Of all the books I’ve read about digital technology and its effects on our culture, Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is closest to my own beliefs. I think it’s a wonderful book, but what I really want is to see more people disagree with it.
The trouble is, everyone seems to like The People’s Platform. In Canada, The National Post likes it and The Globe & Mail calls it “a No Logo for digital natives”. In the UK The Guardian says it is an “invaluable primer” for understanding our networked world, The Telegraph gives it four stars out of five, and The Financial Times is positive. In the US I haven’t seen reviews in the major papers except for The Boston Globe, which is persuaded by Taylor’s arguments; but on the left, Dissent and Tom Dispatch welcome it, while Kirkus Reviews calls it “a cogent and genuine argument for the true democratization of online culture”.
The thing is, the book is a challenge to those who see themselves as digital progressives, or part of a digital counterculture—the descendants of No Logo, perhaps, who would trace a disruptive, counter-cultural path from the anti-copyright campaigns of the 1990s through Free/Open Source Software to net neutrality campaigns, Creative Commons, Open Data, Pirate Parties, the Arab Spring, Occupy, and Anonymous.
Not that we need to lump these all together of course, but there is a digital-progressive belief that the design of the Internet gives it a unique potential among technological innovations to be democratizing and liberating—and that (despite disenchantment with the advertising giants) this potential has been validated by the ways in which people have used digital technologies to challenge existing power structures.
It’s a “Sympathy for the Digital”, if you like: a willingness to give digital disruptions the benefit of the political doubt—to overlook the Wall Street connections of Bitcoin, or the ways in which open source institutions have aided the NSA’s spying activities—and a readiness to indulge today’s billionaires when they adopt the anti-corporate, counter-cultural language of the 1990s. It’s that feeling that the Pierre Omidyars of the world are somehow on “our” side because they come from the technology world. It’s the reason why the Electronic Frontier Foundation intervened on behalf of Airbnb against the State of New York. It’s where left-leaning people meet libertarians.
Taylor’s sympathy for the digital has run out. It ran out, perhaps, when the documentary she spent two years of her life making was loaded up onto download sites and her requests for a short grace period were rejected because “philosophy is free”. The preciseness of our vocabulary tells us how we look at the world, and reducing cultural creativity to what Taylor calls “that flattening word, content” is a condemnation of the digital world’s indifference to artistic work.
The way she sees today’s digital landscape, “we are witnessing not a levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement… 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”. As we look at how the last 15 years have turned out, the big picture that Taylor paints is not one of egalitarian progress, but of a sort of Animal Network, in which the new rulers have taken on the manners and values of the old, while clinging to the rhetoric of rebellion and change to justify their actions.
She takes on a wide range of topics, including equality, openness, the challenges of sustaining creative labour, investigative reporting as a public good, the winner-take-all nature of Web 2.0 platforms, the value of limited copyright, the environmental impact of online culture, gender imbalance in the technology world, the implications of an advertising (and self-promotion) driven culture. She does so with a wide range of reading, and in an accessible style, in a voice that is intelligent and full of conviction. The book is not an academic book or a “big idea” book structured around a populist, easy-to-digest nugget. It’s an essay, in the best sense of that word.
Her broad conclusion is that the digital world has not turned out the way that the enthusiasts and evangelists of the last two decades have claimed it would. In addition to predictable targets like Kevin Kelly, Jeff Jarvis, Don Tapscott and the more libertarian strands of Wired culture, Taylor takes on leading digital progressives such as Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Steven Johnson, and Tim O’Reilly: people who would think of themselves as egalitarian. She places them, broadly, on the wrong side of current debates about the impact of new technologies on culture and society. The book suggests that it’s time these digital progressives engaged in some serious questioning of their own viewpoints; that they acknowledge that we live in different times now, and that the ideas and arguments of 1994, or even 2004, have different implications in 2014. I don’t know if Taylor would do this, but I’d extend her argument to people like Biella Coleman, whose “Coding Freedom” is a smart example of digital counter-culture thinking, and to the kind of thinking that comes out of the Berkman Center.
