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<nettime> Emilie Bickerton: Culture after Google
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<nettime> Emilie Bickerton: Culture after Google


New Left Review 92, March-April 2015

Emilie Bickerton


Literature on the social impact of the internet has always struggled
to keep up with the breakneck pace set by its subject.
First-generation thinking about the net took form in the early 1990s,
when usage was rapidly expanding with the dissemination of early
browsers; it grew out of a pre-existing thread of technology advocacy
that ran back to 60s counter-cultural consumerism. [1] Wired magazine,
founded in 1993, was its chief vehicle; key figures included
tech-enthusiasts Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Reingold, with
their âpatron saintâ Marshall McLuhan. This euphoric perspective
dominated throughout the ânew economyâ boom: the internet was changing
everything, and for the better, heralding a new age of freedom,
democracy, self-expression and economic growth. Grateful Dead lyricist
John Perry Barlowâs 1996 âDeclaration of the Independence of
Cyberspaceâ, delivered from Davos, set the tone: âGovernments of the
Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from
Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you
of the past to leave us alone.â Pitted against this, there had long
existed a minor current of critical left writing, also running back to
at least the early 70s; this included âleft McLuhaniteâ figures such
as The Nationâs Neil Postman. More overtly political, Richard Barbrook
and Andy Cameronâs classic 1995 essay, âThe Californian Ideologyâ,
skewered Wired in its early days, while on the âNettimeâ listserv and
in the pages of Mute magazine, writers such as Geert Lovink attempted
to forge a real ânet criticismâ. But these voices were mostly confined
to the dissident margins.

With the 2000â01 dot.com crash there came something of a discursive
shake-out. It was in the early post-crash years that Nicholas Carrâs
Does it Matter? (2004) was published, puncturing ânew economyâ hype.
But with the Greenspan bubble and massive state-intelligence funding
after 9.11, American tech was soon on its feet again. Tim OâReillyâs
coining of the âWeb 2.0â buzzword in 2004 captured the returning
optimism. The blog craze, Wikipedia and the first wave of social media
all came into play during these years, and it was now that the
landscape of tech giants was consolidated: Google, Facebook, Amazon,
Apple, Microsoft. The technology discourses of this phase echoed the
developing shape of the Web: with âopen sourceâ (another OâReilly
buzzword) and Wikipedia, it was argued that undefined crowds could be
superior producers of content and code than named (or paid)

When a second, much deeper crisis erupted in 2008, American tech was
one of the few sectors to remain relatively unscathed, already moving
into new lines of production: smartphones, tablets, e-readers. The
uptake of these devices brought a qualitative expansion of internet
use, blurring the boundary between everyday life and a âcyberspaceâ
that had hitherto been conceptualized as a separate sphere. Suddenly
it was evident that all the talk of the internetâs capacity to
instigate far-reaching social change was no mere talk. It was in these
years that a set of more pessimistic and critical voices started to
come to the fore, worrying about the dangers of the Webâs expanding
use: Nicholas Carrâs The Shallows (2010), Jaron Lanierâs You Are Not A
Gadget (2010), Sherry Turkleâs Alone Together (2011), Evgeny Morozovâs
The Net Delusion (2011). Carrâs book in particular became the key
expression of a mounting anxiety, even before the Snowden revelations
in June 2013 brought home some of the darker implications of these
developments. But now that the internet was so plainly entangled in so
much of everyday life, and so much of the structure of capitalist
society, it was becoming increasingly meaningless to isolate a
singular technological entity, âthe internetâ, as either simply good
or bad. The main object of net criticism was increasingly coextensive
with society itself, thus making a more social mode of critique
plainly the most pertinent one.

This is the context for Astra Taylorâs The Peopleâs Platform: Taking
Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Taylor presents herself as
neither a âcheerleader of progress at any costâ nor a âprophet of
doomâ, condemning change and lamenting what has been lost. She aims to
provide a more nuanced mode of net criticism than either of these
standard rhetorical poles. She is by no means the first to do so:
Evgeny Morozov is another figure who would locate himself here, taking
up a third rhetorical position that distinguishes itself against the
other two and offering less techno-determinist, more socio-political
modes of explanation. But if the occupants of this third position are
right to place themselves here, it might be said that it is easy
nowâin the third decade of the Webâs existenceâto be right in this
way. What matters is the detail of the diagnosis and what we can do.

