e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Culture after Google

The current issue of the New Left Review includes an evaluation by Emilie Bickerton of Astra Taylor’s book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Bickerton praises the book for avoiding both techno-utopian and techno-dystopian cliches, instead laying out a sober assessment of how the internet has both aided and undermined cultural production. However, Bickerton finds Taylor’s prescription for a way forward to be somewhat tepid:

The People’s Platform ends with a manifesto—in itself a more ambitious move than those of most books on digital culture, even if Taylor’s demands seem disappointingly limited after what has gone before. She shrinks from the thought of nationalization—there is no equivalent here to Evgeny Morozov’s ‘Socialize the data centres!’—and disparages the free-software movement pioneered by Richard Stallman and others as ‘freedom to tinker’. Instead she calls for more regulation of the service providers and major platforms; improved broadband provision; introducing a kind of Glass–Steagall of new media, to force a separation of content creation from communication and thus prevent a new round of vertical integration; levying a tax on the advertising industry; pressuring Silicon Valley to pay tax at higher rates; more public spending on the ‘cultural commons’, the arts and public broadcasting (the education system gets no mention). In the ‘copyright wars’, she opts for reform rather than abolition or ‘copyleft’. More broadly, Taylor argues that the ideology of ‘free culture’ promoted by Web enthusiasts has centred on distribution, obscuring and ultimately diminishing the people and social supports that underlie cultural production. She seeks to redress the balance by way of a more ‘ecological’, long-term mentality, drawing on the politics of ethical consumption and ‘fair trade’ to call for culture that is ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair’, as opposed to ‘free’.

Bickerton offers her own recommendations for freeing the internet from corporate control. They rely less on government regulation and more on a self-organized exodus from the current situation:

It is apparently still quite possible to live mostly beyond the purview of Big Tech and the surveillance state, and a truly vast ‘commons’ exists that can support that independence. The use of non-tracking search engines such as DuckDuckGo, instead of Google, can significantly shorten the trail of one’s data footprints, as can a security-conscious email provider like Kolab (especially when combined with encryption), or a free activist one such as Riseup or Inventati/Autistici, rather than an ad-based service such as Gmail, which feeds on its ability to analyse your inbox. A federated social network such as Diaspora can replace Facebook; instead of Google’s Android, smartphones and tablets can run the free-software Replicant operating system; Owncloud can provide the same functionality as Dropbox. The list could be expanded: prism-break.org, run by one Peng Zhong and based, perhaps only virtually, in northern France, offers a wealth of suggestions.

The major obstacles to a large-scale exodus in that direction are, first, the self-reinforcing tendency towards consolidation, which makes it very easy to join, for example, Facebook, and quite hard to leave; and second, the straightforward temptation of corporate services that are free and easily accessible, while the alternatives tend to cost time or money, or both. Still, a cultural politics of the internet should be grateful for the work of free-software programmers and would do well to draw upon the possibilities it opens up. Since WikiLeaks and the Snowden revelations, there have been signs of an emerging alliance between hackers and journalists, as evidenced by The Intercept, the online platform launched by Glenn Greewald, Jeremy Scahill and documentary-maker Laura Poitras. Taylor is surely right that we need to address the underlying socio-economic forces that shape digital technologies. Yet against such powerful foes, an effective strategy will aim to open multiple fronts; real advances, however small, should be welcomed. The twist to James’s story was that the Master, having dispatched his epigone to Switzerland in the name of art, promptly married the young man’s beloved. The lesson, in other words, was entirely worldly. Today’s young cultural workers may have learned that already.

Read Bickerton’s full review at the New Left Review website.