Astra Taylor

A People’s Platform

Air Date: January 10, 2015

Taylor argues that media hierarchies are hijacking the populist promise of the Internet.

READ FULL TRANSCRIPT

I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Ever since my attention was drawn to The New York Times review of Astra Taylor’s essential new book, The People’s Platform, I’ve been eager to explore her elucidating account of digital power and culture and their transformation.

A prize-winning documentarian who probed the insights of our contemporary worldly philosophers in Examined Life, Taylor, who has described her own work as the “steamed broccoli” in our cultural diet.

These topics on their surface may be challenging to digest but Taylor’s dynamic analysis is both accessible and of course, critically important. Once an egalitarian springboard to cultivate American culture through the creativity of the masses, the Internet has now transferred its power, it seems, over to the classical media hierarchies of celebrity.

For the cheap laugh has become the cheap click. And according to Taylor, market forces rather than the common social good primarily govern new media conglomerates like Google and Facebook. And their model necessitates the collection of user data … perpetuating the cycle of clickable junk.

A People’s Platform, therefore, appears aspiration more than reality which us to wonder, if not on YouTube or Netflix, how we can facilitate the populist revolt that Astra Taylor craves. How can we empower Americans instead of the corporate monolith? Does it even matter if our cultural norms appeal to the basest, exploitative ends? Are we beyond redemption?

These are the first questions that I pose to our guest today, as I welcome her, Astra Taylor thank you for being here.

TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: Are we beyond redemption?

TAYLOR: No. I think that, you know, one of the main points I’m trying to make in this book is that these are manmade system, you know, the Internet was made by human beings and as such can be made better.

There, there can almost be a kind of technological inevitability, the sense like “Well, you now let’s, let’s leave it to, to these innovations and, and let’s see where technology is taking us and, and that’s kind of the rhetoric coming out of Silicon Valley. And, and coming out of these Internet giants, you know … there’s going to be this inevitable disruption and upheaval and every … we should just let technology play out. And, and one of the points of the book is, “Well, no, let’s talk about what kind of media and communications system we want and let’s try to intervene and shape it. So, we’re not, we’re not beyond redemption if we take action.

HEFFNER: It appears very difficult to undo some of the trends that we’ve seen toward that cheap click …

TAYLOR: MmmHmmmm.

HEFFNER: … so what does the process look like to actually re-create that, that common good.

TAYLOR: Yeah, well, I think when ….

HEFFNER: … that People’s Platform.

TAYLOR: Yeah, I think we’re not there yet because we haven’t really recognized the depth of the problem. And that’s one thing that this book is trying to do. There have been a lot of books written about the Internet, so I’m kind of entering a really crowded field here, right?

And they tend to come in two varieties … tend to be the “Everything’s, you know, great and getting better and here’s comes everyone … everyone can participate online … and, and social media has empowered us to create culture, to create encyclopedias, to coalesce politically and advocate for causes … and isn’t it great? And then the other side of the spectrum says, “Oh no, we’re stuck in the shallows, we’re distracted … social media is, you know, weakening our social ties and actually isolating us and …”

And this book basically says neither of those stories talk about the way that these market forces are shaping these tools. And that it’s not just that technology is good or bad, it’s that it is shaped by the social context that it emerges in. So …

HEFFNER: Mmmmmm.

TAYLOR: … so right now those market forces are dominated by the advertising dollar. And that, that really is the funding model shaping the entire Internet.

The business model of the Internet is surveillance. And it is advertising. And if we don’t kind of … as a culture, talk about what the, the downsides of that funding model are then I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a space where we talk about reclaiming it, or making it a true people’s platform. Right?

Like we haven’t really had a conversation about the social costs yet …

HEFFNER: Right.

TAYLOR: … I think we’re, we’re still at step one. And then what to do comes, comes after that. Of kind of admitting that we, we have a problem, we’re addicted to advertising.

But that’s the only funding structure, hmmm, in place, you know, and that’s what so interesting to me is we have this new technology and it is amazing that we have this infrastructure where, you know, we can, we can communicate many to many, instead of the old broadcast “top down” model. And it is true that many old business models are kind of in a state of flux or possible collapse, but it’s very interesting … I mean advertising is actually stronger than ever.