Taylorâs ambition, as her subtitle suggests, is to make the case for a
new cultural politics of the digital age. How Web 2.0 affects the
production and distribution of culture touches her in a direct sense.
She is a documentary filmmaker and editor of two books, one on
philosophy, the other on the Occupy movement in the us. She has no
parallel university job to shield her from the growing structural
inequalities she describes; nor for the most part do the musicians,
film-makers, photographers and investigative reporters whose stories
she recounts, working at the coal face of a culture industry that has
been transformed by the internetâbut not in ways that Wired predicted.
Taylorâs personal background might make her seem an ideal candidate
for Web enthusiasm. She has written in n+1 magazine about her
enlightened home-schooling by counter-cultural parents. The Peopleâs
Platform opens with the story of how in 1991, the twilight of the
pre-Web era, the 12-year-old Taylor brought out her own
environmentalist magazine, copying it with the help of a friendâs
father who managed the local Kinkoâs and distributing it to bookstores
and food co-ops around Athens, Georgia, in her parentsâ car. She notes
how much easier it would have been to get her message out today, when
âany kid with a smartphoneâ has the potential to reach millions of
readers with the push of a button. In 2011 Taylor helped produce five
crowd-funded issues of the Zuccotti Park broadsheet, Occupy! Gazette,
distributed free in print and online. This background is important;
she is coming from a position of high expectations and dashed hopes,
not sceptical resistance to technological change.

The Peopleâs Platform looks at the implications of the digital age for
cultural democracy in various sectorsâmusic, film, news,
advertisingâand how battles over copyright, piracy and privacy laws
have evolved. Taylor rightly situates the tech euphoria of the late
90s in the context of Greenspanâs asset-price bubble, pointing out
that deregulated venture-capital funds swelled from $12bn in 1996 to
$106bn in 2000. Where tech-utopians hailed the political economy of
the internet as âa better form of socialismâ (Wiredâs Kevin Kelly) or
âa vast experiment in anarchyâ (Googleâs Eric Schmidt and the State
Departmentâs Jared Cohen), she shows how corporations dominate the new
landscape: in 2013 Disney and TimeWarnerâs shares were up by 32 per
cent, cbsâs by 40 per cent and Comcastâs by 57 per cent. The older
tech and culture-industry corporations have âpartneredâ with the new:
at&t with Apple, Disney and Sony with Google. The major record labels
have stakes in Spotify, as has Fox in Vice Media, while Condà Nast has
bought up Reddit. In contrast to the multiple distribution grids that
once purveyed telephony, tv, radio and film, nearly everything is now
carried on cable or wireless âunichannelsâ, monopolized in the us by a
handful of giants: at&t, Verizon, TimeWarner, Comcast.

Their scale is matched by the newcomers. Google, which accounts for 25
per cent of North American consumer internet traffic, has swallowed up
a hundred firms since 2010. With over a billion users, Facebook has
enrolled more than a seventh of the worldâs population. A third of
global internet users access the Amazon cloud on a daily basis. As
Taylor pointedly notes, the main source of Facebookâs and Googleâs
profits is other firmsâ advertising expenditure, an annual $700bn in
the us; but this in turn depends on the surplus extracted from workers
who produce âactual thingsâ. The logic of advertising drives the tech
giantsâ voracious appetite for our data. In 2012 Google announced it
would be collating information from its multiple servicesâGmail, maps,
search, YouTube, etc.âto combine the âknowledge personâ (search
queries, click-stream data), the âsocial personâ (our email and social
media networks) and the âembodied personâ (our physical whereabouts,
tracked by the phones in our pockets) into a single â3d profileâ, to
which advertisers can buy access in real time. Facebook, which is now
bundling usersâ offline purchases with their profiles, âto make it
easier for marketers to reach their customersâ, as Mark Zuckerberg put
it, had a market value of $104 billion on the day of its ipo. Without
our âlikesâ and comments, our photos and tweets, our product ratings
or restaurant reviews, these companies would be worth nothing.

Online and offline are not separate worlds, Taylor insists; the
internet in her account has a distinctly âearthlyâ reality. Broken
down into its three different layersâphysical infrastructure (cables
and routers), software (code, applications) and contentâit turns into
something more controllable, potentially vulnerable to harnessing. The
current battle over ânet neutralityâ in the us is a marker of thisâa
struggle over the dilution of regulation preventing cable companies
and service providers from slowing traffic down to stifle competition,
or charging extra fees to speed it up. A further question is whether
the principle of equal access could be extended from wired broadband
to wireless connectionsânot just mobile phones but cars, watches,
fridges, clothes, as the internet-of-things looms ever closer.

