Five key questions – and answers – about how digital culture is hurting art

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Astra Taylor is the author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” a new book on how information technology and market changes are reshaping art and culture (Amazon, Powells). I asked her five questions about her arguments in the book.

HF – At many points in the book you suggest that new technologies, far from leveling the playing field, are creating their own forms of inequality. How can open technologies lead to very unequal outcomes?

AT – It’s true that our new communicative technologies can create space for many voices, but the Internet also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities. It is open but also unequal.

Contrary to all the hype about the “long tail,” the cultural playing field hasn’t been leveled so much as rearranged. What we are seeing is the emergence of the “missing middle” (a phrase I’ve taken from the political scientist Matthew Hindman). Online the bandwagon effect intensifies: the big can get bigger than ever before, and there are lots of tiny interesting things on the margin, but the in-between is hollowing out. The Internet is a global distribution medium. What once were national brands or celebrities can now be global brands or celebrities. For example, The New York Times and the Guardian are finding international audiences while papers in mid-sized cities falter. According to the 2008 annual State of the News Media report, legacy news organizations actually wield more influence now than before: “Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience than they did in the legacy media.”

I try to highlight a contradiction in the contemporary media ecology. On the one hand, a handful of businesses are rising to become new info-monopolies. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook are now among the biggest companies in the world, siphoning revenue away from other local economies to Silicon Valley or Seattle or wherever, concentrating wealth in the process.

On the other, even as this remarkable concentration is playing out, our relationship with media is becoming more personalized. No one can tell you what to click on, Web sites reflect your preferences, and everyone has a glowing screen of their own. Yet these catered services generally rely on centralized vendors and services, like Amazon or Apple, that control the hardware we are using and the content we consume. This creates a kind of vertical integration behind the scenes. Certain barriers to cultural participation have been removed, and we can all post on social media or comment on articles, but massive asymmetries of power persist. Individually we glean benefits that are orders of magnitude smaller than the benefits for the platform owners who can collect and harness the “big data” generated by our communications.

That’s the big picture. But I also look at the way other kinds of hierarchies carry over from the offline to the online realms. For art and culture makers, the Internet is far from the meritocracy many imagined it would be. Material inequities, stemming from socioeconomic status and gender, affect who is able to participate online. Money and celebrity still dictate who gets attention (front page placement isn’t cheap and neither is a tweet from an A-list star). And algorithms, which tend to show us more of what we’ve already “liked,” and reinforce the already familiar, don’t always help matters. There are many ways in which the digital sphere is less democratic and diverse than we might want.

HF – Many technology commentators argue that we should aim to create a “free culture” of open sharing, swapping and remixing on the Internet. You think that this is a terrible idea for many artists and producers of culture. Why?

AT – Terrible is a strong word. To be clear, it’s not that I’m against “sharing, swapping, and remixing” in principle. I partake of all three. It’s that I think many prominent free culture advocates don’t fully grapple with the fact that these activities are taking place on privately owned for-profit platforms. Free culture enthusiasts are very critical of old media giants and rightly so (Disney especially, because of the company’s role in copyright extension), but they tend to give newer tech companies a pass. That’s what I have a problem with. I believe we need to be equally critical of these new enterprises. My point is that these new tech companies are becoming the Disneys of the digital world, only more ubiquitous and more insinuated into our lives than Mickey Mouse ever was. Disney didn’t track your browsing habits at the mall or read your mail, after all! (And, it should be noted, Disney still exists. The old “dinosaurs” have not gone extinct, but are adapting quite well to the new media landscape).

Of course I understand that the “free” of free culture is supposed to be “free as in speech not free as in price,” as its proponents often stress. I spend a lot of space talking about that fact. But in practice the two meanings tend to blur into each other, as it’s hard to charge for something that people are able to freely access and remix. Ultimately, the free culture position is concerned with control — specifically the controlling nature of copyright. And as a documentary filmmaker I share this concern; fair use is essential to my work, and I wholly agree the current copyright regime is completely obscene, bloated well beyond its original purpose. But as an independent filmmaker and writer, I admit to feeling pinched between two extremes: copyright maximalists who think culture should be owned in perpetuity on one side and free culture idealists who believe creators have no special entitlement to work they have produced on the other. I didn’t see my experience reflected in either position, and working on this book was an excuse to think through all the complexities.

What’s more, some of my friends and acquaintances who rally to the cause of “free culture” argue it is an effective way to subvert corporate culture, defy market values, and create a digital “cultural commons.” I am not convinced getting rid of copyright will get us there; in fact, I argue the opposite is true. Just because you can access culture for “free” doesn’t mean that someone isn’t making money off of it — it just may not be the artist, but rather the company that owns the backend. As I mention in the book, while the free culture perspective is concerned with control, they ignore the issue of commercialism.

Lawrence Lessig, the godfather of the free culture movement, is a good example of this. He is great at sounding the alarm about how the controlling nature of copyright stifles creativity, and he raises many good points. Yet his enthusiasm for the free circulation of information causes him to ignore the commodification of our lives online and the winner-take-all nature of the Web. In his book, “Remix,” he basically says that we should not worry about how we will fund “free” culture, because advances in targeted advertising will solve the problem for us. I strongly disagree. I think you need to worry about the overreach of copyright law and pervasive commercialism.