Taylor’s book is provocative partly because of her own background. As an independent film maker and Occupy activist, she has a history of frustration with mainstream media; in her own words, she is “a prime candidate… for cheering on the revolution that is purportedly being ushered in by the Internet” (p2). We all cluster in camps of one kind or another, and for digital progressives it is easy to argue that a book like Robert Levine’s /Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back/ comes from a place of entrenched interest and reaction. It is more difficult to paint Taylor as a digital conservative: this is criticism from inside the tent.
This is why I’m so disappointed that there has been no serious defence of digital progressivism in response to The People’s Platform. (Have I missed some? Please leave links if so.) The book deserves to spark a debate, but it takes two to tango, and the digital progressives seem to be sitting this dance out. (I would not expect the Kevin Kellys of the world to respond, but I had higher hopes of others).
Why the lack of retort? Could it be that Taylor does not have the profile to justify a response? That it is easier to ignore The People’s Platform and wait for it to go away? It certainly looks that way from here. Let’s hope I’m proved wrong.
In the absence of a strong response, it’s time to say that digital progressivism has no legitimate claim to the political or counter-cultural legacy of No Logo and the movement that book embodied. Sure, part of that political legacy was the anti-copyright campaigns of the early 2000s. Sure, digital initiatives like Indymedia came out of that movement. But that movement was also a protest against branding, and against the McDonaldization of global culture and the American cultural imperialism that accompanied it. For those of us outside the US, the right of individual countries to set their own rules to sustain their cultural industries and their cultures were part of the struggle. If that’s a struggle that runs counter to what some call the logic of the Internet, well so be it.
What exactly do you mean by “the ways in which open source institutions have aided the NSA’s spying activities”?
If you mean “Google” then you should say that. If you mean that open source communities have accepted contributions from the NSA under the same terms as everyone else, that’s something whose badness needs a case made for it.
STH – A fair point. And to be clear I should say that both the NSA comment and the Bitcoin comment are mine, not Taylor’s.
What I was referring to was a bit of a personal hobby-horse, which is the Apache Foundation hosting and incubating the NSA-created Accumulo database that is a central part of the stack that analyzes data collected from public phone networks. See here and here for more.
The phrase “willingness to give digital disruptions the benefit of the political doubt” is pretty complex (the political doubt?), and I suspect that there’s some nuance here that I’m missing.
I’m not sure how the NSA’s open source projects are disruptive – Accumulo is a minor reinvention of something Google had already built and published papers about. You could argue that publishing those papers was what enabled the NSA to build Accumulo in the first place, but publishing papers is quite a long way from being a “digital disruption”.
Open source in general is disruptive because it undermines attempts to restrict access (or enhanced, i.e. source-code level access) to technology to those who can afford to pay for it, are deemed trustworthy enough to have it, or are important enough to demand it. The NSA scores two out of three and I’m quite sure they’ve had access to the source code for, say, MS Windows for a lot longer than most others. The effect of open source has been to give that level of access to most other people, and that’s enabling a gradual discovery of software compromises that the NSA may have been either responsible for or had advance notice of. If anything is being “disrupted” it’s the NSA’s privileged access to the source code of software that runs our personal devices and online services.
As for Bitcoin’s Wall Street connections, I am not entirely shocked to discover that people who work all day dealing with currencies and financial systems might have an interest in digital currencies. There are, in any case, much better critiques of Bitcoin than that.
The dirty secret of the “digital progressives” is that nobody involved with technology takes them remotely seriously. Tim O’Reilly, back in the day, sure – O’Reilly is still a great publishing house for technology books even if it’s not quite so unique any more, and Larry Lessig still says relevant and interesting things. But the rest? I don’t think anyone cares, they really are almost entirely irrelevant. They are people who write, in turns speculatively, excitably and soothingly about technology that other people have built and are building, and very few of the latter take any notice of the former. They’re posing as mediators between progressivism and technology when they really have almost no influence over either (Voltaire’s quip about the Holy Roman Empire springs to mind).