If the corporations have prospered in the digital age, what of the
relationship between creative labour and technological innovation? For
the tech-utopians, the Web would be a paradise of collaborative
creativity, with art and knowledge produced for sheer pleasure.
Richard Floridaâs Rise of the Creative Class (2002) hailed the advent
of the âinformation economyâ, in which workers already controlled the
means of production, as these were inside their heads. The tension
between Protestant work ethic and Bohemian creativity would be
dissolved, as profit-seeking and pleasure-seeking, mainstream and
alternative morphed together. In reality, Taylor notes, the ideology
of creativity has become increasingly useful for a profit-gouging
economy. In a cruel twist, the ethos of the autonomous creatorâthe
trope of the impoverished but spiritually fulfilled artistâhas been
repurposed to justify low pay and job insecurity. The ideal worker
matches the traditional profile of the creative virtuoso: inventive,
adaptable, putting in long hours and expecting little compensation in
return. âMoney shouldnât be an issue when youâre employed at Appleâ,
shopworkers are informed. Graduate students are encouraged to think of
themselves as comparable to painters or actors, the better to prepare
themselves for impoverishment when tenure-track jobs fail to

In Henry Jamesâs âThe Lesson of the Masterâ, a young writer listens
with growing alarm to the future mapped out for him by his mentor,
pursuing the path of total dedication to his art. No children, no
material comforts, no marriageâall this would tarnish âthe goldâ he
has the capacity to create. He resists: âThe artistâthe artist! Isnât
he a man all the same?â Taylorâs investigation of âfree cultureâ
arrives at a similar, if gender-neutral, position. She recognizes that
âthe fate of creative artists is to exist in two incommensurable
realms of value, and be torn between themâ: on the one hand, cultural
production involves âthe economic act of selling goods or labourâ; on
the other, it entails âthat elevated form of value we associate with
art and cultureâ. What she shows is that, for cultural workers,
conditions in the first realm have worsened quite drastically, while
the promise of the digital eraâa level playing field of universal,
democratic accessâturns out to offer scant compensation; to add oneâs
shout to the digital cacophony doesnât create an intelligible debate.
A songwriter tells Taylor that it takes 47,680 plays on Spotify to
earn the royalties of the sale of one lp, while iTunes can take a cut
of 30 per cent or more. The âfree cultureâ internet ideology disguises
sharply unequal social relations: the digital giants offer free apps,
email and content as bait to hook an audience to sell to advertisers;
struggling independent artists are supposed to provide their work on
the same terms.

Taylor ruefully describes the experience of discovering that her
documentary film, Examined Lifeâinterviews with philosophers, two
years in the makingâhad been posted online by strangers before it had
even opened in theatres. When she wrote to those responsible,
explaining that she would like a few months to recover the filmâs
costs before it went free online, she was told (with expletives) that
philosophy belonged to everyone. âI had stumbled into the copyright
wars.â She has no doubt that existing us copyright law is
indefensible. In 1978, authorsâ exclusive rights to their work were
extended for seventy years after their death, making a mockery of the
original principle of copyright as a reward or incentive for cultural
production. Instead, she argues, it gave a handful of conglomerates an
incentive ânot to create new things, but to buy up tremendous swathes
of what already existsâ. The Peopleâs Platform argues strongly for a
reformed copyright system, in essence as a defence of labour, and
calls for a relationship of âmutual supportâ between âthose who make
creative work and those who receive itâ. Taylor quotes Diderotâs
splendid fulmination:

What property can a man own if a work of the mindâthe unique fruit of
his upbringing, his studies, his evenings, his age, his researches,
his observations; if his finest hours, the most beautiful moments of
his life; if his own thoughts, the feelings of his heart, the most
precious part of himself, that which does not perish, that which makes
him immortalâdoes not belong to him?

Contrary to tech-enthusiastsâ hopes for new forms of creative
collaboration, the majority of online cultural content is produced by
commercial companies using conventional processes. The internet has
steepened the âpower curveâ of cultural commodities, Taylor notes,
with a handful of bestsellers ever more dominant over a growing âtailâ
of the barely read, seen or heard. Netflix, which occupies 40 per cent
of us bandwidth most evenings, reports that the top 1 per cent of its
inventory accounts for 30 per cent of film rentals; YouTubeâs ten most
popular videos get 80 per cent of total plays. Taylor laments the
hollowing of the middle strataâless conventional works that
nevertheless resonate beyond a specialist niche.