HF – What does this do to artistic production? Which kinds of artists are likely to do well and which will do badly?

AT – Leaving culture to be funded by marketers is bad not just for creators and consumers but also for citizens, for democracy. I argue in the book that it makes our culture more cloying and compliant. For example, clickbait headlines and slideshows are what you get when you leave online journalism to advertisers. And then there’s the rise of “stealth marketing,” “brand content,” and “sponsored journalism” — all the advertising online that is pretending not to be advertising, because disclosure laws haven’t caught up with technology.

When we don’t fund culture directly, marketers are happy to fill the gap. They don’t care about copyright as they want their messages to spread, to go viral. But do we really want artists pandering to these new corporate Medicis? I admit this is not the most troubling example, but yesterday I saw an interview with a filmmaker who was funded by AT&T to make a series of shorts. He went on at length about the total creative freedom he had. But when you actually watched his videos they were basically mobile phone fetish films. That’s what this model produces.

A lot of people will probably dismiss concerns about online advertising. They feel they can spot sponsored content a mile away or block and ignore ads, or because the ones they see scrolling alongside their Facebook feed or interrupting their Twitter timelines feel irrelevant. But the problem goes deeper than what we see. As info-security expert Bruce Schneier says, “the business model of the Internet is surveillance.” We pay for “free” cultural goods and services with our privacy; every move we make leaves a trace noted by data brokers, and I believe this harms our dignity. Meanwhile the information they collect is amassed and analyzed and we get sorted into “reputation silos” and labeled as either targets or waste, which can reinforce prejudicial treatment. As a White House review noted just last week, the possibility of “big data” fueling housing, employment, and credit discrimination is real and worrying.

HF – You argue that creative producers face a precarious existence, thanks to a Darwinian logic which has swept away many traditional protections, and instead left individuals to manage for themselves as best as they can. Of course, artists aren’t the only people in this situation. Which of the problems discussed in your book are specific and unique to artists and cultural producers, and which are general problems for a much larger class of ordinary Americans?

AT – Though the book focuses on arts and culture I tried to highlight the overlap between artists and other people. In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. I should say that the focus on art and culture was a response to many prominent tech books that use examples from the cultural realm — writing about how the Internet has “liberated” musicians from record labels, for instance — without going into much detail or actually talking to musicians. One thing I tried to do was inquire into the nature of that liberation, its positive and negative facets.

The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition — the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist — someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock — is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.

A lack of stability, security, healthcare, and so on: these are problems artists share with other Americans. Ironically, as the Apple example illustrates, the figure of the artist is invoked to justify these difficult circumstances. Instead I would like to see other aspects of the creative life being spread to other types of work: things like autonomy, purpose, and intrinsic reward. Alas, that’s not the case. In the end, I believe artists need to have solidarity with other kinds of workers, but to do that they would have to let go of the image of themselves as somehow outside normal economic life, as separate from “ordinary Americans.” In the words of John Lennon they would have to recognize they are not completely “clever, classless, and free.”

HF – Unlike many technology intellectuals, you don’t want to sweep away existing institutions, but instead to reform them and make them more equal. What would this mean in practical terms?

AT – Yes, and in a way I surprised myself. I come from a pretty radical background. I was “unschooled” as a child (a kind of anarchist homeschooling) and have made my way as an independent scholar of sorts, neither attached to a university or a particular organization. I was also very active in Occupy Wall Street, a movement that expressed many legitimate grievances at institutions, at the government, the big banks, and so on. You could say I have my anti-institutional bona fides.

Nonetheless, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of the tech commentary I came across, which essentially insisted that old institutions — book publishers, newspapers, record labels, libraries, universities, you name it — would be “disintermediated” out of existence and that this was a good thing, step towards a new democratized digital future. I had three main reactions. First, disintermediation, if it’s real, is uneven at best. Advertising hasn’t been disintermediated away, for example, and in various ways new technologies have fortified old power: Snowden’s revelations of the government’s surveillance apparatus is a good example, as is high-speed Wall Street trading. The second reaction was that disintermediation doesn’t acknowledge the new mediators; Google, Facebook and all the myriad data brokers stalking us without our consent. These mediators are not neutral: Google prominently displays its own offerings when you search for things, Facebook hassles users to pay to promote their posts, Amazon charges for prominent positioning on its platform, and so on. There are endless examples. And finally, I’m just not convinced that eliminating institutions is the path to democracy. We need institutions, we need buffers — we just need better ones.

And that’s a challenge. It’s easy to stand aside and cheer the crumbling of institutions that have disappointed us. It’s harder to think about how to actually do the jobs they were meant to do and do them well. Consider journalism. Many tech pundits condemned the mainstream media and argued it was better to just let bloggers and amateurs do that work, insisting that they would be purer for being uncompensated. But it’s not an insult to amateur reporters to say it’s hard to cover City Hall everyday if you have another job that puts food on the table. In the end, as a society we need mechanisms to support people to do serious journalism. I think that means considering publicly financed non-commercial models, and others may disagree. But that’s a debate we should be having instead of just cheering on destruction.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.

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