The Conquest of Cyberspace
Thoughts on Astra Taylor's The People's Platform
Who can forget Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters1 Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway? If I was going to write a book, it would be along these lines—not about God, but about the Left. Of all the ways the Left has gone wrong (at least recently), the centerpice would be the Internet and the social and economic transformations that it has brought about.
I don’t mean to point fingers. In fact, it would be partly autobiographical, an exercise in self-criticism, because like many others, I was convinced that network technologies would change the world for the better. How could I have been so wrong? It’s a serious question.
Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is an excellent summary of those transformations: the pervasiveness of advertising and corporate surveillance, the decline of in-depth journalism and the continued lack of diversity in digital media. As a documentarian and musician, she is well positioned to observe how the digital revolution has harmed artists’ ability to make a living.
Taylor critiques digital progressives like Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and friends, and in his review Tom Slee wonders whether they will question their viewpoints as a result of this book. But why stop with them? Their viewpoints are derivative of many of the left’s leading lights, including Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm, Marcuse, Kurt Lewin, C. Wright Mills, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein and Douglas Rushkoff.
Over many decades, radical and countercultural left activists and thinkers have repeated their critiques of centralized mass media, and together they are responsible for the idea that the internet would bring about radical changes to society. If Astra Taylor’s book is correct and the transformation of our media landscape has expanded corporate power rather than reigned it in, we’re seeing nothing less than the emphatic refutation of this line of thinking.
Have we truly come to terms with this? I’m not so sure. As a book that goes beyond this defunct tradition of media theory, Taylor’s book has much to recommend it. She describes how network effects and preferential attachment generate profoundly unequal distributions of power, wealth and attention, and emphasizes how large hierarchical organizations like record labels, governments and newspapers, for all their faults, can have a progressive impact when they support public goods by investing in the arts and public interest journalism.
But on the other hand, I get the impression that Taylor thinks that the project of democratizing cultural production has been thwarted. She says
The Internet was supposed to be free and ubiquitous, but a cable cartel would rather rake in profits than provide universal service. It was supposed to enable small producers, but instead it has given rise to some of the most mammoth corporations of all time. It was supposed to create a decentralized media system, but the shift to cloud computing has recentralized communications in unprecedented ways. It was supposed to make our culture more open, but the companies that dominate the technology industry are shockingly opaque.
All true, but it didn’t happen because we failed to adopt decentralized, distributed networks to organize cultural production. It’s because we succeeded. As cyberutopians never tire of reminding us, we’ve seen dramatic changes in our media landscape, changes that have seriously weakened or destroyed old media business models and gave rise to mass participation in cultural production where once we were passive consumers of centralized broadcast media.
This is what the Left demanded. Left wing activists and philosophers spent decades promoting the idea that there’s an essential connection between centralized media and capitalism, that power and inequality thrives by tightly controlling the means of information distribution, censoring dissent and preventing alternate ideas from being heard.
They got it wrong. Catastrophically wrong. Not only have these changes failed to challenge capitalism, their mistake (and ours) has granted a pseudo-radical imprimatur to a capitalist agenda, unwittingly abetting a massive extension of corporate power.
Will we take responsibility that? It seems unlikely. It’s way too easy to blame every failure on evil capitalists and allowing bad ideas to persist well past their expiration date. Astra Taylor’s book is a wonderful first installment in a Colluphid-ian trilogy of the Left’s great mistakes, giving us a front row seat to the destruction wrought by techno-capitalism that still goes unchallenged and even welcomed by some. We still await the second installment that tells the story of the left’s intellectual complicity in it. In short, we need for the internet what Thomas Frank did for counterculture—a Conquest of Cyberspace.