My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is not about designing “a people’s platform.” This book is a critique of the state of the media and internet technology industry, which often uses “for the people” style rhetoric to justify its profit-seeking and control-oriented design decisions. The socio-technical system of our current media ecosystem is not “open” or “democratic” or “free” in real terms; tech entrepreneurs and pundits are selling investors, consumers, and policymakers on a disingenuous vision of the future of cultural production. We may all have better access to the means of production now, but new elites own the means and modes of distribution—and that is where the political and economic value now lies.
Astra Taylor is at her best in this book when she is critiquing the media and internet industries as a content creator. As a documentary filmmaker and savvy storyteller of her own and her friends’ cases, she successfully humanizes what the free culture movement as a philosophy and business strategy has meant for creators. These are people who have worked hard to maintain editorial independence from corporate commissions, branding, big labels, etc. They have a progressive politics that is often in resonance with the core ideas of free culture regarding shared ownership of cultural goods and even an anti-institutional flare. But when big companies adopt this same rhetoric, they are doing so to sell advertising against the free culture on their platforms, leaving little or nothing for the creators.
The system makes more money for mainstream artists but the long tail just means that all the independent things are free too, without the economies of scale offered by Vevo Music Videos on YouTube or record sales driven by Spotify plays. Filmmakers, musicians, and journalists are all suffering from this in ways that are waved away because anyone COULD make it big, go viral, etc. They can be their own personal brand and through hard work, make a living. But, ironically, it’s harder than ever to make a living. The philosophy suggest that those who love to make culture should we content doing so without payment.
Unfortunately, a lot of this terrain is familiar. Taylor goes through much of the key ideas and books that either booster or criticize the internet’s potential for more, better, and freer exchange of culture and ideas. Her summaries help establish her legitimacy entering this space—she knows the literature. But the “he said this” and “he said that” is across such a broad array of issues and areas that her core argument gets lost in the middle of the book as she tries to connect the dots and touch everything relevant.
Finally, I wish the suggestions in the end for addressing the problems were more concrete and less hand-wavy. The title and subtitle suggest a radical proposal for democratic technology is forthcoming, but it’s not there. As a primer for like-minded activists and culture creators, this book could be very useful. But the audience of scholars embedded in this space will have to search for the nuggets of helpful new perspectives and arguments amidst a lot of rehashed summaries of Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr.
Glad it was written, her voice is important, but it left me wanting.