Saturday, June 7, 2014

Beyond digital discontent - A conversation with Astra Taylor

The Internet and the World Wide Web were designed with a combination of academic, public service and even countercultural values, says Astra Taylor. So why do we accept that corporate values should now take precedent? Introducing the "people's platform".

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) andExamined 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.

'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).... The public sector subsidizes innovation but the private sector reaps the rewards and takes all the credit. That should change.... there's no creating a real people's platform without creating a people-centred economy instead of this profit-centred one..'

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, 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.. read more:

see also technosociology: our tools, our selves

electronic frontier foundation