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Astra Taylor’s Radical Internet Critique: “I Don’t Want to Give in to the Libertarian Logic of Our Time”

Time for "gee-whiz stupor" about the Web to stop, Astra Taylor says, and for a real look at the damage done.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Benoit Daoust / Shutterstock.com

 

Astra Taylor, a Canadian-born  documentary filmmaker who was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, has just released  “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.” Harder-edged politically than many Internet books, “The People’s Platform” looks at questions around gender, indie rock, copyright, the media, the environment and advertising. “The digital economy exhibits a surprising tendency toward monopoly,” she writes in her preface. “Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive.”

An admirer of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (and director of a 2005 documentary about him), she frames the current crisis with European cultural theory. She’s also recently been playing accordion in her husband Jeff Mangum’s band, the recently revived Neutral Milk Hotel.

“The scariest book I’ve read in a while is almost the most exhilarating,” author Rebecca Solnit writes on the jacket; media critic Douglas Rushkoff calls it “perhaps the most important book about the digital age so far this century.”

We spoke to Taylor, who lives in upstate New York, during her visit to New York City.

So there have been a number of cautionary books about the Internet already, some of them quite good. What story did you think that we weren’t hearing about the effects of technology?

I definitely thought there was something missing, a critique or an analysis that really emphasized the economic underpinnings of this technological transformation; what I thought was missing, to use the academic phase, was a political economy of new media. And in that sense there wasn’t a book written for a popular audience that was a left critique of the Internet. Because there was Nicholas Carr’s good book “The Shallows,” which I actually quite liked. And  Jaron Lanier’smore eccentric and interesting books. But they’re not leftist manifestos.

I felt like there’s something missing from those books too, about the continuation of not just economic hierarchies, which of course I’m paying attention to, because that’s what political economy is all about, but also social hierarchies. And both of them are very concerned with the way that creators have been demoted, and the devaluation of literature, and Jaron Lanier writes about the hive mind. But for me, as a woman, you have to cheer the toppling of the canon and hierarchies because otherwise there’d be no space for you. And to me, being a progressive is wanting progress, wanting change. But I want the change to be toward something more just, more inclusive, more diverse. And so I do think there’s something about being a leftist but also just being a feminist that puts a different twist on this.

Your book is especially good on digital utopians. Can you remind us of some of the outlandish claims made for the Internet when it was new? I mean, those people are obviously still out there and still vocal, but it’s interesting to look back at all the stuff the Internet was supposed to deliver to us — democratizing culture for instance was one of them, and making a better or “more connected” world. What did they tell us we’re going to get?

The Internet was supposed to either change everything for the better or for the worse; it depends who you were listening to. But certainly a more connected world, a cultural sphere that was inclusive, that made space for everyone. That didn’t require that you ask anyone for permission. Where you could do it on your own. And it was also going to transform politics. I mean, along with participating in the culture, it was also going to be easier to change the culture by finding people of like mind and joining with them. Or finding out the truth. And being a citizen journalist and revealing it. And doing a better job than the mainstream media, which has disappointed us for so many years.