Web Only / Features » April 18, 2014
The Rise of the Digital Proletariat
Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.
It really challenges the notion that we're all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there's a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.
The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.
Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.
Old power dynamics don't just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.
Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.
You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?
It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.
It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.
The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.
The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.
Google’s buying drone companies.
Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They're not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.
This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there's a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.
It's been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who's making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.
The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.
The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they're new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.
This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It's harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that's because I'm getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.
I think it's helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there's still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you're talking about, it's completely predictable.
We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It's challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That's far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.
You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they're making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?
It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things'll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They're actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.
I think it's important that we tackle these issues. That's where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It's really interesting how today's leading tech pundits don't pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.
There's something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn't acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they'll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.
I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you're working for Apple, money shouldn't be a consideration.” You're supposed to just love your work so much you'll exploit yourself. That's what interning is. That's what writing for free is when you're hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that's the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?
Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.
Ultimately, it's a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it's not clear exactly how we're being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people's free participation feeds into it.
Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It's a bleak, bleak view.
In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it's everywhere, you can't avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There's now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.
It really challenges the notion that we're all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there's a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we're really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.
I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today's economy, only in part because of technology.
Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they're supposed to be things you just choose to do because they're pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.
The thing about the jobs conversation is that it's a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we're going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we're making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.
You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.
The question is, how do you get there? You'd have to have a political movement, you'd have to challenge power. They're not just going to throw the poor people who've had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It's that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn't faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we'll catch up with them.
The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.
Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.
The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where's the money going to come from?” We're already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.
You raise a moral question: If we're paying for these things already, then shouldn't they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There's this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn't go deep enough—it doesn't go into the way they're actually run. That's the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley's hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government's already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.
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Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.