I’m going to have to read Taylor’s book to comment properly, but you’ve presented her as accusing the digi-progs of failing to keep their promises. That sounds about right, since they promised a lot of things without any real notion of how they were going to deliver them. I think, perhaps, that the success of the open source movement rather went to their heads, and they fancied that they could repeat the trick by coining some new term, writing a book about it, and marching confidently forward with banners and flags in hand. I’m not sure they’ve realised that nobody is following them yet. In truth, nobody was following them the first time around either, they just happened to march in roughly the same direction as Linus Torvalds by accident. I suppose it would be nice if they engaged in some self-criticism, but I would only expect them to emerge with some half-baked idea about, say, “open production” that is largely built around anecdotes about African villagers using 3D printers to make their own Segways. Let me repeat: these people are already largely ignored by the people they claim to speak on behalf of.
Whether the “logic of the internet” is compatible with the modern-day spirit of “No Logo” is… well, it’s not a question I’ve given a lot of thought to. This feels like it ought to be compatible with both, and that’s about as deep as my insight goes. It has been a long time since I read “No Logo” and I’m not sure I understood it properly the first time around.
I’m at that point in my comment where I really want to engage in some baseless speculation about what Astra Taylor did or did not say, so I’ll stop now and will perhaps return having read the book.
Rob – thanks for the comment. On the “taking seriously” issue, I think there’s always a split between practitioners and commentators/analysts. Practitioners aren’t that interested in commentary about their actions, unless that commentary is going to interfere with their practice. Back when I worked in chemistry labs, most scientists didn’t pay much attention to science policy types (except if funding cuts were in the offing) or philosophy of science types. Still, I think the broader debate about social impact is worth having.
As a Bitcoin aside, my day job is to work with databases and it’s funny to find out that a couple of exchanges were brought down because they used database software that didn’t provide basic isolation level guarantees. oops.
Well, that’s clearly a case where open-source institutions are working with the NSA, but:
(a) I don’t think there’s much “there” there. The open source community has provided huge benefit to the NSA, basically none of it via this mechanism. If you go to the Accumulo web page, you see that it builds atop Hadoop, Thift, etc. I’m sure that the NSA’s giant data warehouse runs on Linux. Etc, etc, etc.
(b) Deciding not to restrict contributions based on political positions is a position that, while it’s reasonable to disagree with, has served lots of community quite well.
(c) Finally, the open-source community has been at the forefront of increasing security on the net in response to surveillence.
Sam – I think (b) and (c) are in conflict. At least, there are some voices on the open-source community who are happy to claim (c) for themselves, and damn commercial companies for adopting (b), without noting that they themselves adopt (b).
First, I think your case against Apache Accumulo needs a response to (a) to work.
Second, I don’t see how (b) and (c) conflict. And which companies etc are you thinking about? Note that there’s an important distinction between contributors and customers.
I don’t get (a) at all. Yes, the NSA has used lots of open source software. My claim is that in hosting the Accumulo project, the Apache Foundation is is actively assisting the NSA in developing its spying capabilities. These two seem like separate statements to me and I don’t see why the claim about Apache is lessened by all the other open source software that the NSA uses.
The companies I was thinking about are those like Netsweeper, documented in this report. Companies selling multi-purpose software to oppressive regimes, but with a knowledge of how that software was to be used.
You don’t get (a) at all? So, if you learned that the NSA used Apache HTTP Server you’d expect or hope that the Apache Foundation would immediately shut it down?
When I said “I don’t get (a)” I was trying to say that I *do* see a big distinction between (i) knowing that the NSA run Linux, Apache, etc and (ii) accepting and hosting an NSA project designed for the purpose of storing data accumulated in the course of spying activities. And that the fact of (i) seems to have little to do with (ii). So no, I would not expect Apache Foundation to shut down the Apache HTTP Server just because the NSA uses it. Does that make more sense?
[realized I forgot to respond here]
One part of the point I’m making about (a) is that there is little difference between, one the one hand, hosting a general-purpose library for large-scale data analytics that the NSA uses to analyze call data, and, on the other hand, hosting a general-purpose library for large-scale data analytics that the NSA uses to analyze call data that a contractor originally wrote for the NSA.
The first half is Hadoop, the second is Accumulo (which is, in fact, built on Hadoop).