The âmissing middleâ is particularly relevant when she turns from film
and music to journalism. The news industry is another ravaged
environment in the digital age, with local and rural papers in the us
hit especially hard; the number of reporters covering state capitals
halved between 2003 and 2009. Even in the booming Bay Area, the
Oakland Tribune shrank from two hundred reporters in the 1990s to less
than a dozen today. As Taylor points out, while you can now access the
nyt, British Guardian and Canadian Globe & Mail with a single click,
your home-town papers have likely shut down. Her defence of the
profession is a classic one, based on the idea that journalists should
act as democracyâs watchdogs against ignorance and corruption, calling
politicians to account and bringing events from around the world out
of potential obscurity and onto front pagesâpaper or digital. In
modern newsrooms, however, in-depth international reporting is all but
extinct: by 2006, she writes, American media, both print and
broadcast, supported a mere 141 foreign correspondents overseas.
Budgets are channelled into developing digital editions and online
magazines, like The Huffington Post; news aggregators such as Gawker
or âcontagious mediaâ sites like Buzzfeed proliferate. Yet the
time-bomb hanging over foreign correspondents was ticking long before
the Web. Here again, new problems are generally old problems with a
different face: trends already evident in the 90s underwent a dizzying
acceleration as the digital era took hold. The original newspaper
model had used profits from print advertising to fund its most
expensive but often least read international pages by bundling
audiences togetherâcrossword aficionados and business-page readers
with sports and celebrity-gossip fans. Online, a newspaperâs sections
are split and audiences unbundled, allowing readers to go directly to
the news they want without having to glance atâor pay forâanything

aolâs guidelines for the new-model Huffington Post suggest the
orientation of the future: editors are to keep their eyes glued to
social media and data streams to determine trending topics, pairing
these with search-engine optimized titlesâoften barely literate, but
no matter if they top results listsâand drawing on thousands of
bloggers as well as staff writers to push out a non-stop stream of
condensed, repurposed articles. Those determining the content of the
magazine are already locked in a âmost popularâ feedback loop.
Meanwhile, the rapid-fire output of news agencies that run to a
âhamster wheelâ tempoâwire-copy writers may be expected to churn out
ten stories a dayâis becoming the only source from on-the-ground
reporters around the world. Agency journalists may be good reporters,
but their remit is to stay faithful to the neutrality commitment of
their employer and only say what someone else, usually in an official
position, has said already.

The ascendant model for news in the advertising-driven digital era is
to offer us what weâve read about before, whether this is the price of
oil or the latest tennis results; major internet services shape
content according to algorithms based on past behaviour. We can
personalize the news, âcurateâ and share content, but in the process,
âwhat we want winds up being suspiciously like what weâve got already,
more of the sameâthe cultural equivalent of a warm bath.â News
aggregation is about âcapturing eyeballsâ. As one young toiler in âthe
salt mines of the aggregatorâ explains: âI have made roughly 1,107
times more money linking to thinly sourced stories about Lindsay Lohan
than I have reporting any original news.â Independent online news
sites can be starved of funds. After the Baltimore Examiner shut down
in 2009, journalists tried to set up a web-based in-depth reporting
site, Investigative Voice, along the lines of Voice of San Diego,
MinnPost or ProPublica. It seemed, Taylor writes, âa shining example
of what many hope our new-media future will beâ, combining âthe best
of old-school shoe-leather journalismâ with the internet as âa quick
and affordable distribution platformâ. The reporters pioneered
âepisodic investigative journalismâ, posting and updating revelations
of government and police department malpractice, inviting reader
input. After barely a year, they were broke. Taylorâs contact took a
job with a local Fox affiliate, so he could see a doctor.

The Peopleâs Platform ends with a manifestoâin itself a more ambitious
move than those of most books on digital culture, even if Taylorâs
demands seem disappointingly limited after what has gone before. She
shrinks from the thought of nationalizationâthere is no equivalent
here to Evgeny Morozovâs âSocialize the data centres!ââand disparages
the free-software movement pioneered by Richard Stallman and others as
âfreedom to tinkerâ. Instead she calls for more regulation of the
service providers and major platforms; improved broadband provision;
introducing a kind of GlassâSteagall 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 âcultural commonsâ, the arts and public
broadcasting (the education system gets no mention). In the âcopyright
warsâ, she opts for reform rather than abolition or âcopyleftâ. More
broadly, Taylor argues that the ideology of âfree cultureâ 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
âecologicalâ, long-term mentality, drawing on the politics of ethical
consumption and âfair tradeâ to call for culture that is âsustainableâ
and âfairâ, as opposed to âfreeâ.

