where Zizek is standing on the garbage heap, talking about how material stuff disappears.

That image we have of the Internet as weightless—it’s so high-tech it doesn’t really exist!—is part of why we misunderstand it. There are some people doing good work around this, people like Andrew Blum, who wrote the book Tubes, asking what the Internet is. There’s infrastructure. It’s immense, and it’s of great consequence, especially as more and more of our lives move online. The materiality is really important to keep in mind.

We’re moving to a place where we have a better of grasp of this. People are finally realizing that the online and the offline are not separate realms. It’s not really like I have my online life where I’m pretending to be a 65-year-old man in a chat room, and then I’m Astra at the coffee shop. Those identities are as complicated and as coherent as any human identity has ever been. That can extend towards thinking about objects.

The other night I was re-reading Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers—the sort of book that makes you feel like you’re just reheated whatever, and that this person did it so much better the first time around. He outlines planned obsolescence, stuff made to break. It’s so relevant to our gadgets, our technology. He wrote it in 1960, at that moment where the economy had been saturated, so everybody had their fridge and their car. So how do you keep GDP going up? It’s actually patriotic to make things that break.

You talk about Steve Jobs in that context.

Steve Jobs is the ultimate incarnation of that plan. You have to have a new iPod every year. But he presented himself as this artist-craftsman who would never sacrifice quality. That’s such a lie.

You talk about how both sides of the Internet debate, if you will, see a radical break with the past, whereas you see more continuity.

I think that that’s crucial to understanding where we’re at. This standard assumption that there would be a massive transformation blocked us from seeing the obvious outcomes and set us back in terms of having a grasp on our current condition. If we had gone into it with a bit more realism, more respect for the power of the market, less faith in technology’s ability to transcend it, we’d be better off.

Could you say more about respect for the power of the market?

You don’t want to be too deterministic, I suppose, but the market drives the development of these tools. Especially once you’ve gone public and you’re beholden to your shareholders.

There’s confusion because we’ve been here before with the first tech boom. One thing that got me thinking about this—and that confused me—was that I came to New York right at the tail end of that. I didn’t work for a startup or anything like that, but I had friends who did, friends who were fired. I followed what was happening in the Bay Area, they lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. You think: okay, we learned from that. We learned that because of the way the market sought investments, they propped up some really stupid ideas, there was a bubble, and it burst. What’s amazing to me is that fifteen years later, the same commentators are suddenly back, talking about social media, Web 2.0, and making proclamations about how the culture will evolve. You were wrong then, partially because you ignored the financial aspect of what was going on, and here you are again, ignoring the money. Give the market its due.

Do you have advice for what people—people like me—who write or produce other work for the Internet can do about this situation?

I’m encouraged by all these little magazines that have started in the last few years. Building institutions, even if they’re small, is a very powerful thing, so that we’re less isolated. When you’re isolated, you’re forced into the logic of building our own brand. If you build something together, you’re more able to focus on endeavors that don’t immediately feed into that. That’s what an institution can buy you—the space to focus on other things.

What would help creators more than anything else in this country are things that would help other workers: Real public health care, real social provisions. Artists are people like everybody else; we need the same things as our barista.

I quote John Lennon: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free. One thing we need is an end to artist exceptionalism. When we can see our connection to other precarious people in the economy, that’s when interesting things could happen. When we justify our position with our own specialness…

You talk about how Steve Jobs would tell his employees that they were artists.

Right. How could you ask to be properly compensated, don’t you see that you’re supposed to be an artist? Grad students were given that advice, too.

That’s where this ties in to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the problems with the concept of “Do What You Love.”

Exactly. Now, precarity shouldn’t be a consequence of being an artist. Everyone should have more security. But it’s more and more the condition of our time. One thing I say in passing is that the ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work around the clock with no security, and who will keep on working after punching out the clock—that attitude is more and more demanded of everyone in the economy. Maybe artists can be at the vanguard of saying no to that. But yes, there would have to be a psychological shift where people would have to accept being less special.

David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century, has just been released by Rare Bird Books. He can be followed on Twitter. The interview has been condensed and edited.

http://www.theawl.com/2014/04/who-owns-the-internet

The Rise of the Digital Proletariat

In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized,’ says author and activist Astra Taylor. (Deborah DeGraffenreid.)

Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.

BY Sarah Jaffe

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.

The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.

Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.

Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.

