Neither Cheerleader Nor Prophet


From the print series Blues Build the Temple by Trevor Naud. Via

From New Left Review:

Literature on the social impact of the internet has always struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace set by its subject. First-generation thinking about the net took form in the early 1990s, when usage was rapidly expanding with the dissemination of early browsers; it grew out of a pre-existing thread of technology advocacy that ran back to 60s counter-cultural consumerism. Wired magazine, founded in 1993, was its chief vehicle; key figures included tech-enthusiasts Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Reingold, with their ‘patron saint’ Marshall McLuhan. This euphoric perspective dominated throughout the ‘new economy’ boom: the internet was changing everything, and for the better, heralding a new age of freedom, democracy, self-expression and economic growth. Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, delivered from Davos, set the tone: ‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.’ Pitted against this, there had long existed a minor current of critical left writing, also running back to at least the early 70s; this included ‘left McLuhanite’ figures such as The Nation’s Neil Postman. More overtly political, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s classic 1995 essay, ‘The Californian Ideology’, skewered Wired in its early days, while on the ‘Nettime’ listserv and in the pages of Mute magazine, writers such as Geert Lovink attempted to forge a real ‘net criticism’. But these voices were mostly confined to the dissident margins.

With the 2000–01 crash there came something of a discursive shake-out. It was in the early post-crash years that Nicholas Carr’s Does it Matter? (2004) was published, puncturing ‘new economy’ hype. But with the Greenspan bubble and massive state-intelligence funding after 9.11, American tech was soon on its feet again. Tim O’Reilly’s coining of the ‘Web 2.0’ buzzword in 2004 captured the returning optimism. The blog craze, Wikipedia and the first wave of social media all came into play during these years, and it was now that the landscape of tech giants was consolidated: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. The technology discourses of this phase echoed the developing shape of the Web: with ‘open source’ (another O’Reilly buzzword) and Wikipedia, it was argued that undefined crowds could be superior producers of content and code than named (or paid) individuals.

When a second, much deeper crisis erupted in 2008, American tech was one of the few sectors to remain relatively unscathed, already moving into new lines of production: smartphones, tablets, e-readers. The uptake of these devices brought a qualitative expansion of internet use, blurring the boundary between everyday life and a ‘cyberspace’ that had hitherto been conceptualized as a separate sphere. Suddenly it was evident that all the talk of the internet’s capacity to instigate far-reaching social change was no mere talk. It was in these years that a set of more pessimistic and critical voices started to come to the fore, worrying about the dangers of the Web’s expanding use: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010), Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (2010), Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011), Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion (2011). Carr’s book in particular became the key expression of a mounting anxiety, even before the Snowden revelations in June 2013 brought home some of the darker implications of these developments. But now that the internet was so plainly entangled in so much of everyday life, and so much of the structure of capitalist society, it was becoming increasingly meaningless to isolate a singular technological entity, ‘the internet’, as either simply good or bad. The main object of net criticism was increasingly coextensive with society itself, thus making a more social mode of critique plainly the most pertinent one.

This is the context for Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Taylor presents herself as neither a ‘cheerleader of progress at any cost’ nor a ‘prophet of doom’, condemning change and lamenting what has been lost. She aims to provide a more nuanced mode of net criticism than either of these standard rhetorical poles. She is by no means the first to do so: Evgeny Morozov is another figure who would locate himself here, taking up a third rhetorical position that distinguishes itself against the other two and offering less techno-determinist, more socio-political modes of explanation. But if the occupants of this third position are right to place themselves here, it might be said that it is easy now—in the third decade of the Web’s existence—to be right in this way. What matters is the detail of the diagnosis and what we can do.

Taylor’s ambition, as her subtitle suggests, is to make the case for a new cultural politics of the digital age. How Web 2.0 affects the production and distribution of culture touches her in a direct sense. She is a documentary filmmaker and editor of two books, one on philosophy, the other on the Occupy movement in the us. She has no parallel university job to shield her from the growing structural inequalities she describes; nor for the most part do the musicians, film-makers, photographers and investigative reporters whose stories she recounts, working at the coal face of a culture industry that has been transformed by the internet—but not in ways that Wired predicted. Taylor’s personal background might make her seem an ideal candidate for Web enthusiasm. She has written in n+1 magazine about her enlightened home-schooling by counter-cultural parents. The People’s Platform opens with the story of how in 1991, the twilight of the pre-Web era, the 12-year-old Taylor brought out her own environmentalist magazine, copying it with the help of a friend’s father who managed the local Kinko’s and distributing it to bookstores and food co-ops around Athens, Georgia, in her parents’ car. She notes how much easier it would have been to get her message out today, when ‘any kid with a smartphone’ has the potential to reach millions of readers with the push of a button. In 2011 Taylor helped produce five crowd-funded issues of the Zuccotti Park broadsheet, Occupy! Gazette, distributed free in print and online. This background is important; she is coming from a position of high expectations and dashed hopes, not sceptical resistance to technological change.

The People’s Platform looks at the implications of the digital age for cultural democracy in various sectors—music, film, news, advertising—and how battles over copyright, piracy and privacy laws have evolved.

“Culture After Google”, Emilie Bickerton, New Left Review