Reading Diary: The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor

I am not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather that we've lived with it long enough to ask tough questions.
...
I've tried to avoid the Manichean view of technology, which assumes either that the Internet will save us or that it is leading us astray, that it is making us stupid or making us smart, that things are black or white. The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people's platform, we will have to work to make it so. (p. 8, 10)

Astra Taylor's The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age is easily one of the best Web culture books I have ever read, if not the best. It takes the onrushing revolution in art and culture and journalism head on. Of the books I've read recently it compares and contrasts very nicely with Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow. Like Doctorow's very fine book it's about what may be the central artistic/commercial tension in the Internet age: consumers of information (art, scholarship, journalism, etc.) want it to be free but the creators and distributors of that information (artists, scholars, publishers, writers, etc.) want the information to be expensive.

As the original quote from Stuart Brand goes, "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other" with Brand's follow up, "Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away."

And what's interesting of course, is just how ingrained this tension is. While looking for a link to the publisher's page I started typing into my search window "astra taylor the people's..." and what should the type ahead show me? Yep, you guessed it: "astra taylor the people's platform pdf." It's ironic that a book that makes the case for financially supporting creating expression in the Internet age is, well, a book that a lot people on the web don't seem to want to pay for.

Paying for culture is a hard case to make sometimes, in a world where it seems more normal to pay for the gadgets that deliver the culture and rely on the creators of that culture to trade their work for "exposure." The commonly accepted devil's bargain is that at some point in the hopefully not-too-far-distant-future they will be able to trade that exposure for something that will pay the bills.

Which is all a bit odd for me, given my current vantage point. I'm writing this in Paris. Where there's a book store on every block and a record store on every other block. And this is only a very slight exaggeration for effect. The French are very protective of their culture, to an extent that seems a bit unhinged to we ruthless count-every-penny North Americans. Amazon and it's ilk discounting books is actually a controversy in France. Bande dessinées are expensive. Print books are expensive, CDs and records are expensive. Yet the shops are crowded and people seem to be willing to trade some cash for knowing that the arts are taken care of. If Silicon Valley disruptors are storming the cultural Bastille, the French are having nothing of it. Even Uber has to play by the rules, no race to the bottom here. Or at least a much slower race.

Astra Taylor might find her ideas have more resonance in Europe than in the land of disruption and discounting and dog eat dog.

[W]e should strive to cultivate the cultural commons as a vibrant and sustainable sphere, on ethat exists for its own sake, not to be eploited by old-media oligarchs, new media moguls, insatiable shareholders, for-profit pirates, or data-miners and advertisers. (p. 176)

This book makes the case -- that a truly democratic culture is worth directly supporting in the online world in the exact same way as the offline world. And it is worth supporting culture both by the everyday choices of the average cultural consumer as well as through the levers of various government agencies. In other words, a sustainable model for cultural support. Culture is a commons, one that needs to be supported. The new "tragedy of the commons" is not one of enclosure but of under-investment. A commons shouldn't be built on exploiting free labour on social media sites where the users are actually the "product" for advertisers or laying waste to the environment to mine precious metals to manufacture gadgets. We have to build in equity. We need free culture in the sense of a public library, not corporatized "free culture" like YouTube videos or Google Books or Facebook or Twitter.

(Fear not, Taylor does mention her support of a sustainable, open scientific commons.)

Appropriately, the conclusion of Taylor's book is subtitled "In Defense of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sustainable Culture."

And the first paragraph of that chapter reads,

It may seem counterintuitive at a time of information overload, viral media, aggregation, and instant commenting to worry about our cultural supply. But we are at the risk of starving in the midst of plenty. A decade ago few would have thought a book like In Defense of Food was necessary. Food, after all, had never been cheaper or more abundant; what could be wrong with the picture? A similar shift of perception needs to happen in the cultural realm. Culture, even if it is immaterial, has material conditions, and free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs. (p. 214)

Techno Uber Optimists beware. Taylor isn't afraid of saying bad things about the Internet (or good things, for that matter). She doesn't treat is like some sort of anthropomorphized overly sensitive person who can't deal with any even mild criticism. She treats gurus and pundits of all stripes with the same critical respect. She asks the tough questions and reasons carefully to work towards some answers, or at least ideas that might lead to some answers.

This is a great book, read it, argue with it, agree with it violently and disagree with it just as violently but give it's arguments a fair hearing. Recommended for all libraries and anyone interested in the future of culture.

Our communications system is at a crossroads, one way leading to an increasingly corporatized and commercialized world where we are treated as targeted customers, the other to a true cultural commons where we are nurtured as citizens and creators. To create a media environment where democracy can thrive, we need to devise progressive policy that takes into account the entire context in which art, journalism, and information are created, distributed and, preserved, online and off. We need strategies and policies for an age of abundance, not scarcity, and to invent new ways of sustaining and managing the Internet to put people before profit. Only then will a revolution worth cheering be upon us. (p. 232)

Taylor, Astra. The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014. 288pp. ISBN-13: 978-1250062598

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