Many people know you as a filmmaker or as an activist with Occupy and Strike Debt. How do you see this book fitting in with the other work you’ve done?

Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.

You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?

It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.

It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.

The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.

The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.

Google’s buying drone companies.

Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They’re not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.

This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there’s a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.

It’s been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who’s making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.

The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.

The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they’re new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.

This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It’s harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that’s because I’m getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.

I think it’s helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there’s still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you’re talking about, it’s completely predictable.

We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It’s challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That’s far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.

You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they’re making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?

It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things’ll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They’re actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.

I think it’s important that we tackle these issues. That’s where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It’s really interesting how today’s leading tech pundits don’t pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.

There’s something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn’t acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they’ll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.

I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you’re working for Apple, money shouldn’t be a consideration.” You’re supposed to just love your work so much you’ll exploit yourself. That’s what interning is. That’s what writing for free is when you’re hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that’s the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?

Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.

Ultimately, it’s a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it’s not clear exactly how we’re being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people’s free participation feeds into it.

Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It’s a bleak, bleak view.

In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There’s now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today’s economy, only in part because of technology.

Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they’re supposed to be things you just choose to do because they’re pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.

The thing about the jobs conversation is that it’s a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we’re going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we’re making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.

You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.

The question is, how do you get there? You’d have to have a political movement, you’d have to challenge power. They’re not just going to throw the poor people who’ve had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It’s that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn’t faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we’ll catch up with them.

The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.

Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.

The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where’s the money going to come from?” We’re already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.

You raise a moral question: If we’re paying for these things already, then shouldn’t they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There’s this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t go into the way they’re actually run. That’s the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley’s hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government’s already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Why the Web can’t abandon its misogyny

The Internet’s destructive gender gap:

People like Ezra Klein are showered with opportunity, while women face an online world hostile to their ambitions

, TomDispatch.com

The Internet's destructive gender gap: Why the Web can't abandon its misogynyEzra Klein (Credit: MSNBC)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

Powerful and exceedingly familiar hierarchies have come to define the digital realm, whether you’re considering its economics or the social world it reflects and represents.  Not surprisingly, then, well-off white men are wildly overrepresented both in the tech industry and online.

Just take a look at gender and the Web comes quickly into focus, leaving you with a vivid sense of which direction the Internet is heading in and — small hint — it’s not toward equality or democracy.

Experts, Trolls, and What Your Mom Doesn’t Know

As a start, in the perfectly real world women shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, leaving them substantially less leisure time to spend online. Though a handful of high-powered celebrity “mommy bloggers” have managed to attract massive audiences and ad revenue by documenting their daily travails, they are the exceptions not the rule. In professional fields like philosophy, law, and science, where blogging has become popular, women are notoriously underrepresented; by one count, for instance, only around 20% of science bloggers are women.



An otherwise optimistic white paper by the British think tank Demos touching on the rise of amateur creativity online reported that white males are far more likely to be “hobbyists with professional standards” than other social groups, while you won’t be shocked to learn that low-income women with dependent children lag far behind. Even among the highly connected college-age set, research reveals a stark divergence in rates of online participation.

Socioeconomic status, race, and gender all play significant roles in a who’s who of the online world, with men considerably more likely to participate than women. “These findings suggest that Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to potential pay-offs of being online,” warns Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Put simply, closing the so-called digital divide still leaves a noticeable gap; the more privileged your background, the more likely that you’ll reap the additional benefits of new technologies.

Some of the obstacles to online engagement are psychological, unconscious, and invidious. In a revealing study conducted twice over a span of five years — and yielding the same results both times — Hargittai tested and interviewed 100 Internet users and found that there was no significant variation in their online competency. In terms of sheer ability, the sexes were equal. The difference was in their self-assessments.

It came down to this: The men were certain they did well, while the women were wracked by self-doubt. “Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an ‘expert’ user,” Hargittai noted, “while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or ‘not at all skilled.’” As you might imagine, how you think of yourself as an online contributor deeply influences how much you’re likely to contribute online.

The results of Hargittai’s study hardly surprised me. I’ve seen endless female friends be passed over by less talented, more assertive men. I’ve had countless people — older and male, always — assume that someone else must have conducted the interviews for my documentary films, as though a young woman couldn’t have managed such a thing without assistance. Research shows that people routinely underestimate women’s abilities, not least women themselves.

