Six Questions — August 7, 2014, 8:00 am

Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Astra Taylor © Deborah Degraffenried

Astra Taylor © Deborah Degraffenried

In her new book, The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor, a cultural critic and the director of the documentaries Zizek! and Examined Life, challenges the notion that the Internet has brought us into an age of cultural democracy. While some have hailed the medium as a platform for diverse voices and the free exchange of information and ideas, Taylor shows that these assumptions are suspect at best. Instead, she argues, the new cultural order looks much like the old: big voices overshadow small ones, content is sensationalist and powered by advertisements, quality work is underfunded, and corporate giants like Google and Facebook rule. The Internet does offer promising tools, Taylor writes, but a cultural democracy will be born only if we work collaboratively to develop the potential of this powerful resource. I asked her six questions about her book:

1. What were the benefits and challenges of presenting philosophical discussions in writing rather than in film?

There is so much more space to communicate in a book. Most people don’t realize how little information can be conveyed in a feature film. The transcripts of both of my movies are probably equivalent in length to a Harper’s cover story. When you’re writing, you can incorporate digressions, caveats, counterarguments, and footnotes that would cause a movie to lose all of its momentum. Of course cinema communicates on other registers: there are visual and sonic elements, video editing has its own logic, there are facial expressions and body language to interpret, and so on. But with the book I was relieved to work on something that didn’t require a big budget or a crew or insurance or worrying about whether it was going to rain. Still, I miss filmmaking, which is why I’m starting work on another philosophy documentary, this one about democracy and political theory.

2. How did you come to realize that the predictions made by techno-optimists about the Internet were flawed?

In 2009 I attended a conference about Web 2.0 and felt something was amiss. There was this conflation of communal creative spirit and capitalist spunk; the general assumption was that a combination of networked technology and the free market was going to overthrow the old order and usher in this new egalitarian age. The speakers and audience were all deeply critical of legacy media, of Hollywood and newspapers and the Recording Industry Association of America (and rightly so; there are lots of things to criticize them all for) but they refused to apply the same skeptical sensibility to the emerging Internet giants, which they were mindlessly cheering. But why should Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google get a free pass? Why should we expect them to behave any differently over the long term? The tradition of progressive media criticism that came out of the Frankfurt School, not to mention the basic concept of political economy (looking at the way business interests shape the cultural landscape), was nowhere to be seen, and that worried me. It’s not like political economy became irrelevant the second the Internet was invented.

From where I stood it seemed obvious that the popular narrative — new communications technologies would topple the establishment and empower regular people — didn’t accurately capture reality. Something more complex and predictable was happening. The old-media dinosaurs weren’t dying out, but were adapting to the online environment; meanwhile the new tech titans were coming increasingly to resemble their predecessors. And that was because the underlying economic conditions hadn’t been changed or “disrupted,” to use a favorite Silicon Valley phrase. Google has to serve its shareholders, just like NBCUniversal does. As a result, many of the unappealing aspects of the legacy-media model have simply carried over into a digital age — namely, commercialism, consolidation, and centralization. In fact, the new system is even more dependent on advertising dollars than the one that preceded it, and digital advertising is far more invasive and ubiquitous than the newspaper and television spots of yore.

3. I notice that you continue to use Twitter, even as you recognize the flaws in some of its business practices. How do we reconcile our enjoyment of social media even as we understand that the corporations who control them aren’t always acting in our best interests?

I can’t wholeheartedly say I enjoy Twitter, or at least I’m enjoying it less and less these days, but I don’t think there’s a contradiction. I use lots of products that are created by companies whose business practices I object to and that don’t act in my best interests, or the best interests of workers or the environment — we all do, since that’s part of living under capitalism. That said, I refuse to invest so much in any platform that I can’t quit without remorse, since you never know when there will be a significant change to the terms of service or to the service itself. Facebook’s invitation to “pay to promote” status updates was a tipping point for me and I jumped ship.

Obviously there are benefits to be reaped from social media, but we should also be conscious of how much we give in return. I’m not the first to point out that these services aren’t free even if we don’t pay money for them; we pay with our personal data, with our privacy. This feeds into the larger surveillance debate, since government snooping piggybacks on corporate data collection. As I argue in the book, there are also negative cultural consequences (e.g., when advertisers are paying the tab we get more of the kind of culture marketers like to associate themselves with and less of the stuff they don’t) and worrying social costs. For example, the White House and the Federal Trade Commission have both recently warned that the era of “big data” opens new avenues of discrimination and may erode hard-won consumer protections.