I mean these companies … Google and Facebook are more dependent on the advertising dollars than newspapers of yore, television stations of yore. And the advertisers have been very empowered because now they can, you know, track you as you move about the web and increasingly as you move about away from the keyboard … they’re connecting to other types of data collection.

So … yeah, I think we need, we need to talk about the social costs of that being the model that’s supporting the supposedly open and free platforms that we depend on for information and to be educated and apply for jobs and to communicate and read the news and all this stuff.

HEFFNER: The social costs of big data … so tell me is that inevitable? I mean is big data inevitable?

TAYLOR: I don’t’ think anything’s inevitable, that’s why I’m a … you know, besides being a writer and, and being a filmmaker … I spend a lot of time being a political activist and working around economic justice issues. So if I thought anything was inevitable, I would not spend precious hours of my time (laugh) on probably ill-fated, you know …

HEFFNER: But that’s, but that’s …

TAYLOR: campaign …

HEFFNER: … optimism that we cherish here … so let’s, lets interrogate this a bit more. So to undo this trend …

TAYLOR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … which is how the wheel is going around now …

TAYLOR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … big data that serves advertisers, that serves the bottom line, it doesn’t serve populism, it doesn’t serve the people.

TAYLOR: Yes. Yes, and so what, what … but first we have to think about what is actually going on. So, so we talk about big data, it’s kind of a catch-phrase right now. And the idea is that through all of our movements in the digital space, we kind … there’s a kind of digital exhaust … is a phrase …and we leak … these companies just happen to collect it and amass it and then they go on to, to analyze it.

And to sort us, the users of the Internet into these databases so that they can target content to us, so they can target advertising to us … so that they can not just serve us ads that we’ll see … but also there’s ample evidence that price discrimination comes in. You know, they might offer you something that they don’t offer someone who is, you know, a single mother living in a rural area or something like that.

Or might … discriminate in terms of interest rates, you know not just prices. So there … it’s not just a matter of like the advertising that we see on the side of the Facebook page …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

TAYLOR: … and I think that’s really key. And there’s a sort of discrimination that is emerging and that is extremely unregulated … this is a brave new world in which there’s very little government oversight.

So, you know that’s one, one example, one example of these sort of larger social costs.

HEFFNER: I mean it’s fascinating to hear you say that because it, it sounds like what could be a start of a solution is web gentrification. I mean …

TAYLOR: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … is that really or what we’re talking about?

TAYLOR: (Laugh) What difference … gentrification in what sense.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m just imaging your words as a city … I mean where stores do discriminate …

TAYLOR: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I mean if you’re in Manhattan or if you’re in an outer borough, depending upon your coordinates, you’re going to have certain advertisers. You’re going to have the capitalistic system surrounding you. I mean that’s …

TAYLOR: Exactly. So what we’re having is … these are all real world problems and when you’re saying … you know … when you’re using this analogy to the real world, it’s like well, of course, because the Internet, the online space and the offline space are the same, so what we see is the same problems, the same inequities moving into the online sphere. And sometimes … in some cases amplified …

HEFFNER: But you say we’re at one point more free of some of these socio economic boundaries.

TAYLOR: Yeah, well technically, you know … is one of the bright spots in a rather dim economy, right, so a lot of money is flowing there. You know if you look at the charts, you know, advertising globally is $700 billion dollars a year and more and more and more … but it’s suddenly online.

So what I’m looking at are the trends. Long-time trends of what are we going to see? And I think we’re going to see more invasive advertising and data collection with more types of digital discrimination emerging. And, and that what we kind of have to understand that this is much bigger than those annoying little “lose the belly pad” ads that we all see on the Internet … who clicks on those anyway?

Right? I mean … it, it divides people, shows people, you know, shows one category of people something, hides it for another category. And the other thing is that the advertisers shape the actual form of these platforms. Why, why is, why is Facebook organized around the “like”? Right? It can always … you know, there are so many other things we could do, we could find something important or we could find something interesting … you know … let’s organize around the “like” because …

HEFFNER: But again that’s the profit … I mean the profit making impetus …

TAYLOR: Right.