When it comes to specialized technical know-how, women are assumed to be less competent unless they prove otherwise. In tech circles, for example, new gadgets and programs are often introduced as being “so easy your mother or grandmother could use them.” A typical piece in the New York Times wastitled “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.”  (Assumedly, dad already gets it.)  This kind of sexism leapt directly from the offline world onto the Web and may only have intensified there.

And it gets worse. Racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment or “trolling” has become a depressingly routine aspect of online life.

Many prominent women have spoken up about their experiences being bullied and intimidated online — scenarios that sometimes escalate into the release of private information, including home addresses, e-mail passwords, and social security numbers, or simply devolve into an Internet version of stalking. Esteemed classicist Mary Beard, for example, “received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault” after a television appearance last year, as did British activist Caroline Criado-Perez after she successfully campaigned to get more images of women onto British banknotes.

Young women musicians and writers often find themselves targeted online by men who want to silence them. “The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I’ve had, and they talked about ‘hate-fucking’ me,” blogger Jill Filipovic told the Guardian after photos of her were uploaded to a vitriolic online forum. Laurie Penny, a young political columnist who has faced similar persecution and recently published an ebook called Cybersexism, touched a nerve by calling a woman’s opinion the “short skirt” of the Internet: “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you.”

Alas, the trouble doesn’t end there. Women who are increasingly speaking out against harassers are frequently accused of wanting to stifle free speech. Or they are told to “lighten up” and that the harassment, however stressful and upsetting, isn’t real because it’s only happening online, that it’s just “harmless locker-room talk.”

As things currently stand, each woman is left alone to devise a coping mechanism as if her situation were unique. Yet these are never isolated incidents, however venomously personal the insults may be. (One harasser called Beard — and by online standards of hate speech this was mild — “a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth.”)

Indeed, a University of Maryland study strongly suggests just how programmatic such abuse is. Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous. The findings were so alarming that the authors advised parents to instruct their daughters to use sex-neutral monikers online. “Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender,” a well-meaning professor said, effectively accepting that young girls must hide who they are to participate in digital life.

Over the last few months, a number of black women with substantial social media presences conducted an informal experiment of their own. Fed up with the fire hose of animosity aimed at them, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and others adopted masculine Twitter avatars. Golden replaced her photo with that of a hip, bearded, young white man, though she kept her bio and continued to communicate in her own voice. “The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile,” Golden wrote, marveling at how simply changing a photo transformed reactions to her. “Once I went back to Black, it was back tobusiness as usual.”

Old Problems in New Media

Not all discrimination is so overt. A study summarized on the Harvard Business Review website analyzed social patterns on Twitter, where female users actually outnumbered males by 10%. The researchers reported “that an average man is almost twice [as] likely to follow another man [as] a woman” while “an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.” The results could not be explained by varying usage since both genders tweeted at the same rate.

Online as off, men are assumed to be more authoritative and credible, and thus deserving of recognition and support. In this way, long-standing disparities are reflected or even magnified on the Internet.

In his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reports that of the top 10 blogs, only one belonged to a female writer. A wider census of every political blog with an average of over 2,000 visitors a week, or a total of 87 sites, found that only five were run by women, nor were there “identifiable African Americans among the top 30 bloggers,” though there was “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latino heritage.” In 2008, Hindman surveyed the blogosphere and found it less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of print newspapers. Nothing suggests that, in the intervening six years, things have changed for the better.

Welcome to the age of what Julia Carrie Wong has called “old problems in new media,” as the latest well-funded online journalism start-ups continue to be helmed by brand-name bloggers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. It is “impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively — and increasingly — male and white,” Emily Bell lamented in a widely circulated op-ed. It’s not that women and people of color aren’t doing innovative work in reporting and cultural criticism; it’s just that they get passed over by investors and financiers in favor of the familiar.

As Deanna Zandt and others have pointed out, such real-world lack of diversity is also regularly seen on the rosters of technology conferences, even as speakers take the stage to hail a democratic revolution on the Web, while audiences that look just like them cheer. In early 2013, in reaction to the announcement of yet another all-male lineup at a prominent Web gathering, a pledge was posted on the website of the Atlantic asking men to refrain from speaking at events where women are not represented. The list of signatories was almost immediately removed “due to a flood of spam/trolls.” The conference organizer, a successful developer, dismissed the uproar over Twitter. “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process,” he stated. Instituting quotas, he insisted, would be a “discriminatory” way of creating diversity.

