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Questioning the Internet: Astra Taylor Takes on Silicon Valley Cheerleaders

Bennett Baumer Jul 16

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
By Astra Taylor
Metropolitan Books 2014


The Internet is here to sell things.

Sure, there is lofty talk of democratic access to vast troves of news and information, and one can Google-map the far corners of the world or stream music from Ethiopia. You can reconnect with high school friends via Facebook and meet the person of your dreams on dating sites. But while Silicon Valley cheerleaders insist otherwise, the Internet has evolved over the past 20 years into being primarily an engine of commerce.

In the face of new media boosters like Richard Florida, Clay Shirky and Wired editor Chris Anderson who speak with unwavering confidence about a hypothetical future, cultural critic Astra Taylor offers a compelling counter-narrative in her new book, The People’s Platform. Best known for her 2005 documentary film Žižek! about the Slovenian Marxist philosopher of the same name, Taylor examines how capitalism’s hierarchies and inequalities are reproduced in the digital age. As she notes at the beginning of the book, “We have lived with it [the Internet] long enough to ask tough questions.”

Take the media for example. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argues that while new media technologies have disrupted career stability, they have also fueled the “information-and-idea-based economy.” In practice this has led to the rise of unpaid bloggers and poorly paid reporters who race to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle while advertisers migrate online and print journalism circles the drain. With so much content floating online, websites that can aggregate the most information and do so as cheaply as possible (think Huffington Post) and sell enough advertisements will have the leg up.

For Taylor, Florida’s new economy is “an upbeat version of digital share-cropping. … Under this kind of open system, everything we do gets swept back into a massive, interactive mashup in the cloud, each bit parsed in the data mine, invisible value extracted by those who own the backend.”

Taylor wields her pen (or is it a keyboard?) on other Internet-related topics as well, such as copyright law, free file sharing and news echo chambers (she uses the term “imaginary cosmopolitanism”). For all her criticisms of the Internet, Taylor resists a dualism that sees technology as inherently good or bad. The Internet’s failings, she insists, have more to do with social and economic forces that thwart its egalitarian potential and steer it toward being “little more than a radically discounted shopping mall.” 

For the Internet to truly become a “people’s platform,” Taylor says, people will have to wrest it back from the business interests that currently dominate it. As one example, why can’t we have a civic-minded, nonprofit search engine that, unlike Google, does not relentlessly gather and mine our personal information or a vast digital library accessible to everyone? 

Taylor’s book bristles with concepts and ideas, but will it sell on Amazon?