HEFFNER: We had Sue Gardner here and Mitchell Baker from the Wikipedia organization and Firefox Corporation and I mean we were discussing this whole … that these organizations, they could have gone the more public oriented, public service route …

TAYLOR: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … in their trajectory and how they were going to interface with the American public. But they chose not to. And, you know, this book may be an awakening so that the next Facebook or Twitter considers that you’re part of a society.

TAYLOR: Right. But I think that’s also then … the society has to choose. Right? And to encourage …

HEFFNER: Because there aren’t protests like there are of war …

TAYLOR: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … of Internet discrimination.

TAYLOR: Right because we haven’t totally, you know, taken stock of where we are and, and organize further things. There’s this idea … actually if you read a lot of the sort of popular Internet literature, they point to sites like Wikipedia as the paradigm of what the web could be. And Sue Gardner has actually made the point, “Well, actually the reality is there’s only one non-profit site in the top 100 most traffic sites on the Internet. That’s Wikipedia. We only have one non-profit model. Why aren’t there more?

And my question is, you know, well why aren’t there more public sites. Why, why, you know, why have we kind of accepted this idea that with the advent of the Internet, public media is now behind us. I can tell you why or what we’re told. We’re told that public media was justified by spectrum scarcity, then in the old broadcast model there are limited channels so we should put one or two for the public interest … have a PBS station have an interview show like this.

But now every, everyone can go on line, it’s theoretically infinite so we don’t need that model any more.

But I think the Wikipedia example challenges us … because it basically says, “Well hold on, if a non-profit can’t survive in this highly commercialized space, and if we can’t actually count on the next Facebook or Google to selflessly declare that they are a public good and that they’re going to be a non-profit, then maybe we have to organize and, and create a public model because you know that’s what people did in the past. Public broadcasting emerged out of the “Great Society” programs, LBJ and it was, you know, an idea that was in the works for decades and decades that people fought for. It didn’t just emerge out of the ether.

HEFFNER: I mean you would credit the net neutrality debate for, for perhaps opening this conversation to some extent. But in all honesty, I mean this is not a thought that percolates.

TAYLOR: Yes. The net neutrality debate is really encouraging. And, you know, former Commissioner Michael Copps has said you … we need to create an Internet for the 99% and that if we get rid of net neutrality, what will happen in the Internet for the 1%. That basically those with deep pockets will be able to pay for prioritized service and we will have this, this wonderful opportunity wasted basically as, as we’ll see, you know the Internet come increasingly to resemble cable television.

So I think, it’s an extremely important debate that’s happening and it’s foundational. I mean the Internet is kind of, it’s … often, it’s sort of a series of layers, right? So there’s that underlying infrastructure … there’s the software layer and then there’s the content in the pop rooms that we all use.

So I think we absolutely need to throw down for the net neutrality fight, we need a free and open Internet at that level. But then we need to pay attention to these higher levels. And that’s where the business models of these companies and issues of privacy, privacy come in. And so I think … you know, one thing I say … an open Internet isn’t enough. It’s just the first step and then we need to think about what’s on top of it.

I would, I would like take a moment, hmm … you know, one, one thing we like to do in the United States is we like to point to Internet bad guys, we like to point to Iran, we like to point to China and just say, “Hey, we’re not doing this authoritarian, dictatorship, you know, closing off the web thing that they’re doing.”

It’s a flattering comparison, it’s a really good … that we are not those countries in terms of Internet governments. But, you know, I … I think if we … if we blow it on net neutrality … we’re really going to fall behind internationally.

Already countries like Chile and the Netherlands have net neutrality. Brazil just passed this massive Internet Constitution that, that makes net neutrality and basic privacy protections a law of the land. So, you know, we pride ourselves so much on being sort of ahead of the curve and being the center where Silicon Valley is creating all of these amazing, useful platforms, but … you know, we should start looking at, at countries where … you know, we don’t look so great in comparison. I think that would be a good first step.

HEFFNER: More …

TAYLOR: Yeah, be humble.

HEFFNER: More advanced democracy.

TAYLOR: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Yeah.

TAYLOR: Yeah and so I think … net neutrality is about regulation, regulation of the cable companies. Right. To say that, that access to the Internet should be common carriage, that they have some … a public duty to, to treat all bits equally and let people get online. Right.

