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.

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.