Black panther party propaganda
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The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.
Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.
Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.
For the first 20 years of the evolution of the internet — from the start of the “internetworking” project in 1973 to the launch of the first major web browser in 1993 – cyberspace (the virtual world behind the screen, as William Gibson put it) and “meatspace” (John Perry Barlow’s term for the material world) were, effectively, parallel universes. Cyberspace was the preserve of a privileged elite – the computer scientists, engineers and graduate students who collaboratively designed and had access to it. And the inhabitants of meatspace were, for the most part, blissfully unaware of its existence.
The two universes were radically different. For the netizens of cyberspace, meatspace – the world dominated by “weary giants of flesh and steel”, declared Barlow – had purchased a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history. Netizens believed that the internet was about to “flatten organisations, globalise society, decentralise control, and help harmonise people”, as Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT guru, put it. The network would bring about the rise of a new “digital generation” – playful, self-sufficient, psychologically whole – and it would see that generation gather, like the net itself, into collaborative networks of independent peers. And so on.
This book is about economics, and the amazing, probably very American ability to not talk about economics—particularly with technology, which is supposed to be this magical realm, so pure and disruptive and unpredictable that it transcends economic conditions and constraints. The basic idea is that that’s not the case.
To a lot of people this is self-evident, but I was surprised at how outside the mainstream conversation that insight was. When money is brought up, there’s this incredible romanticism, like the Yochai Benkler quote about being motivated by things other than money. But we’re talking about platforms that go to Goldman Sachs to handle their IPOs. Money is here. Wake up!
In addition to critiquing Jenkins’ participatory democracy stance, Fuchs takes issue with Jenkins’ ideas on social media exploitation. Jenkins argues that although users provide free labor, they too benefit socially and emotionally, and are therefore not exploited for this labor. Fuchs reminds us that the definition of exploitation is the creation of surplus value based on someone else’s labor. The creation of this value—whether enjoyable or not—is nonetheless exploitative. Importantly, Jenkins’ logic decenters money as the key token of exchange, and Fuchs argues that this decentering misrepresents the logic and reality of capitalism. Building on Dallas Smythe (1981), Fuchs argues instead that prosumers are sold as commodities to targeted advertisers. In addition, these prosumers generate free labor by providing content that draw other users. Each of these activities increase the relative surplus value (as opposed to absolute surplus value, created by extending unpaid working hours) (Marx 1867), in that the tools of exploitation become more efficient, with laborers creating more profit in the same amount of time.
Fuchs devotes the better part of chapter 8 to a discussion of Twitter as a public sphere. Evoking Habermas, Fuchs notes the two necessary components of a public sphere: political communication (equality of voice) and political economy (equal access to resources). He summarizes the key debates through the work of Clay Shirky, Evgeny Morozov, Malcom Gladwell, Jodi Dean, and Zizi Papacharissi. In short, he contends that Shirky and Papacharissi advance social media as tools of a public sphere, while Morozov, Gladwell, and Dean, argue that “slacktivism” displaces “real” political action, reinforcing the status quo while quelling personal feelings of guilt. Fuchs sympathizes with the latter view, rather than the former. He engages in an empirical analysis of political communication and political economy on Twitter, collected during the 2011 political revolutions. He shows that while social media can be a tool of the masses, asymmetrical visibility persists, and favors corporations and powerful political figures. Twitter is, therefore not, Fuchs concludes, a public sphere.