The People’s Platform

Book Review by Tim Wu in the New York Times: “Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker who has described her work as the “steamed broccoli” in our cultural diet. Her last film, “Examined Life,” depicted philosophers walking around and talking about their ideas. She’s the kind of creative person who was supposed to benefit when the Internet revolution collapsed old media hierarchies. But two decades since that revolution began, she’s not impressed: “We are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty,” Taylor writes. “Free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs.” Instead of serving as the great equalizer, the web has created an abhorrent cultural feudalism. The creative masses connect, create and labor, while Google, Facebook and Amazon collect the cash.
Taylor’s thesis is simply stated. The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly “Internet famous.” And anyhow, she says, the web never really threatened to overthrow the old media’s upper echelons, whether defined as superstars, like Beyoncé, big broadcast television shows or Hollywood studios. Instead, it was the cultural industry’s middle ­classes that have been wiped out and replaced by new cultural plantations ruled over by the West Coast aggregators.
It is hard to know if the title, “The People’s Platform,” is aspirational or sarcastic, since Taylor believes the classless aura of the web masks an unfair power structure. “Open systems can be starkly inegalitarian,” she says, arguing that the web is afflicted by what the feminist scholar Jo Freeman termed a “tyranny of structurelessness.” Because there is supposedly no hierarchy, elites can happily deny their own existence. (“We just run a platform.”) But the effects are real: The web has reduced professional creators to begging for scraps of attention from a spoiled public, and forced creators to be their own brand.

The tech industry might be tempted to dismiss Taylor’s arguments as merely a version of typewriter manufacturers’ complaints circa 1984, but that would be a mistake. “The People’s Platform” should be taken as a challenge by the new media that have long claimed to be improving on the old order. Can they prove they are capable of supporting a sustainable cultural ecosystem, in a way that goes beyond just hosting parties at the Sundance Film ­Festival?
We see some of this in the tech firms that have begun to pay for original content, as with Netflix’s investments in projects like “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s also worth pointing out that the support of culture is actually pretty cheap. Consider the nonprofit ProPublica, which employs investigative journalists, and has already won two Pulitzers, all on a budget of just over $10 million a year. That kind of money is a rounding error for much of Silicon Valley, where losing billions on bad acquisitions is routinely defended as “strategic.” If Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon truly believe they’re better than the old guard, let’s see it.”
See : THE PEOPLE’S PLATFORM. Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age By Astra Taylor, 276 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company.