I think making the distinction you want between these two cases is unreasonable, and more generally, that this whole line of reasoning relies a lot on the doing/allowing distinction which I don’t think is real.
I’m guessing that Tom means the NSA’s contribution of Accumulo to the Apache Foundation whose badness he made a case for here:
Tom, I’m not sure that your assumption about Kevin Kelly being a techno-utopian are correct. In his book “What Technology Wants”, chapter 10 “The Unabomber was Right” Kelly provides a hilarious list of historical quotes by technologists/inventors claiming that some new technology will bring an end to war.
He states that “It is not that all of these inventions are without benefits – even benefits towards democracy. Rather, it’s the case that each new technology creates more problems than it solves.”
I feel for Taylor’s frustration with the distribution of her documentary but I also think this issue has been with us since Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists. The issue of how to price/distribute content that has near zero marginal cost is complicated and supports Kelly’s quote about new technology creating new problems.
Consistency has never been one of Kelly’s strengths. I think he just likes to say things to stir things up a bit. But at the core, occasional quotes aside, I’d stand by my claim. Not that I’ve read everything though.
Tom, I have read “What Technology Wants” recently and was surprised at your characterization of Kelly’s views. The quote I provided is what I believe reflects his true views, from a chapter that mocks techno-utopianism, in a book that does not promote techno-utopianism. It is uncharitable to claim someone has inconsistent views when what they actually say/do differs from what you imagine that they say/do.
Clay Shirky does some defending of his views over on CT.
I don’t agree with his defence, but my disagreements with him are something I now avoid addressing to him on CT.
However, as I say over there, it seems to me that buried in the “amateurism” defence from Clay is a disdain for the “journeyman” and along the way, the “10,000 hours” (or choose your own figure) relating to mastery.
The deep irony is that most of Clay’s defences come down to the stuff CT’ers critique Gary Becker for in a thread further down the page – for Clay it’s all about the economics.
Do you have a link to Shirky’s defense? I don’t find much written by him on CT since last year, and nothing on Taylor’s book, & I’d like to have a look at it.
Of all the people mentioned, Shirky is the least shy about declaring Left sympathies in public (mostly at CT, in fact), but the arguments he makes in his books in particular have little explicit connection to Left thinking in any tradition I’m familiar with, and make little effort to make any such connections clear.
Which is not to deny that Shirky’s rhetoric sounds “populist” at some moments, but populism is a fickle creature.
I am tempted to answer Tom’s excellent question by suggesting that even those named “techno-progressives” above (and by others, this is not Tom’s or Astra’s invention), when one digs into their work, turn out to make a very weak case, if a case they make at all, for the connections between their technological progressivism, and what we on the Left call “progressive” politics.
Shirky is in the comments section of this thread (the original post was by Henry Farrell).
It’s more neoliberal than Left. It’s “progressive” in a very minor sense of being against, not exactly a strawman, but an extremely limited and constrained view of what qualifies as right-wing. Basically, the idea is that it’s OK to have society of 0.1% rulers and 99.9% ruled, as long as the positions in top aren’t _formally_ restricted by royal birth or race or gender or some other intrinsic quality (the Left-ness being the opposition to those restrictions, the formal racism, sexism, etc). Huge amounts of money, even inherited, are not taken to be a problematic quality in this framework.
And the Internet-based businesses are taken to be a capitalism purified of the right-wing negatives (the formal racism, sexism, etc) hence performing the neat trick of allowing one to simultaneously be a corporate booster while claiming social liberalism.
OK, I found it: in the comments to this piece by Henry Farrell: http://crookedtimber.org/2014/05/06/does-inequality-help-artists-not-so-much/
I’ve read through the linked book reviews and the Crooked Timber thread that includes Shirky’s comment. It never ceases to amaze me how uncharitable progressives are towards people that have differing views from their own. From my perspective, the debate seems to be about one group of progressives (Astra Taylor, Tom Slee, Naomi Klein) correctly pointing out the errors in the utopian beliefs of the “Techno-Progressives” and then claiming anyone that does not hold their Neo-Marxist Nihilist views is a Techno-Progressive.
