Beyond digital discontent
A conversation with Astra Taylor
New York activist and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor just released her first book. The People’s Platform is a pragmatic study of Internet politics. Taylor belongs to the Occupy generation that is wary of scepticism and populist phrases. As an independent filmmaker known for films like Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008), she is the voice of a new generation of public intellectuals that is self-confident, while acutely aware of its precarious status in the current marketplace.
Astra Taylor is neither a yuppie nor does she belong to the melancholic generation that once discussed world affairs in smoked-filled bars, listened to punk music and read novels in printed book form; however, she does feel alienated by iPads and smart phones. Now in her early thirties, Taylor grew up with computers and the Internet yet never bought into the libertarian dot-com cult. She knows her native critical Internet canon, from Carr, Turkle and Lanier to Morozov and Rushkoff, but never got depressed. If you want to classify her, she probably belongs to the Robert McChesney political economy of media school that analyses the Internet as a product of the American corporate media landscape. Like McChesney, Taylor emphasizes that the Internet is still part of the twentieth-century media question and associated issues of (monopoly) power, representation and identity. The specific ideology of IT and Silicon Valley as such is not a matter of concern to her.
Taylor is the American you always hoped would exist, but never ran into. Instead of moralistic statements along the line of Peter Sloterdijk (“You must change your life”), she emphasizes the need to develop a political economy of the Internet. As proper Marxists do, she praises the revolutionary power of digital production forces but warns that there is as much continuity as change. “Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain — consolidation, centralization, commercialism — and will continue to shape it.” It is now widely acknowledged that the Internet is breeding monopolies, while no authority seems ready to do much about it. The winner-takes-all logic is written deep into the network protocols and is not just a product of neoliberal policies. This is not a period of extinction, as the pessimists would like to believe, but one of adaptation. The binary logic, according to Taylor, is standing in the way of a critical and engaged analysis of the new players.
“Despite the exciting opportunities the Internet offers”, she writes in The People’s Platform, “we are witnessing not a levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement, with new winners and losers. In the place of Hollywood moguls, for example, we now have Silicon Valley tycoons (or, more precisely, we have Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley tycoons). The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors — these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against.” Or, as Michelle Dean put it in a Gawker review of the book, “you can’t just walk in and start plucking freedom from liberation trees to snack on.”
The discontent in networks manifests itself most clearly in the question how to utilize social networks in political campaigns. The “tyranny of structurelessness” as described by feminist Jo Freeman in 1970 has only become more apparent and is a topic Astra Taylor addresses extensively, without falling back into a retro “democratic centralism” position of the Eurocommunist party days. But what are the motives behind her net criticism?
Geert Lovink: The Snowden case has further polarized the Internet debate. How would you update your book, given what’s happened over the past months?
Astra Taylor: I have tremendous respect for Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras,1 who did a brave public service. If I updated the book, I would discuss the disclosures in greater detail but I would also try to draw more attention in the context of the surveillance debate to structural inequality. The NSA disclosures typically get presented in a way that reinforces knee-jerk anti-government sentiment, strengthening the libertarian worldview that is especially dominant in tech circles (to a degree this is understandable, because the government is doing a lot of terrible stuff). To counter this tendency I’d say more about the way state surveillance is facilitated by and depends on a digital economy centred on advertising revenue and intensive data collection, and emphasize the role of private corporations and market forces play in the everyday invasion of our privacy.
While there is the image of heroic (always white male) hackers resisting state spooks, people of colour and the poor are disproportionately scrutinized. They are the victims of surveillance we need to look to. When we do, we get a less sexy but more accurate image of the present and the future: invasive infiltration of Arab and Muslim communities, tracking people through welfare and social benefits programs, price and credit discrimination based on profiles compiled by unaccountable data miners, and so on. Surveillance is a free speech issue and an economic justice issue, but work still needs to be done to connect those dots.
