Monday, June 30, 2014

These are not the droids we were looking for

Astra Taylor
The People's Platform: 
Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

(Get it here.)

So far, digital culture has had a convoluted history. For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the lines in the sand seemed clear enough: on one side were the legacy content industries, exemplified by institutions like the RIAA and the MPAA, those infamous acronyms that fought tooth and nail to protect the idea that art and culture were private property. On the other was the freewheeling web, which promoted more democratic ideas about what it meant to create, to be an author, to be a cultural participant. (As I argue in Decomposition, my forthcoming book, these were not new ideas, but rather new articulations of old ones.) The point is that whichever side you chose, the choice itself seemed uncomplicated: either you were for the new way, or you were for the old one.

In the wake of Web 2.0 (when can we start calling it Web 3.0?), staking out a position in this battle is more problematic, subject to all kinds of uncomfortable intersections and realignments. In music, once upon a time, being for independent artists and the new technologies that were supposed to help them meant that you were against the legacy industry. To some extent the opposite was true as well. Today, arguing for the new technologies and their aesthetic affordances can easily be mistaken as a strike against art and culture, one that starves those things in the name of a vague idealism. Conversely, speaking out about the material realities that artists face can seem the worst kind of conservatism, a way of giving in to “the man,” or wagging one’s finger in a fit of haughty moralism. 

With this new complexity a narrative of regret has emerged: a sense that we have been duped, or misled, or at least that the early promises of digital culture are not so easily realized as we once thought. (Lars Ulrich, as some music fans have grown fond of saying, was right after all.) Some of the most high-profile and articulate expressions of this new narrative have come from writers Robert Levine, Chris Ruen, and especially Nicolas Carr and Jaron Lanier. But in my opinion, the best one so far is Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

Taylor is a documentary filmmaker with a philosophy background; her film Examined Life, a series of discussions with contemporary philosophers, is recommended. The People’s Platform, her first book, contains precious little philosophy, but in my view it surpasses the other texts in this genre by considering the problem we face from within a progressive framework. Taylor’s is essentially a labor-based analysis, one that strives to get us to see artists’ work in terms of the larger economic structure, and especially in terms of the twenty-first century’s unprecedented upward concentration of wealth. Rightly decrying that trend, she urges us toward a sustainable culture, in which wealth is broadly invested (rather than hoarded) and work is nurtured (rather than depleted).  

All of which strongly suggests that the digital dilemma is a predictable outcome of free market capitalism, since the techno-utopian mega-corporations (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and so on) have seized upon that economic philosophy to achieve and justify their now-immense power. That analysis makes Lanier's proposal that users be compensated with nanopayments feel like an extension of the problem—as if the world is not commodified enough alreadybut Taylor offers a number of stronger, more left-leaning solutions, even as she admits all of them will require a degree of consciousness-raising: from the ethos of sustainability itself; to a revivified national arts policy that builds on the history of the NEA or Public Broadcasting or even the WPA; to the idea of regulating service providers and popular Internet platforms as public utilities; to increased subsidies and taxes to be paid by advertisers and technology companies; to inchoate micro-economies built around practices like crowdfunding or sites like Bandcamp. (Taylor doesn’t mention this last example explicitly, but it certainly qualifies.) These may be the best solutions we have at the moment, and though I am not convinced that we will see them realized in my lifetime, I believe they are worth fighting for. 

At the same time I want to push back against the impression Taylor leaves that the problem of techno-utopian wealth concentration (and the concomitant impoverishment of the creative class) is ultimately a function of the philosophy of “free culture” and its expression in the everyday practices of audiences. Of course, the regret narrative is right to point out that that philosophy can be, and has been, used for problematic ends. The digital era has produced its own brand of charlatanism, and Taylor is right to expose it. (Though I should add that her analysis of Lawrence Lessig is incomplete; she praises Lessig's critique of copyright law, but then adds that he “ignores the problem of commercialismoverlooking the fact that for the last seven years Lessig has been focused not on defending file sharing kids but on getting money out of politics). 

Because of the philosophy of “free culture”, Taylor suggests, we now blithely assume

that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software. 