In many ways, The Peopleâs Platform is strongest on the detail,
nailing highly specific targets (such as the myth that e-readers are a
boon to the environment; according to a New York Times report, one
Kindle consumes the resources of four dozen books and has the carbon
footprint of a hundred). Taylor provides a valuable and demystifying
account of the current American cultural landscape. Strong on
empirical documentation, the book is weaker on conceptualization or
structural analysis. There is a sense that much of the material here
remains on the surface. Though her stated aim is to uncover âthe
socio-economic forces that shape technology and the internetâ, all we
are given on this front by way of explanatory causes is a passing
mention of shareholder value. Politically, Taylor situates herself as
âa progressiveââthe book abounds in phrases beginning âprogressives
like myselfââwhich would seem to refer to that section of American
opinion located around the left of the Democrats, The Nation and
Democracy Now!. She shares its strengthsâa powerful sense of moral
indignation and hatred of injusticeâand weaknesses, not least a
parochialism that can be blind to the world beyond Americaâs borders
and a failure to analyse the Democratic Partyâs functional role for
Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

The Peopleâs Platform never confronts the fact that the Obama
Administration has not only presided over the continuing expansion of
the global surveillance state but has been exceptionally cosy with the
Valley elite. While Google, Facebook et al. have been enthusiastic
backers of the Democrats, a revolving door has seen staff and ideas
continue to pass between tech and intelligence âcommunitiesâ. There is
surprisingly little in Taylorâs book on the digital heroes who have
incurred the Silicon Presidentâs wrath: Manning, Snowden, Swartz. Yet
their actions have done more than most tomes of net criticism to
reveal the power relations of the digitalized world. Similarly,
Taylorâs manifesto might have been stronger had she looked across the
Rio Grande. That so much of the global infrastructure of the Web, both
hardware and software, is owned by American corporations has different
implications outside us borders. In pursuit of what Stallman has
called âcomputational sovereigntyâ, the Lula government in Brazil
began funding free-software projectsââfreeâ in the sense of libre,
rather than gratuitâover a decade ago. The Correa government in
Ecuador has taken the same path. A more comparative, internationalist
approach might also have shed greater light on what conditions allow
online investigative journalism to succeed; in France, the
subscription-based MÃdiapart has flourished since its foundation by
former Le Monde editor Edwy Plenel in 2007, breaking some of the
countryâs biggest stories of political corruption.

While Taylorâs dismissal of free software as âfreedom to tinkerâ
captures something real about its prima facie narrowness as a
political programme, she misses the peculiar way in which this very
narrowness gives rise to significant implications when we broaden the
frame and examine a more social picture. While the individual user may
not be interested in tinkering with, for example, the Linux kernel, as
opposed to simply using it, the fact that it can be tinkered with
opens up a space of social agency that is not at all trivial. Since
everyone can access all the code all the time, it is impossible for
any entity, capital or state, to establish any definitive control over
users on the basis of the code itself. And since the outcomes of this
process are pooled, one does not have to be personally interested in
âtinkeringâ to benefit directly from this freedom. With non-free
software one must simply trust whoever, or whichever organization,
created it. With free software, this âwhoeverâ is socially open-ended,
with responsibility ultimately lying with the community of users

While this issue of trust might have seemed narrowly geeky a few years
ago, as our lives become increasingly mediated by software
infrastructures, and especially post-Snowden, it is quite apparent
that such things can have major political ramifications. For example,
it is not unusual for non-free software to come with secret
âbackdoorsâ that can enable third parties to collect information about
users. Intelligence agencies can turn on the microphone or camera on
your phone to find out what youâre doing or saying. With free
software, the problem is significantly reduced, since there is a world
of users out there attentive to such risks, ready and able to fix them
when they are found. These questionsâand the ability to avoid
surveillance or subtle forms of technological interference by third
partiesâhave an obvious relevance for journalists, activists,
committed intellectuals and cultural workers, the subjects at the
heart of The Peopleâs Platform.

It is apparently still quite possible to live mostly beyond the
purview of Big Tech and the surveillance state, and a truly vast
âcommonsâ 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 oneâs 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 Googleâs
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 Jamesâs story was that
the Master, having dispatched his epigone to Switzerland in the name
of art, promptly married the young manâs beloved. The lesson, in other
words, was entirely worldly. Todayâs young cultural workers may have
learned that already.


[1] Astra Taylor, The Peopleâs Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture
in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate: London 2014, Â12.99, paperback 277
pp, 978 0 0 0752 5591

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