While the Internet is often described as an egalitarian medium that fosters democracy and openness, Astra Taylor doesn’t subscribe to such a rosy view.
According to the 34-year-old writer, documentary filmmaker, and activist, the digital age has actually exacerbated inequality, increased our society’s dependence on free labour, and resulted in greater media centralization.
Taylor, who was born in Winnipeg and now lives in New York City, believes we’ve adopted—and allowed ourselves to be deceived by—the self-serving, techno-utopian rhetoric of (mostly white and male) Silicon Valley executives.
“You’ve got these people trying to disrupt this and that,” Taylor tells the Georgia Straight by phone from Toronto. “But they never disrupt Goldman Sachs. They always go to Goldman Sachs for their IPO or when they’re getting bought up by the bigger companies.”
Taylor is the author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Random House Canada). In the 266-page book, published this month, she argues that the Internet hasn’t democratized culture but made power less visible.
Certainly, new forms of activism and political engagement have arisen online. At the same time, however, digital technology has given governments more ways to surveil citizens, helped companies monitor the private lives of employees, and allowed marketers to turn social-media users’ interactions into advertisements.
As well, Taylor observes that the Internet has a “strange tendency toward monopoly”, with corporate giants such as Amazon, eBay, Google, and Netflix dominating their respective markets. In light of Facebook claiming over one billion monthly active users, she refers to social networking as the “commercialization of the once unprofitable art of conversation”.
“Preferential attachment, network effects, and the power laws they produce matter, in part, because they intensify and epitomize the old inequities we hoped the Internet would overthrow, from the star system to the hit-driven manufacturing of movies, music, and books,” Taylor states in The People’s Platform. “Winner-take-all markets promote certain types of culture at the expense of others, can make it harder for niche cultures and late bloomers to flourish, and contribute to broader income inequality.”
Taylor warns of the advent of a “new form of discrimination”, where Ivy League alumni are served different content and ads than high-school graduates. Data from online profiles could be analyzed, without permission, to determine individuals’ interest rates for credit cards and loans, and to charge people different prices for goods.
If we care about equality, Taylor asserts, we must build it into the medium. Such structures would counteract social prejudices and homophily (people’s tendency to connect with others with similar backgrounds and values) online.
“No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering platforms to promote diversity or adapting existing laws to curb online harassment unsettling and paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind—they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things,” Taylor writes. “The term ‘platform,’ which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing and upraising certain purposes over others.”
The People’s Platform concludes with a “manifesto for sustainable culture”. In it, Taylor calls for more and larger online spaces devoted to the public interest.
Although techno-libertarians insist that the Internet must be free from government intervention, Taylor maintains that the state has a role to play through regulation and subsidies. After all, taxation is “a form of crowdfunding”, she points out.
Taylor suggests that a new tax on advertising could fund art, culture, and journalism, which have suffered from underinvestment online. She notes that tech companies such as Apple and Google have used clever accounting schemes to shield themselves from paying their fair share of taxes—money that could support an expansion of public media.
Other solutions that Taylor puts forward include cooperatively owned versions of iTunes and Netflix, and online news organizations based on the community-supported-agriculture model.
“We have to remember that things that were totally unpalatable become palatable,” Taylor says. “Amazing things do happen because people agitate and organize. I actually never say ‘never’.”
In 2012, Taylor helped organize the Rolling Jubilee campaign of Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, which used donations to buy and cancel millions of dollars of Americans’ personal debt. According to her, if we are to make good on the “hopes and dreams” of the Internet, we must first expose the economic forces at work behind the scenes and relearn the lessons of media history.
“I think there are lots of solutions,” Taylor says. “But the best ones are collective ones. And to get to a point where that’s even a possibility, you have to shift public consciousness.”