Occupy the Internet!

A passionate rallying cry against digital inequality

The popular internet as a phenomenon has gone through a number of phases in its short history—decentralized and obscure, to commercial, then to highly participatory (and highly centralized). At each stage critical thinkers have written about the socio-political impact of digitizing everything. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor is the latest book to tackle these issues. Taylor does an excellent job synopsizing internet criticism over the past half-decade. In fact, her second footnote recommends a number of authors including Douglas Rushkoff, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov among other curmudgeons of the internet. Many of Taylor’s targets are the same: Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Kevin Kelly have served as the rhetorical punching bags for many of the above-listed authors. Taylor labels these internet utopians and evangelists with the ostensibly mocking term “new-media thinker.” Topically she takes on market fundamentalism, amateurism, copyright, the fall of journalism and the internet’s overdependence on advertising. Yet, despite treading the same ground as those who have gone before, Taylor’s approach is original. Rather than advancing the debate from a social philosophy perspective, sprinkling academic rigour with storytelling elements as most of the other popular authors do, Taylor comes with an agenda.

Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker known for her films interviewing philosophers, particularly Slavoj Žižek. She was also involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As that movement pulled up its tent pegs and left Zucotti Park to champion other social causes, it seems Taylor decided to focus on internet inequity.

Given that this is Taylor’s first foray into internet criticism, she displays an excellent grasp of the issues. The book begins strongly by attempting to widen the focus beyond the internet as a tool and discussing the underlying economic dynamics and social institutions. “Networks,” she writes, “do not eradicate power: they distribute it in different ways, shuffling hierarchies and producing new mechanisms of exclusion.” Taylor raises the issue of media giants—old and new—crowding out independent voices with their advertising-funded “content,” a “horrible, flattening word.” She prefers the term “culture” and laments that technology companies benefit from the unpaid labour (user-generated content) of culture creators without providing monetary support. Taylor criticizes Silicon Valley’s inexorable drive for efficiency, pointing out that sometimes inefficiency can provide “ancillary benefits” to society. By “unbundling the different functions” of a newspaper, readers certainly get more efficient access to crossword puzzles and classifieds, “but it has eliminated the cross-subsidies that kept journalism afloat … expos[ing] a form of market failure.”

Although Taylor accurately identifies fundamental problems for the internet economy and its business model of surveillance, she soon falls into a pattern of partisan language. Newspaper bosses are “overlords” with “underlings” on a “long greedy binge”; the“structural greed” of the recording industry “is well documented and appalling”; the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America have “greedy policies.”

(Would it be crass to point out that the RIAA and MPAA she so readily derides work on behalf of some of the world’s largest labour unions for art and culture, namely the SAG-AFTRA, the recently merged Screen Actors Guild, established in 1933, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, established in 1952? Trade unionism in “culture” is not limited to entertainers: the International Federation of Journalists represents about 600,000 members in over 100 countries. These organizations escape Taylor, who feels artists “spend a lot of time on the road, [are] not rooted in one place; hence they are not able to organize and advocate for their rights.”)

Despite the demagoguery, The People’s Platform contains a valuable discussion on the worthy topic of artistic and journalistic endeavour as socially valuable labour deserving remuneration. This is not a new issue. In the 1850s a young journalist, reduced to half-pay due to a cost-cutting war between his New York Daily Tribune and the New York Times, disparaged the vast amount of low-quality work he was forced to produce: “Grinding bones and making soup out of them like the paupers in the workhouse, that is how much the political work for such a paper amounts to.” The young Karl Marx would admire Taylor’s suggestion “that the platforms through which we access and share culture should belong to people whose participation makes them valuable.”

She goes further, encouraging the application of fair trade principles, regulating popular internet platforms as public utilities and taxing online advertising revenue in the name of supporting “cultural democracy.” “We spend more than $700 billion a year on advertising, a tremendous waste of money on something that has virtually no social value and that most of us despise,” she writes. That “could be subject to a transparent public tax and put to good use.”

Radical solutions indeed. Rather than a deliberate, even-handed analysis of internet labour, the book often seems a rallying cry for Taylor’s Occupy comrades.

Possibly the biggest weakness of Taylor’s analysis, one common to many critiques of the internet, is its neglect of the role of the most essential creative labour force of the internet—the lowly software developer.

Software development is unlike most trades in that it remains unregulated and all the knowledge to become a programmer is available freely on the web. It is no wonder that developer culture is deeply meritocratic. Yet Taylor seems oblivious, brushing it off as a “peculiar brand of libertarianism.” For Taylor, the politics of these creative individuals warrants merely a footnote referencing Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. This is a shame as there is much in this area that could influence Taylor’s vision of a more ethical internet. For example, one worrying consequence of a largely self-taught developer workforce is the lack of ethics education. Most professionals—lawyers, doctors, etc.—are obliged to take ethics courses at some time during their schooling. Self-taught developers do not get the opportunity to be exposed to such frameworks, and are often completely unaware of things like the Association for Computer Machinery Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct or the IEEE Code of Ethics. As one of its principles, the Software Code of Ethics obliges software engineers to “moderate the interests of the software engineer, the employer, the client and the users with the public good.” Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, has published an ethics module for software engineering courses that is freely available on the web. The module is filled with everyday case studies illustrating the potential harms of software applications on end users, provoking developers to practise “ethical reflection, questioning and decision-making.”

Organizations such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation help bridge the gap by engaging working developers in their advocacy efforts. The EFF is purposely located in San Francisco so that it may appeal directly to the large and influential developer population there. These are excellent steps, but there needs to be more. I hope the next labour-based criticism of the internet will focus on the people producing the platform. Any discussion on improvement should rightly include them.