The People's Platform exposes the Internet's capitalist underbelly of exploitation, control and broken promises, while still managing to offer hope for an alternative.
The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital AgePublisher: Metropolitan
Length: 288 pages
Author: Astra Taylor
Publication date: 2014-04
I’ve taken awhile to write my review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform, because the book makes me sad. Unlike several other utopian driven futures I’ve covered recently, Taylor writes about my future, about the one I was promised. The one I promised to help create.
The subtitle, “Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” makes a promise itself, and I think a false one. It promises that mere mortals can wrest away the juggernaut of capitalism that has taken hold of the Internet and made it not an information superhighway, but an e-commerce superhighway, promising to deliver your every entertainment and gaming want and desire through a physical world reduced to bits and streamed to the device of choice, perhaps soon carefully delivering physical objects via drone directly to your doorstep.
The Norman Rockwell-like posters of the cheery mailman at Christmas chased by children in hopes of an early present is replaced by images of indifferent children tapping on their phones while a robot wearing ironic bells drops a package at the front door.
As Taylor notes, all of these technological promises led to euphoria about the future, a new economy that would create value from the hard mental work and the intangible wisp that is software. And then Facebook started promising the attention-starved a way to connect to friends and family through the abstract of the social graph, while learning from the billions of posts and messages the intimate secrets of its users and eventually, how to match them with its advertisers.
The Internet promised that information would be free, but some of that free information became a burden of enlightenment and a trigger of horror as Edward Snowden released some of America’s deep dark secrets and terrorists posted high-definition recruiting videos on YouTube, including full fidelity executions.
And rather than a medium of serendipity and wonder, the industrial age has firmly taken hold of the Internet, turning it into a machine of production, squeezing seconds and microseconds out of creation until journalism, for example, is relegated to an output based algorithm that ensures profitability through production. Depth, perspective and objective reporting be damned.
Indeed, by and large, journalism's goal is no longer to inform minds or inspire hearts, but to attract eyes, to elicit likes and spark storms of favorites that turn some inane observation into that moment’s thing. Andy Warhol was orders of magnitude incorrect when he said everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. On the Internet, most are happy with 15 seconds.
David Gerrold, author and teleplay writer, wrote When Harley Was One, which remains one of my favorite books for its prescient cynicism about our technological future. In the book, Harlie, which stands for "Human Analog Robot Life Input Equivalent" designs another machine, "GOD", the "Graphic Omnisicent Device". Taylor, probably unknowingly, gives away Gerrold’s ending when she writes:
Forward-thinking entrepreneurs are busy thinking beyond immediacy and looking toward the next phase of the Internet’s evolution. We’re moving past real time, the technologists promise, to something even more compelling (un-real time, perhaps?). Soon enough, we’ll live in a world where search engines not only answer our questions but tell us what questions we want to ask.
I am sad because we were promised hyper-democracy, direct interaction with legislators, along with the abolishment of artificial edifices like the electoral college, perhaps even with representative democracy. With the Internet, we can represent ourselves quite nicely, thank you very much. During the Deep Water Horizon disaster in America’s Gulf Coast, Talyor recalls thinking: “Was I, hyper-empowered with my smartphone and social media contacts? That’s not how I felt down south, where my impotence was thrown into unpleasant relief by the enormity of the unfolding catastrophe.”
In the end, my sanity required me to put on my scenario planning hat and find balance between Taylor’s cynical observations and her somewhat intransigent optimism. In my analysis of the uncertainties we face, I find we are no more likely to be worse off in the future managed by corporate overlords than we are in the anarchy that would follow their demise. The path forward is likely a complex, winding one full of compromise, more broken promises and moments of insight and clarity.
In media there is an intellectual arms race being waged between the creators of information and its consumers. As consumers hack the digital keys to the kingdom and unlock the wealth that is digital video, the corporate overlords invent streaming, work with computer companies (now really media companies themselves) to eliminate the “analog” hole that permits the analog recording of digital media (such as recording a digital stream via the microphone input on a computer). The hacker will find a way to break streaming eventually, but between the human desire to want more, like 4K televisions on which ripped DVDs look like crap, and new forms of digital armor, the tit-for-tat will continue.
Taylor argues that we need a sustainable future, one that requires that all parties want to reveal transparently the real cost of a "free" cellphone, from e-waste to the carbon emissions from powering our gadgets -- and the real implications of sharing identity. For the green activist the right answer to communications is the reuse of a tin can and a biodegradable string, but not being able to communicate with iMessage to green activists in Europe instantly seems counterintuitive, even at the cost of rare earth elements, e-waste and the nagging knowledge that the selection of an iPhone was manipulated by advertising, social media and the desire to be liked.
In such a world, can people reclaim the promise, can the Internet become the “people’s platform”? Can the Internet be torn away and its adherents lead to a creative commons where the creative underclass isn’t taken for granted, exploited and transformed into digital sweatshops churning out subpar web series and digital tchotchkes?
It can, Taylor argues, but it will not be easy, but it can be done if we create a "cultural ecology". Her brief manifesto at the end of the book offers promises that we have heard before, followed by more analysis about hot intrenched we are in the current economic model.
Movement toward a more egalitarian knowledge economy remains much more an idea than an implementable reality with just a few tweaks required to reach a tipping point. The Internet has been subsumed by often courageous, well-meaning inventors that are asked by investors to make money, and once they do so, to go on making money, often in a business that gives away its core services for free. That model lends itself to the fabrication of new ways to express wealth and value that increasingly move from the tangible and visceral of plant fiber, minerals and bone, to a world of bits and streams, renderings and pixels.
As the economy becomes more-and-more integrated with the digital, it becomes ever more likely that without catastrophic, "Black Swan" level intervention, the digital world will continue to evolve. The Internet, however, may not become a victim of one of Nassim Taleb’s black swans. We may well find that the Internet becomes a member of his other class of ideas, sloughing off its fragility and emerging an anti-fragile entity that grows more resilient under stress rather than breaking under it.
We can’t know with any certainty which way the world will evolve, and evolution is far from binary. The dichotomy that Taylor sets up is a false one. Between the extremes of corporate domination and individual aspiration lie many interesting paths and emergent contexts, none of which will be ideal, but none so hideous as to quash the idealists that will continue to dig at what the establishment believe are impenetrable foundations and the opposition as disruptive opportunity. Even if some semblance of the Internet becomes anti-fragile, it will still remain influenced by forces beyond it that will bend it enough that it will find new ways to grow.
Unfortunately, those who speculate on the future often fail to do what Isaac Asimov did so well with his Foundation series. To spell out a goal, achieve it, and then explore the ramifications of getting what one thinks one wants. That is why the real future will be an ever unstable bickering about right and wrong among forces whose real goal is to remain capable of arguing, and perhaps that isn’t really something to be all that sad about. I would love to read Taylor's thoughts on a world of creative commons and gadget-sized sustainability if she could offer as eloquent critique on her vision as she does our shared present.