Put that way, and considering the obscene sums of money now made by the winners in our winner-take-all system, “free culture” does sound naive and delusional—just as "All You Need is Love" sounded naive and delusional by the end of the Sixties. But the fact that its concepts have been cynically appropriated in ads and business models and TED talks (is anything in our culture immune to such appropriation?) does not mean the concepts themselves are bad, or that they don’t remain an effective way to foster creativity, or that they will be useless for breaking out of our commercial stranglehold at some point in the future. Indeed, as I argue in Decomposition, it is not a question of whether collaboration, or sharing, or remixing, or sampling, or piracy, or whatever other forms the concepts take, should or should not occur, as the outcome of a single, simple moral decision. The history of art reveals that, whether we like it or not, these ideas have been crucial to creativity since long before the first computer was ever built. (“All art,” as Glenn Gould once said, “is really variation on some other art.”) Denying that history, even in the name of economic fairness, may create more problems than it solvesdepending on what sort of culture we actually want.

Moreover, “free culture” (or, in my own, more broadly-defined term, decomposition) is still the best way of critiquing the real issue: the ideology of authorship and authenticity. (For what it's worth, here's how I define those terms in my book, and in terms of music: authorship is the idea that works are created by solitary individuals, and authenticity is the idea that there is a “singularly true, ideal experience of music that trumps all others, disregarding the variability of audience perception, and accessible only to those with ‘correct’ knowledge and ‘proper’ understanding.”) It’s still the best way, for instance, to undermine the celebrity worship that propels our interactions on the network. Taylor’s point that Web 2.0 has led to the consolidation of superstars as a class is instructive here; superstars are now both fewer and wealthier. In a world of aesthetic abundance, the veritable “celestial jukebox” we were promised, why should that be? I blame our willingness to believe in putatively objective hierarchies of quality—the individual god-like artists and reified expressions of music that we are all supposed to agree are among “the best that has been said and thought in the world” (to use Matthew Arnold’s famously narrow definition of culture). As belief systems, authorship and authenticity create powerful cultural cliques; they have a tendency to pull audiences toward an arbitrary center of gravity, to work against a more haphazard and chaotic process of taste formation, and to stomp down the so-called long tail in favor of a disproportionately large head.

But not only do authorship and authenticity corrupt our understanding of art—they also drive the free market system that makes the techno-utopian mega-corporations possible in the first place. They are crucial to private property (see John Locke). They are crucial to advertising (see trademark law). They are crucial to planned obsolescence (see the parade of new devices, each made possible by an updated slate of proprietary technology). They inform our understanding of the techno-utopian mega-corporations themselves (see the cult of Steve Jobs). So it is actually not that these corporations have truly embraced the “free culture” philosophy they benefit from, or done away with authorship and authenticity, as some purveyors of the regret narrative would have it. Instead, they have claimed authorship (this brand made this product!) and authenticity (it is objectively the best; buy it!) for themselves. What is Mark Zuckerberg now if not, legally, the “author” of a significant chunk of the Internet—a rights holder of the donated experiences and expressions of the enormous number of people who use his network? If “free culture” had really come to pass, that kind of ownership would be impossible.

Given this continuity, the danger of the regret narrative is its propensity for engendering a feeling of nostalgia—not a critique of the system itself, but a critique of the current manifestation of the system. Taylor is better at avoiding this trap than most, but even she betrays an occasional fondness for the more dubious aspects of what we have lost. She repeats, for instance, the problematic notion that one of the benefits of the old label ecosystem is that its pop hits functioned to “funnel revenues from more successful acts to less successful ones.” She calls that dynamic “cross-subsidies,” but to me, it sounds a lot like trickle-down economics: nice if you happen to be one of the fortunate few to get some of the windfall. More broadly, if free market capitalism is the problem, why would changing the elite beneficiaries of that system—subbing in the big record labels or movie studios for any of the major technology companies—be the solution?

What we have needed for a while now is a radical disruption of some sort. Perhaps the Internet was that disruption—or perhaps it merely made us aware of the ideas that will make that disruption possible. In either case, we should be careful of banishing those ideas to the dustbin of history, just because we have not yet been able to take full advantage of them.