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.