This sort of rationalization means technology companies look remarkably like the old ones they aspire to replace: male, pale, and privileged. Consider Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing and social networking service, which was founded in 2010 but only hired its first female engineer last year. While the percentage of computer and information sciences degrees women earned rose from 14% to 37% between 1970 and 1985, that share had depressingly declined to 18% by 2008.

Those women who do fight their way into the industry often end up leaving — their attrition rate is 56%, or double that of men — and sexism is a big part of what pushes them out. “I no longer touch code because I couldn’t deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the ‘brogramming’ gulag I worked for,” wrote one woman in a roundup of answers to the question: Why there are so few female engineers?

In Silicon Valley, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer excepted, the notion of the boy genius prevails.  More than 85% of venture capitalists are men generally looking to invest in other men, and women make 49 cents for every dollar their male counterparts rake in — enough to make a woman long for the wage inequities of the non-digital world, where on average they take home a whopping 77 cents on the male dollar. Though 40% of private businesses are women-owned nationwide, only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups are.

Established companies are equally segregated. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in the top 100 tech companies, only 6% of chief executives are women. The numbers of Asians who get to the top are comparable, despite the fact that they make up one-third of all Silicon Valley software engineers. In 2010, not even 1% of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black.

Making Your Way in a Misogynist Culture

What about the online communities that are routinely held up as exemplars of a new, networked, open culture? One might assume from all the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” rhetoric that they, at least, are better than the tech goliaths. Sadly, the data doesn’t reflect the hype. Consider Wikipedia. A survey revealed that women make up less than 15% of the contributors to the site, despite the fact that they use the resource in equal numbers to men.

In a similar vein, collaborative filtering sites like Reddit and Slashdot, heralded by the digerati as the cultural curating mechanisms of the future, cater to users who are up to 87% male and overwhelmingly young, wealthy, and white. Reddit, in particular, has achieved notoriety for its misogynist culture, with threads where rapists have recounted their exploits and photos of underage girls got posted under headings like “Chokeabitch,” “N*****jailbait,” and “Creepshots.”

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members — a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example — can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipediapoints out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave — that is, essentially are driven from — the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

“Urban” Planning in a Digital Age

The digital is not some realm distinct from “real” life, which means that the marginalization of women and minorities online cannot be separated from the obstacles they confront offline. Comparatively low rates of digital participation and the discrimination faced by women and minorities within the tech industry matter — and not just because they give the lie to the egalitarian claims of techno-utopians. Such facts and figures underscore the relatively limited experiences and assumptions of the people who design the systems we depend on to use the Internet — a medium that has, after all, become central to nearly every facet of our lives.

In a powerful sense, programmers and the corporate officers who employ them are the new urban planners, shaping the virtual frontier into the spaces we occupy, building the boxes into which we fit our lives, and carving out the routes we travel. The choices they make can segregate us further or create new connections; the algorithms they devise can exclude voices or bring more people into the fold; the interfaces they invent can expand our sense of human possibility or limit it to the already familiar.

What vision of a vibrant, thriving city informs their view? Is it a place that fosters chance encounters or does it favor the predictable? Are the communities they create mixed or gated? Are they full of privately owned shopping malls and sponsored billboards or are there truly public squares? Is privacy respected? Is civic engagement encouraged? What kinds of people live in these places and how are they invited to express themselves? (For example, is trolling encouraged, tolerated, or actively discouraged or blocked?)

No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity unsettling and — a word with some irony embedded in it — paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind.  They are, as a start, designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, as well as advertisers, who want to sell us things. The term “platform,” which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing certain purposes over others, certain creators over others, and certain audiences over others.

If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error. The question of how we encourage, or even enforce, diversity in so-called open networks is not easy to answer, and there is no obvious and uncomplicated solution to the problem of online harassment. As a philosophy, openness can easily rationalize its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice, and keeping with the myth of the meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of talent or will.

That’s what the techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to Internet freedom and as forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern. The word “natural” is, of course, a mystification, given that technological and social systems are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be changed and improved.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! andExamined Life), and activist. Her new book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), has just been published. This essay is adapted from it. She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Astra Taylor is working on a film about the theorist Slavoj Zizek, which is being produced by the Documentary Campaign.

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/10/the_internets_destructive_gender_gap_why_the_web_cant_abandon_its_misogyny_partner/?source=newsletter