Well, what are the public duties of these big info monopolies? Right. And so I think we need to, to look at other forms of regulation. Privacy regulation is a really important next step, I think, and I think it’s something that people should be, be advocating for. And it should, should take a look at both of government surveillance, although we’ve learned from Edward Snowden in his revelations, but also corporate surveillance in a way that those two are intertwined and really can’t be separated.

And, and the arguments these companies are making to not be regulated are pretty fascinating, you know.

Well, I mean you know there’s, there’s a debate going on about whether they should be able to amass everything, collect all of our data … exhaust … this happening. And then only be, maybe be regulated in terms of how they use it.

Some people and I would agree that you actually need to stop it … the collection … you know that if the data is collected, it’s just irresistible, advertisers are going to access it, the government is going to get it.

But you know the fascinating argument is that companies basically say, well, once that data is there, it’s their free speech, they have a free speech right to then advertise and to use that data however they see fit.

Ahem, ahem, so the more power these companies amass, the more power can be used against the masses, the more that they use it for lobbying in Washington, DC to make these kinds of arguments that are really not in the public interest, as much as they present this sort of public spirited … public spirited façade, you know. I, I would say, you know, they’re not watching out for us in the end.

HEFFNER: So besides taking this book on the road, how is the activist in you … and I know you’re one … going to lead this, this campaign. Because it’s really a book that can be bigger than a book.

TAYLOR: Oh, I think that we do not have a clear progressive plank in, in the technology debate and that’s really … I mean, it’s, it’s true my cards are very much on the table. I mean this, this book could almost be called like “Occupy the Internet” or something like that, you know.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

TAYLOR: And I was, was quite … so I was quite smitten with Michael Copps, you know, idea of an Internet for the 99% because I think that, that’s what this is. But the 1% is not just the cable incumbents, it’s not just Time Warner and Comcast, who might actually be merging …

HEFFNER: Right.

TAYLOR: … and be one big monster. But it’s also the Googles, the Amazons, Facebooks of the world that are amassing this enormous amount of power.

HEFFNER: And to the, to the degree that they infiltrate the FCC …

TAYLOR: (Laugh) … or, or in Washington in general. I mean a, a Google engineer was just appointed the sort of chief technology officer by Obama, right, so and they, they actually are now at the top of the lobbying spending list. They’ve opened huge offices in DC.

So, what we’re seeing is old power … I mean … new power coming to resemble old power. And this is why I say we haven’t had a digital revolution, we’ve had a rearrangement and old hierarchies have carried over.

And as long as we keep buying the silly meme … “everything’s different now” we going to be blinded to how much things are actually the same.

HEFFNER: Mmmm.

TAYLOR: … and, and how little has changed. But the, the sort of encouraging thing about that is, well, that means old tactics of changing things will actually work. All of those past fights we’ve had for consumer protections. All of those past fights we’ve had to create public media, and we could take some of those old, old tactics and use them now because things actually aren’t really that different.

HEFFNER: Let’s not forget the protest … protesting in the streets.

TAYLOR: And people … I mean there was the Occupy the FTC protest around net neutrality … I’m, I’m interested to see where protests emerge. I mean there, there have a lot of protests around the tech companies in San Francisco. And it has been in response to the fact that these tech companies are getting tax breaks and yet contributing to this massive inequality in the city in, in pushing long time residents out to the hinterlands.

And using public resources like bus stops to drive their sleek white, you know, commuter buses. And so this, this sense that their benefiting from public resources, but they’re not giving back to the community, and residents in San Francisco, at least, have had blockades and, and, and really done some civil disobedience tactics. They have actually done tours of houses and visited the, the houses of executive and said, “Hey, you shouldn’t kick out your, your tenants,” and stuff like that.

But I think the basic argument that they’re using public resources and not giving back goes … it, it’s really deep. It goes back to the actually beginning of the Internet and the computer chip which the government invested in.

HEFFNER: But people don’t know that.

TAYLOR: Oh, people don’t know that state subsidy is responsible for practically all of these innovations that private corporations reap.

HEFFNER: I mean and that’s why, in the words of Sue Gardner … she didn’t … she said she didn’t want the Internet to become just another giant mall.

TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah. And this is … and it is … it is increasing a shopping mall and not a public park, but we still use these metaphors, we still say that Twitter’s a town square and Google’s a library, but we don’t think about how actually …

HEFFNER: Well, we don’t qualify it.

TAYLOR: Right. We don’t … or we don’t think about how actually to make those metaphors real, you know. Instead, the shopping mall …

HEFFNER: It’s too difficult. It’s … it requires some work.

TAYLOR: Yes. And some …

HEFFNER: Diligence.

TAYLOR: And some imagination.

HEFFNER: Right. Well, the one thing that was missing here … it, it’s a perfectly cogent and, and essential, as I said in the introduction, book to read … to see the problem. But I want a … I want your blue print …

TAYLOR: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: I mean and I hope that will be a sequel, but you say towards the end … “we must find ways to adapt and extend tried and true policies, while taking the unique architecture of the 21st century communications into account.” And, so you, you … again use the analogy of public, public broadcasting, public means … but, but in your conclusion that’s not here and since this went to press, I’m, I’m wondering how you kind of encapsulating your, your book in, in the context of what to do about the problem.

TAYLOR: Right. And the book does lay out what to do in the sense that it says we need to reconceputalize public media for a digital age and look at every level, every layer of this communications infrastructure. So you know, running or, or at least putting some sort of public interest responsibilities on cable providers or offering municipal broadband alternatives …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

TAYLOR: … and many cities are doing that successfully … offering taxpayer funded broadband, but problem is that these cable incumbents have actually lobbied and gotten laws on the books in almost 20 states forbidding communities from doing that, from providing broadband for themselves. So there are some very low level local battles that we need to get involved in as citizens, I think.

But the next level up is, I think, you know, funding things with the public purse. And, and we’re having this crisis of journalism. And lots of people sort of like waving their hands and, and, you know, decrying the state of, of journalism and how anemic it is and the fact that there’s nobody watching City Hall, etc., etc. And, and the numbers are … I mean there is, there is cause for alarm … as I show in the book, the numbers are pretty bleak.

And yet we never considered the option of, of publicly supporting that public good.

HEFFNER: Mmmm.

TAYLOR: Even though countries with the most investment in public media are ranked again and again as the most democratic in the world. You know. Somehow we just think it’s advertising or it’s nothing.

And so there are lots of ideas, actually the real question that my book, you know, doesn’t address is how you build political power to get this stuff. That’s

HEFFNER: Well, that’s … the campaign …

TAYLOR: … campaigning is hard, and that’s why it’s been very interesting to me researching this book and going back and, and looking at history, and how did this happen, and people started having ideas about non-commercial media and about a more democratic communications system in the twenties and thirties and the early days of radio, you know, and there, you know, key figures just sort of banged our heads against the wall until there was a political opening that they were able to seize. And then there would be these sort of, you know, gains and then there would be some setbacks and then they’d move forward. That’s how political change works …

HEFFNER: Right.

TAYLOR: … you have to just keep spreading the good ideas and waiting for an opportunity that you can leverage into some action. But I think the … you also have to work on the pulic imagination. And … you know, one thing that struck me and it’s not in the book, is that … I mention in the book that one of the founders of Google, Brendan Page, actually wrote an academic article that said they thought advertising search engines would inevitably be biased and that we really needed an alternative in the public realm …right. So they are calling, at the early days of Google in ’98 for an alternative and saying, “This is not going to work out if we go the advertising route.”

I find it fascinating that now they get over 95% of their money from advertising and yet what they’re putting their energy and, and resources into is life extension and traveling to the moon. And I think there’s something really striking about the fact that it seems more realistic to achieve human immortality than to just have an academic search engine.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time, but I have to just throw this out there … it seems to me the one way you could turn people off to the Internet is actually turning the lights off. And re-imagining what it could be.

TAYLOR: … it seems to be you’re proposing some pretty radical civil disobedience it sounds like.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Thoughts, only thoughts

TAYLOR: Ideas.

HEFFNER: Thank you Astra Taylor, it’s a magnificent read and thank for coming here.

TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

Please visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And check us out on Twitter & Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.