GL: You write: “By not experimenting, we court disillusionment.” However, your book is not about alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. You have given priority to analysis of dominant social media and dig into the political economy of Silicon Valley.
AT: I do not believe potential alternatives will be particularly successful without putting political economy front and centre. Many of the problems with the current crop of big digital platforms and new start-ups stem from their revenue models and the existing venture capital-led funding structures. Ultimately the financial realm is what needs to get “disrupted” and the experimentation I’d like to see would address that fact.
So what do I mean, exactly? I’d like to see all sorts of things including but not limited to: unionizing workers at Amazon’s warehouses, Apple’s factories and elsewhere (including the emerging distributed piecemeal labour force, like Task Rabbit and Amazon Mechanical Turk); political campaigns and public protests around the taxes that tech companies currently dodge; building cooperatively owned digital distribution networks instead of allowing private interests to suck all the profit from our cultural commons; and a discussion around what truly social (as in publicly funded) social media might look like. We need to find creative ways to insert friction into the winner-take-all rich-get-richer dynamics of the Internet and the wider economy. That’s the kind of experimentation I want to see.
GL: You’ve made two film documentaries, one on Slavoj Zizek, the other with figures such as Judith Butler and Cornel West. They are entirely absent in your book. Why? How come there is such a wide gap between the world of contemporary artists and thinkers and the digital reality of networked capitalism?
AT: Few of my former film subjects have seriously addressed the issues central to The People’s Platform with some exceptions: Martha Nussbaum co-edited a book called The Offensive Internet, Zizek has written a bit about tech and Wikileaks, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri present a rather idealistic view of the Internet and the free flow of information in their book Commonwealth (in a footnote I point out how their language is virtually indistinguishable from some Silicon Valley boosters, which I think shows how muddled things have gotten). There are academics producing interesting work out there, but they are not as high profile. Critical theory has not caught up to the current reality of networked capitalism — Deleuze’s short “Postscript on the societies of control” is about as good as it gets, and it doesn’t even explicitly mention the Internet (it was written in 1992).
While I’m very sceptical of the discourse of “digital natives”, age may be a factor here. It may be that we need to wait to hear from people who have grown with these networked technologies and take them for granted, who aren’t dazzled or terrified by them. No doubt they will see the connection to underlying material conditions, to things like the end of stable employment and the rise of precarity, to general austerity and the debt-financing of what should be public goods like health and education, and so on. In the US, youth-helmed magazines like Jacobin and The New Inquiry and Model View are producing smart incisive essays on these sorts of topics. I look forward to the kind of critical theory this generation will produce. My guess is tech and capitalism will both be a big part of it.
GL: You praise Europe for its publicly funded digital repositories. Is that a viable proposition in the United States? Why not demand the impossible and argue for new public infrastructures? How do you envision the people’s platform?
AT: US readers will probably think I’m demanding the impossible. To argue that the market does not provide everything we need is heretical, and in tech circles it is anathema to suggest that the state may have a positive role to play — which is ridiculous, because the state was essential to everything from the development of the computer and the Internet to things like touchscreens and TOR. The public sector subsidizes innovation but the private sector reaps the rewards and takes all the credit. That should change.
Are my suggestions viable? My answer is why not. We have libraries: they exist and people love them. Why is it considered such a stretch to imagine ways to build on these already successful institutions in a digital capacity? I’d argue it is far more of a leap of faith to trust a company like Google to function as a long-term archive and not the advertising enterprise it is.
I will say that I’m not sure we are at a point where we can envision what a true “people’s platform” would be. I was active in Occupy Wall Street, and opponents would often imply that if we didn’t outline exactly how we thought the economy should run down to precise details, our criticisms were invalid. Of course I disagree. I think identifying the toxic traits of the current system and pointing in another direction is where we have to begin. The Internet and the World Wide Web were designed with a combination of academic, public service, and even countercultural values — why do we accept that corporate values should now take precedent? Why should the abundance of wealth generated by people on the network be captured by only a small number of players? But that’s the problem of our time, so there’s no creating a real people’s platform without creating a people-centred economy instead of this profit-centred one.
