Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is a vigorous defense of the value of culture and a rejection of simplistic market fantasies that reduce art, journalism, and music to demand economics. Taylor carefully dissects the technology and economics of “new” media, noting that much of what we claim to be open and democratic is merely a reproduction of the old social strata. Hers is a coherent and sensitive argument: noting that it’s possible and even important for an artist to be in favor of copyright reform and mashup traditions while also needing renumeration for the labor and time spent to produce thoughtful, meaningful work. Her call for a sustainable culture movement makes for obvious parallels with the movements for sustainability in food and energy, and also demonstrate just how hard this work will be. As with oil and agriculture, liberating culture from exploitation is up against powerful, wealthy systems which will do just about anything to perpetuate themselves. But the stakes are just as high: we can’t live without art anymore than we can live without food.
Writing about the principle of “openness” on the web, Astra Taylor notes how it can be used to minimize or obscure the various constituencies and concerns at play:
Openness is a philosophy that can easily mask its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice and, keeping with the myth of meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of aptitude or will. That’s what techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to internet freedom and forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern.
But as we’ve seen, the decisions we make online—the culture we consume, the pages we click, the stars we gaze upon—are not pure expressions of our inner desires; they are shaped by myriad factors including what’s available and what we hear about, the lure of the bandwagon, and marketing and advertising. Online as off, people’s choices are influenced by circumstances beyond their control. The word “natural” is a mystification, given that the systems being discussed—technology, markets, and culture—are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be made better.Taylor, The People’s Platform, page 139
I’ve been one to criticize certain so-called old world institutions known as book publishers for espousing a digital strategy straight out of an ostrich’s playbook. And I still largely agree with that criticism: many of the big book publishers watched as Amazon marched up to them and drank their milkshake, making nary an attempt to head them off until the glass was already empty. But, at the same time, the notion that the internet has to work one particular way—that it must privilege monopolistic platforms over creative collectives, that it must be perfectly efficient and so gut the subsidy that bestsellers have always given the rest of the list, that it must drive prices down until margins are barely a pixel wide—none of these are a given. It may be how the web works now and for the near future; it needn’t be how it works forever.