April 4, 2014 7:29 pm

‘The People’s Platform’, by Astra Taylor

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, by Astra Taylor, Fourth Estate, RRP£12.99/Metropolitan Books, RRP$27, 288 pages

When Facebook bought virtual reality headset maker Oculus last month, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of the social network, suggested that his acquisition could be “one of the platforms of the future”, hosting everything from Facebook doctors to Facebook malls.

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IN Non-Fiction

It is a vision unlikely to appeal to Astra Taylor. In The People’s Platform, she warns against the growing power of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, arguing that an internet dominated by such giants cannot be the emancipatory force new media thinkers such as Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky would have us believe.

A writer and documentary maker best known for her films on philosophy, Taylor is not the first to sound this alarm. Evgeny Morozov has pointed out that digital technologies, as well as providing new channels of communication for those seeking to topple authoritarian regimes, also provide those regimes with a powerful surveillance tool; Jaron Lanier, meanwhile, has argued that the collective endeavour celebrated by Web 2.0 projects such as Wikipedia can both inhibit progress and smother individuality.

 

Taylor builds on Lanier’s work in particular, making the case that an internet with “a strange tendency toward monopoly” reinforces rather than challenges existing power structures. She is disturbed by the way we have cheerfully handed once-valued communal resources to private companies, oblivious to the commercialisation creeping ever further into our lives. Instead of the town square, we have Twitter; instead of the library, Google; and instead of the family photo album, Facebook. “Everything is accessible and individualized,” she writes, “but only through companies that control the network from the bottom up.”

This timely book lands just as the valuations of technology companies soar and cracks have begun to show in the public’s reverence for the likes of Google and Facebook, be it through protests on the streets of San Francisco from local communities who feel shut out of the booming tech economy, or European outrage at allegations that US technology companies co-operated with the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programme.

It could even be read as a non-fiction companion to Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (2013), in which an all-seeing internet company becomes a dangerous force that transforms perceptions of privacy and threatens democracy.

Taylor sees the programmers building our online world not as bedroom geeks but as powerful “urban planners”. They tend to value standardisation, simplification and speed over diversity, complexity and interdependence, she argues. Search engines and hyperlinks encourage us to travel the most well-trodden path by bringing up results that others have clicked on most; intense personalisation typecasts users and restricts the variety of content they see; and social media provides a global platform for the followed, widening the gap between them and their followers.

The People’s Platform is packed with facts that give weight to this argument. On the one hand, Google receives about a quarter of all North American internet traffic and has bought more than 100 start-ups that could have grown into rivals; one in seven people on the planet is on Facebook; and 40 per cent of US bandwidth in the evenings is consumed by viewers of Netflix.

On the other, content producers suffer. In 2010, Taylor writes, “publishers of articles and videos received around twenty cents of each dollar advertisers spent on their sites, down from almost a whole dollar in 2003”. Independent artists must today give up between 30 and 50 per cent of revenue to online music services. And by 2006, according to one Harvard study, there were only 141 foreign correspondents working for all the US broadcast and print media combined.

At times the book can feel too ambitious, losing focus as it dives into complicated arguments about copyright protection and the decline of traditional media. As a film-maker, Taylor is clearly passionate about these issues but she could have devoted more time to explaining how she thinks we should push back against the monopolies.

There is also the problem that Taylor’s recipe for a more equitable internet would require huge and seemingly unlikely changes from investors, companies and governments. Start-ups flooded with venture capital have few obvious incentives to become non-profits or public benefit corporations, as she suggests they should. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine western governments that have spent the past few years cutting funding for the arts and basic services being persuaded to pay for online public-interest journalism.

To create a true people’s platform, public pressure on both technology companies and governments would have to increase dramatically. In the absence of this, Taylor’s nightmare and Zuckerberg’s dream may well come true: we’ll be living in a Facebook world.

Hannah Kuchler is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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