It’s hard to believe, but just five years ago one could still make a good living by pontificating about the growing chasm between the experts and the amateurs. Who cares today whether we can trust Wikipedia? Or—to take what seemed the most burning question of the last decade—whether bloggers are journalists? That particular debate has petered out for reasons that are primarily economic rather than philosophical: The contemporary consensus seems to be that if your “content” attracts “eyeballs,” you will probably have a job in the media business. Whether you call yourself a blogger or a journalist is no longer the existential question it once was. In fact, the odds are that someone at BuzzFeed has already explained, in seven pictures or less, why this is so.
But some questions persist. What, for example, should we make of a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter? It’s laudable that artists, designers, and other creative types can now bypass the much-disliked intermediaries and appeal directly to their fans and customers. But can we be so naive as to believe that, in these times of austerity, the existence of crowdfunding platforms won’t be invoked to justify cutting government funding to art and letting the market decide where the money should go? And wouldn’t this move stifle some innovative, dangerous, risky projects that might not appeal to a broad audience yet?
A central argument in Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is that Web-enabled innovations like crowdfunding make for wonderful add-ons to, but very poor substitutes for, existing cultural institutions. We have never fully grasped the logic that has produced these institutions in the first place—and, in pre-digital times, we didn’t really have to. But today, if we want our culture to survive, we must understand by what means—processes, institutions, aspirations—our cultural life gains vibrancy. Only then can we promote what Taylor dubs “cultural democracy”—an intellectual outlook that recognizes that creative arts require strong institutional support from a host of actors, however inefficient and unprofitable such pursuits might seem in the short term.
A good example of cultural democracy in action is France’s Lang law, which seeks to protect small bookstores from chains and online retailers like Amazon by banning the discounting of books. The logic here is that such laws promote diverse reading habits and thereby enhance the nation’s literary culture—even if they also require consumers to pick up the bill and incur some inconvenience in book purchasing (or, perhaps, simply urge them to wear their citizen hats when they consume culture).
After all, what does it mean to democratize culture? To some, it means getting rid of gatekeepers such as the National Endowment for the Arts and replacing them with some kind of direct democracy, in which citizens can simply cast their votes for or against particular films or books. But this is definitely not how Taylor sees it. “Democratizing culture,” she writes, “means choosing, as a society, to invest in work that is not obviously popular or marketable or easy to understand. It means supporting diverse populations to devote themselves to critical, creative work and then elevating their efforts so they can compete on a platform that is anything but equal.” In this vision, the very process of democratization might require the creation of new institutions, and not just the dismantling of the old gatekeeping regime of cultural production. This is a tricky proposition, particularly at a time when the alternative—can’t we just vote with our smartphones?—is cheap and within easy grasp.
The People’s Platform is an extended effort to rethink what the cultural side of our digital debate would be like if we didn’t start from a set of axioms about what the Internet is and does, and instead sought to promote values conducive to cultural democracy. In offering an insider’s perspective on how the art world really works, Taylor, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, reveals that it doesn’t fit the simplistic rhetorical templates sold to us by Silicon Valley and its apologists. Creating welcoming structural conditions for the production of great art is not the same as making it easier to find an apartment on Craigslist or Airbnb: It’s not just a matter of matching supply and demand. It’s precisely such crude reductionism—the idea that, once translated into information, everything is just like everything else—that allows Internet pundits to establish themselves as prophets of the new age.
In seeking to develop a program grounded in the democratic diffusion of culture, Taylor’s objectives are twofold: First, she wants to pierce through the ambiguous business-speak that permeates our debates about the digital; and, second, she is offering a vision of how we can do better. These two goals are related. For example, when we claim that the Internet is a stable and coherent medium and that it has some inherent properties—from disrespect of privacy to the continuous pressure it exerts on digital goods toward a price point of zero—we risk mistaking the outcomes of particular policy debates (or nondebates, as the case may be) for natural features of our technological environment. And this, in turn, makes it less likely that we would arrange the landscape of digital interactions in accordance with a different, perhaps less commercial, logic.
