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Activism in the Digital Age: Who Is Technology Leaving Out?

"My main warning for activists is to not be misled by digital metrics, by retweets and reblogs and likes and views."
 
 
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Photo Credit: GrandeDuc/Shutterstock.com

 

Those dumb debates keep happening: Is the Internet good or bad for activists? Does Twitter cause revolutions or not? We know they’re dumb, but we keep having them — which is why Astra Taylor’s new book, " The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age," is so welcome.

“The People’s Platform” seems to be about technology, and you should read it if you’re interested in technology, but it is actually about what (and whom) technology leaves out. It is about putting technology in its place — by confronting the increasing tendency to cherish freedom of information over the freedom of workers to organize, by refusing to celebrate digital “disruptions” when the cost is paid by the most vulnerable people among us, by questioning the tendency among activists to judge their impact by retweets and likes.

Astra Taylor grew up unschooled, and she has been learning by doing in public ever since. She created two films featuring leading political philosophers, “Zizek!” and “Examined Life.” She helped produce a print gazette for Occupy Wall Street and  co-edited the book that came out of it; through Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee campaign, she played a key role in stirring a much-needed national discussion about debt resistance. We caught up to discuss her new book while she’s on the road with the band Neutral Milk Hotel.

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Nathan Schneider: As you were writing this book, you were in the midst of activism of your own, including the social media-driven Rolling Jubilee campaign. How did that organizing spur your writing?

Astra Taylor: I wish organizing had spurred it — more like derailed! The book was turned in long past the official due date because I got so swept up in Occupy Wall Street, which eventually led to the Rolling Jubilee campaign — a project that is still ongoing. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Rolling Jubilee buys debts for pennies of the dollar on the secondary market, but instead of collecting it we abolish it. The campaign was indeed driven by social media, though we always envisioned it as one small part of a broader organizing strategy. Our aim was to raise $50,000 in online donations to abolish $1 million of medical debt in order to spread awareness about the shadowy workings of the secondary debt market and the inequity of debt-financing goods that should be publicly provided. However, the campaign went viral before the curtain was even lifted, in part because a famous person shared the announcement on Tumblr. We raised almost $700,000.

Through Occupy and the Rolling Jubilee, some of the shortcomings of social media organizing became even more apparent to me than they already were. Social media is good at amplifying spectacles, but spectacles don’t necessarily amass power. They can be helpful for raising awareness about a cause or shifting the conversation, but there needs to be something left in the wake when the public’s attention inevitably moves on. There’s a real problem with how to capture attention and build on it — that’s one challenge that has kept my comrades in Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee and me up at night.

NS: It sounds like letting the Rolling Jubilee derail you might have been a good thing for the book.

AT: You’re absolutely correct — when I did return to the book, the experience of Occupy and the Jubilee suffused my thinking. I have a deeper sense of what a tremendous challenge organizing for economic justice is, and how much power the forces we are up against possess, and how committed they are to winning at any cost. Also, everything is so much more complicated from the ground. It’s easy to stand on the margins and criticize not just the 1 percent but activists and organizers or the left in general and say they should be doing x, y or z. But when you are actually trying to put theory to practice, it is really tough going — way harder than writing a book, in my opinion. So I tried to bring a little bit of that humility, that recognition of the gnarly complexities of practicing what one preaches, to the writing process.