It’s important to keep this bigger picture in mind and focus less on our individual use habits. We hear a lot about whether people are on social media too much or are addicted to their smartphones — the implication being that we need to muster more willpower and regularly “detox” from our devices. It’s also common in discussions of online privacy to hear commenters say users need to practice “good digital hygiene” by adopting encryption or having stronger passwords. Sure, I agree that time away from our phones is healthy and that encryption is important, but I’m resistant to the tendency to place this responsibility solely on the shoulders of users. Gadgets and platforms are designed to be addictive, with every element from color schemes to headlines carefully tested to maximize clickability and engagement. The recent news that Facebook tweaked its algorithms for a week in 2012, showing hundreds of thousands of users only “happy” or “sad” posts in order to study emotional contagion — in other words, to manipulate people’s mental states — is further evidence that these platforms are not neutral. In the end, Facebook wants us to feel the emotion of wanting to visit Facebook frequently. As for digital hygiene, privacy isn’t like toothbrushing; our privacy is being systematically violated by state and private interests in a way that our mouths aren’t. We can and should adjust our behavior where and when it’s appropriate, but structural factors are paramount in my view.

4. The Internet has been heralded by some as the “great equalizer.” Yet you demonstrate that social inequalities that exist in the real world remain meaningful online. What are the particular dangers of discrimination on the Internet?

That it’s invisible or at least harder to track and prove. We haven’t figured out how to deal with the unique ways prejudice plays out over digital channels, and that’s partly because some folks can’t accept the fact that discrimination persists online. (After all, there is no sign on the door that reads Minorities Not Allowed.) But just because the Internet is open doesn’t mean it’s equal; offline hierarchies carry over to the online world and are even amplified there. For the past year or so, there has been a lively discussion taking place about the disproportionate and often outrageous sexual harassment women face simply for entering virtual space and asserting themselves there — research verifies that female Internet users are dramatically more likely to be threatened or stalked than their male counterparts — and yet there is very little agreement about what, if anything, can be done to address the problem. How can we adapt hard-won protections to this new, networked landscape? It’s a fascinating and complicated issue, and fortunately some smart legal scholars, for example Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks, are taking it seriously.

5. You use the expression “starving in the midst of plenty” to describe today’s digital climate, where commercial media overwhelmingly reigns despite the vast quantity of media accessible to us. What steps can we take to encourage better representation of independent and non-commercial media?

We need to fund it, first and foremost. As individuals this means paying for the stuff we believe in and want to see thrive. But I don’t think enlightened consumption can get us where we need to go on its own. I’m skeptical of the idea that we can shop our way to a better world. The dominance of commercial media is a social and political problem that demands a collective solution, so I make an argument for state funding and propose a reconceptualization of public media. More generally, I’m struck by the fact that we use these civic-minded metaphors, calling Google Books a “library” or Twitter a “town square” — or even calling social media “social” — but real public options are off the table, at least in the United States. We hand the digital commons over to private corporations at our peril.

The People’s Platform, by Astra Taylor6. You advocate for greater government regulation of the Internet. Why is this important?

I wouldn’t say “regulation of the Internet,” which is a common phrase but a misleading one. I’m for regulating specific things, like Internet access, which is what the fight for net neutrality is ultimately about. We also need stronger privacy protections and restrictions on data gathering, retention, and use, which won’t happen without a fight. The ongoing battles between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, and between YouTube and independent record labels are good examples of how crucial antitrust protection is.  The United States could learn a lot on this front from Europe, where officials are being far more aggressive.

In the book I challenge the techno-libertarian insistence that the government has no productive role to play and that it needs to keep its hands off the Internet for fear that it will be “broken.” The Internet and personal computing as we know them wouldn’t exist without state investment and innovation, so let’s be real. Related to this, there’s a pervasive and ill-advised faith that technology will promote competition if left to its own devices (“competition is a click away,” tech executives like to say), but that’s not true for a variety of reasons. The paradox of our current media landscape is this: our devices and consumption patterns are ever more personalized, yet we’re simultaneously connected to this immense, opaque, centralized infrastructure. We’re all dependent on a handful of firms that are effectively monopolies — from Time Warner and Comcast on up to Google and Facebook — and we’re seeing increased vertical integration, with companies acting as both distributors and creators of content. Amazon aspires to be the bookstore, the bookshelf, and the book. Google isn’t just a search engine, a popular browser, and an operating system; it also invests in original content, having opened video-production studios in various cities, and offered fiber-optic broadband in select cities, not to mention all of its other endeavors and acquisitions, including robotics, home appliances, satellites, you name it.

So it’s not that the Internet needs to be regulated but that these big tech corporations need to be subject to governmental oversight. After all, they are reaching farther and farther into our intimate lives. They’re watching us. Someone should be watching them.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Airfare for a corpse on an American Airlines flight from New York City to Los Angeles, one way:


Seventy percent of voters who claim to be undecided have already made up their minds.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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