To all the pundits and Silicon Valley CEOs who oppose proposals for reform by claiming that they contradict the natural logic of the Internet, Taylor answers that there’s nothing “natural” about it: “The word ‘natural’ is a mystification, given that the systems being discussed—technology, markets, culture—are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be made better.” Taylor’s effort to demystify the digital debate and ground it in economics and politics is most welcome, especially when she points out that many of the problems that we associate with digital media—consolidation, centralization, and commercialism—predate the World Wide Web.
There’s a flair of utopianism to some of Taylor’s ideas. She argues, for example, that we can achieve “a sustainable digital future” by making the numerous hidden costs of our current consumption habits—from environmental degradation to the erosion of privacy—more visible and explicit. In this alternate model of digitized commerce, users can gravitate (preferably with their wallets) toward more ethically friendly services and platforms. Here Taylor seems to have more faith in transparency and the redeeming power of consumerism—albeit in its artisanal, Williamsburg vintage—than most of the Internet gurus she assails. The truth is that democracies have never lived at a time when it’s more convenient to solve a problem by consulting citizens’ cell phones than by consulting citizens themselves. It would be nice, of course, if the political consequences of our decision to pay for something with our data would be immediately obvious to us—and presented as such on our screens—but, unfortunately, we hardly know what those consequences are. Perhaps it’s not greater visibility that we want to promote but, rather, the need to think about data politically.
The difficulty in writing an iconoclastic book like The People’s Platform is that, in criticizing the very terms that define the current debate, the author needs to be both consistent and historical. Consistency requires that we do more than troll the matter at hand to cherry-pick those terms and arguments that bolster the broader argument—in this case, the need to promote “cultural democracy”—while rejecting those terms that don’t. And historical care is necessary because readers need to know whether the debate in question is just a consequence—or a cause—of the problems identified by the author.
Alas, Taylor occasionally strays into inconsistency and ahistoricism. For example, is there much to be gained by using an idea like “digital sharecropping”—a term introduced by the technology writer Nicholas Carr to capture some of the exploitative and alienating features of work done on platforms such as Facebook and Google? The concept seems to add very little to the countless tomes of Marxist literature on labor that permit a much deeper analysis—and such works have the added benefit of shunning the very theoretical exceptionalism about the “digital” realm that Taylor rightly criticizes elsewhere.
A similar problem mars Taylor’s otherwise intriguing call for possible noncommercial alternatives to our current digital infrastructure. Why, after all, can’t we have a search engine that is not supported by advertising? Well, one answer—the one that Taylor seems to endorse—might be that the digital debate is captured by idiots with limited imagination. This is probably true, but isn’t the answer much simpler? There’s no appetite for such a search engine for the same reason that there’s no appetite for public libraries or public education. We should blame the enervation of public cultural institutions, in other words, on the neoliberal mantra of “market knows best” rather than on some more abstruse philosophical confusion about what is and isn’t natural about the Internet.
These two discourses—the neoliberal one and the digital one—surely overlap and reinforce each other, and this synergy is an urgent subject for any searching discussion of our disordered life online. But, save for some vague generalizations about the privatization of cultural institutions, Taylor doesn’t offer robust intellectual analysis of the nondigital forces that continue to shape our basic understanding of what’s at stake in the crude intersection of culture, technology, and democracy. By homing in so narrowly on the terms of engagement in the digital debate, we tend to overlook why the progressive pushback to the neoliberal agenda of market privatization has been so consistently anemic. The formal casting of the struggle here as a debate in the first place would seem to be part of the problem; this framing tends ineluctably to shrink enormous failures of political and economic vision on the left into more dispassionate, and far less discomfiting, questions of rhetorical inconsistency.
In even raising the issue of cultural democracy in the context of our market-addled online life, Taylor is certainly saying more than our Internet pundits do. But why set the bar so low? Terms like “digital sharecropping” might sound sexy and mildly revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean they have any depth. In fact, the presumed theoretical novelty of such terms—invariably appended by qualifiers like “digital”—isn’t genuine. It serves mainly to distract us from more lucid frameworks for understanding how power operates today. In reframing long-running political debates around impressive-sounding but mostly empty concepts like the “digital,” even those Internet pundits who lean to the left end up promoting extremely depoliticized, neoliberal agendas. While grasping the problem, Taylor is unable to do much about it. What she doesn’t seem to understand is that the “digital debate” can’t be won—it can only be abandoned.
Evgeny Morozov is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author, most recently, of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (PublicAffairs, 2013).