Shirky’s “defense” on Crooked Timber was pointing out that the heart of the matter comes down to 1) Preferences, and 2) Economics. The world has changed because of Digital Content and Digital Distribution. He then links to an article that he wrote in 2003 which makes the correct prediction that micro-payments will fail (the opposite of techno utopian). He also explains the Gary Becker like view that “behavior is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences” than purely monetary ones and this is reflected in the title of the piece (“Fame vs. Fortune”).
The reality is that documentary makers like Astra Taylor, and musicians, and journalists, now have to grapple with the same issue Bill Gates did in 1976 (Open Letter to Hobbyists) because of Digital Content/Distribution. No one has solved this problem but I’m pretty sure that if Taylor/Slee/Klein were allowed to set the rules that everyone would be much worse off.
One of the core principles that all progressives believe is that there exists one or more groups of people that happily and readily oppress/exploit others. It seems that this issue is being seen through that lens. The discussion focuses on who the exploiters are and how to use government as a tool to punish them.
Problems represent opportunities to anyone that can solve them. Using coercion to redistribute other people’s money to signal your empathy/beliefs instead of solving the underlying problem is self-indulgent and morally bankrupt (no pun intended).
what Tom said about internal consistency, etc.
RAD – I certainly don’t think everyone who holds different views is a techno-progressive. There are many in the technology business whose views differ from mine (one RAD, for example) and we are on the opposite side of various arguments, and that’s fine.
The issue I’ve been arguing, maybe not very clearly, is to some extent an internal debate among those who would label themselves on the left/democrat/social-democratic part of the spectrum – whether the projects they promote lead to the outcomes they espouse. Some of us (Astra Taylor, David Golumbia and many more) don’t think they have done.
Tom, I generally support your take-downs of technical utopians (e.g. social media is always a source of good, venture capital as a suitable model for “collectivist” startups). From my perspective, your argument went something like “Taylor nicely articulates my beliefs, mass media reviews of her book have been surprisingly positive, the lack of response to her take-down of techno utopians like Shirky and Kelly are interesting” or at least that is what I ended up focusing on.
So I get your claim about “the left/democrat/social-democratic part of the spectrum” and I would definitely put Shirky and Kelly on that side of the spectrum (I’d call their views Neo-Liberal as they do not by default think economic activity is mostly all wrong/evil). Shirky does not need a “defense” against Taylor’s “the techno elite are exploiting the creative class” argument since the arguments are non-overlapping, in my opinion, and it seems to me that the gist or your argument and the Crooked Timber thread is that he does require a defense.
It makes me happy that you are thinking about analyzing “whether the projects they promote lead to the outcomes they espouse”. Words to live by especially if its modified to read “projects I/we/they promote”.
RAD: I’m with you until the “non-overlapping” arguments” sentence. If there is a middle step connecting the two I’d say it’s around how free markets work (at least in naturally oligopolistic cases) – that relying on free markets (in information goods) leads to the aforementioned creative-class-exploiting techno-elite. But maybe this needs a higher-bandwidth environment if you are back in town sometime.
also enjoy: “progressives believe is that there exists one or more groups of people that happily and readily oppress/exploit others” + “government as a tool to punish them…Using coercion to redistribute other people’s money.”
yep, you Randians definitely do not believe there is “one group” that readily “oppresses/exploits others.” unless it’s called “government.” in that case, all bets are off.
David, being against coercive government is not the same as believing government is the source of all coercion. I’m rather fond of garbage pick-up, transportation infrastructure, and even the public education I received. Randian, ummm, I don’t think so. I’m much more a fan of the emergent order of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin but I might just be nit picking here.
“Neo-Marxist Nihilism” was my quick attempt at labeling the brand of progressivism that sees the world in terms of a modern class struggle caused by an economic system that is corrupt to the core and beyond redemption. Neo-Marxist vs. Neo-Liberalism. Nihilism vs. Utopianism. I think its a pretty good description of the views of Klein and Slee, I’m assuming Taylor as well from what I read today. Come up with a better label, I’ll gladly use it. If Slee says its an inaccurate label then I’ll apologize and retract.