‘The People’s Platform’ takes on the digital age of exploitation


With every click, every tweet, every share, am I being exploited or am I taking advantage of the digital revolution?

This is the question I kept asking myself as I read Astra Taylor’s “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.” Taylor makes a thorough case that the technological advances we’ve been told constitute progress — that anyone can start a blog, that we can easily keep up with our friends (and frenemies) on Facebook, that Twitter can foment democratic revolution — are actually masking and, in some cases, exacerbating social ills that have long plagued our society, especially its most creative members.

As a freelance writer whose work mostly appears online and a Twitter enthusiast, I think Taylor would say I’m one of the exploited — we all are — even though I’m also one of the privileged few able to make a living in an increasingly difficult creative climate.


But it’s even more complicated than that. Taylor explains how the Internet has confused delivery with production (social-media companies reap more revenue when people share an article I wrote than I do for writing it) and the product with the consumer. She writes that observers of digital culture usually fall into two camps: There are the techno-utopian “cheerleaders of progress at any cost” and the “Cassandras who condemn change.” She embraces the darkest views of each.

Taylor, a documentary filmmaker and activist who was heavily involved with Occupy Wall Street, has picked the right moment for this book. Even though many of us couldn’t live without Google and spend countless hours on Facebook, users have started to take notice of the biggest tech companies gobbling up — er, acquiring — their smaller competitors and their compliance in decidedly untrustworthy endeavors like the government spying on its own citizens. Sure, these companies have made a wide array of digital tools available free and we can communicate instantly and globally, but we end up paying the price with our privacy and integrity as our every click is monetized.

Culture may be a public good, but it’s expensive to produce. Creative workers, Taylor writes, are squeezed particularly hard in the digital era. Whereas institutions like record labels and newspapers once made investments in musicians, artists and writers, now most creative types are on their own, making their art without compensation in the hopes it’ll be a hit and they’ll be able to recoup later. The illusion of a level playing field online — that any YouTube artist could be the next Justin Bieber or any bloggers could end up the next Woodward and Bernstein — only increases the pressure on those who don’t have offline advantages. It’s impossible to be a self-made Internet star, Taylor points out, without nondigital essentials like food and shelter.

“In online culture, as in off, advantage begets advantage,” she writes. No wonder so many artists are willing to “collaborate” with brands, which are becoming one of their only means of financial support. And so, despite the claims of a new era of openness, persistent social problems like discrimination and economic inequality remain firmly in place. “The new economy,” she says, “was never that novel.”

Taylor’s views are compelling and well argued, though overly focused on the downsides of the digital revolution. (I found myself wondering if she’d ever liked a photo on Facebook or laughed at a funny tweet.) In fact, she spends so much time explaining why it’s bad that she puts off answering the book’s central question. In the opening pages, she writes that it’s still possible to “make good on the unprecedented opportunity the internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality.” Even after reading so many pages of bleak statistics, most of her readers aren’t going to unplug completely, which means we’re primed to hear her tell us how to make the digital world a better place.

Taylor doesn’t get around to it until her conclusion, which holds the glimmers of hope I longed for throughout the book but is more of an outline than a fleshed-out answer. Obviously we all need to get behind “net neutrality,” ensuring that service providers can’t privilege higher-paying companies, and push the government to invest in the arts. We can take some lessons from the slow-food movement’s emphasis on the true cost of opting for the drive-through over the farmers market and push consumers of culture to learn how their art and articles were made. Are there any organizations working to raise awareness of the true cost of cheap digital culture? If there are, Taylor doesn’t tell us about them.

Turns out there are some big tech companies run as public-benefit corporations (like Etsy) and even as nonprofits (Wikipedia). I’d have loved to hear more about how we can foster these business models rather than profit-seeking behemoths like Google and Facebook. Yes, some of the best technical minds of our generation are being used to create ad software. But there are also plenty of people who want to use their engineering skills to fix the very social problems Taylor describes. How can we support this type of entrepreneur? After all, I can’t choose a more artist-friendly alternative to Spotify if it doesn’t exist.

I wish she had devoted two or three chapters to such possible solutions rather than merely referenced them in her conclusion. The problems she explains in convincing detail are of the looming, complex variety that have vexed activists for generations. If the Internet really does pose new slants on these old problems, as she argues, it must also present new opportunities for remedying them.

Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.

The People’s Platform
Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

Astra Taylor
Metropolitan Books: 232 pp. $27