GL: You’re a filmmaker. In your book you seem to portray you and many others trapped between the free culture of Creative Commons and suchlike, where artists are gently forced to give away their content for free, and a rigid, corporate intellectual property regime, which you do not identify with either. Do you believe that crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin will offer a sustainable solution, maybe combined with crowdfunding campaigns? Certainly Google and Facebook will not be interested in a monetary solution as they thrive on the free economy. Where should we look for a solution?
AT: I don’t see crypto-currencies as a sustainable solution, especially not the speculation-friendly Bitcoin. I like crowdfunding (in fact I was part of a very successful crowdfunding campaign for a political project called the Rolling Jubilee, which raised over 700,000 dollars to abolish over 15 million dollars of medical debt for people across the United States), but I think there is too much hope invested in these kinds of piecemeal fundraising efforts where each individual has to carefully cultivate and then tap their personal social network for donations. It’s terribly inefficient when you look at it that way, and personally exhausting. That’s part of why we need institutions to support cultural production; otherwise all the burden falls on individuals.
In general, I’m less interested in crypto-currencies per se than thinking about underlying principles — for example, the principle of non-extractive finance. How do you build financial structures that keep value, or capital, in communities and puts it to productive use instead of sucking value out and letting the one per cent — be they Wall Street bankers, Silicon Valley shareholders, or even resource-rich large-scale Bitcoin miners — hoard it? This principle of non-extractive finance is being put into practice by small interest free rotating loan funds and also by the Caja Laboral, the credit union at the centre of the Basque region’s famous Mondragon Corporation — I wish more people interested in crypto-currencies would look to at these kinds of initiatives for inspiration.
GL: I have noticed that most of those who are critical of Internet business in the US are public intellectuals, not academics. Also Evgeny Morozov, although he recently became a PhD student. How do you look at this emerging field, now that you are one of them? It is not hard to observe that many of the public intellectuals have a business background, such as Carr, Keen and Lanier. We wouldn’t exactly call them leftists. There seems to be a danger that Internet criticism is becoming backward looking, nostalgic, moralistic… and boring.
AT: It’s also interesting that some leading tech enthusiasts — I’m thinking Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis — have appointments at universities and are nonetheless, ironically, the most critical and contemptuous of institutions. Anyway, the fact that tech critics who are not employed by universities are connected to the world of business is hardly surprising — that is exactly why I said above and why I argue in the book that we need cultural institutions and non-commercial structures to support people to do critical and creative work. When those institutions erode, advertisers and private interests step into the breach and gain influence, and the public sphere suffers.
But you are right, those writers are not leftists in any traditional sense while my book definitely comes from a left perspective. There’s another thing that sets me apart, another way I will never really be “one of them” — I’m not a middle aged white man (Morozov’s young, but he has an old soul). I’d say part of what makes popular Internet criticism so boring is that it is homogenous. Women and people of colour are writing some of the most compelling tech criticism out there but they don’t get as much attention or recognition. I’m thinking of Rebecca MacKinnon, Susan Crawford, Gabriella Coleman, Alice Marwick, and Kate Losse who have all written books and also folks like Zeynep Tufekci, Jillian York, Joanne McNeil, and others who have substantial online followings — all of their work tends to avoid the binary framework of the mainstream tech debate (is the Internet good or bad?) and they pay more attention to social inequities and political complexities than their better-known male counterparts.
Though they can occasionally be very critical of technology, they don’t pine for the “good old days” or some world that has been lost. That’s because as an intellectual and a feminist it’s impossible to be nostalgic — what woman would want to turn back the clock fifty years or even twenty? But just because we don’t want to go back in time to the pre-Internet days doesn’t mean we have to buy into the myth that everything is getting better all the time thanks to technology. We need a different kind of future-oriented criticism: the kind that recognizes that progress is possible but never guaranteed. You have to be ready for a fight.