To speak with Astra Taylor is an opportunity to be confronted with a serious intellectual talent. The Canadian-American filmmaker is best known for her acclaimed documentary films Zizek! about the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and its extension Examined Life, about the applications of philosophy in modern culture. In addition to her work as a creator of media, she is also a self-admitted rabble-rouser whose most recent projects included writings both about and on behalf of the Occupy movement.
Her new book isn’t at all what you might expect from a professional observer of the world, but reading it makes it immediately clear that it’s a perfect project for the writer, creator and occasional punk-rock accordionist for Neutral Milk Hotel, her husband’s popular rock band. In The People’s Platform, Taylor turns her critical eye on the Internet as a platform for cultural and political democratization, asking why so many idealistic notions about its potential have yet to emerge in reality.
“If we want to make good on all the utopian predictions about the Internet, we need to take the social and political context in which the technology is operating into account,” she explains. “Technology alone can’t remake the world. You need to think about the economic underpinnings. I think it really is that simple and I think that insight is still missing from the debate. I would go to these technology conferences and there would be no culture makers or activists. I think in that sense, I’m bringing a new perspective to the conversation by being someone who has actually done some of this work that is being discussed and invoked in very simplistic ways. That’s why I wanted to step into the fray.”
The problem, Taylor argues, is that people look at the gee-whiz potential of the Internet and social media and forget to examine the forces behind it. That’s why she sees the World Wide Web looking less and less like the great leveler and more like cable television. In other words, it’s the economics, stupid.
“We’re placing all our hopes on the technological capabilities of these new tools but we’re not analyzing the forces that are driving their development and implementation,” she says. “Those are market forces and we can’t just get around them. For centuries, people have had these visions of how machines would finally liberate us. They can, but it really depends on the context, because they can tether us, too.”
She also argues that there’s a real danger inherent in the misuse of technology, not just from scary eyes in the sky like the NSA but also from media conglomerates controlling our culture.
“I think that the reason that online media behaves like traditional media is money,” she explains. “These pundits, the people who are explaining the Internet to us, assume that the Internet is this revolutionary force. It turns out that in reality, the market forces are too much for it. You start to resemble the old mediascape because that’s where the incentives lie. There’s also this new trend of hyperpersonalization. Advertising is still working to modify our behavior. What is placed in front of our eyeballs most of the time is not neutral. If nothing else, we need to at least be teaching basic media literacy so people can be thinking about these kinds of issues.”
The book was mostly finished when the Edward Snowden revelations shook the Internet to its core but she still reflects on our brave new world from time to time.
“I thought it was interesting the way that government surveillance piggybacks and depends on corporate surveillance,” she says. “I thought that was really encapsulated in Egypt because all the media stories catered to the idea of who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. The Snowden revelations really complicated that story and shows how these forces are intertwined in very complex ways. On the other hand, as an activist, I thought, ‘Wow, our biggest fears are completely and totally true.’ It’s an odd moment to discover that your paranoia is perfectly justified.”
On the flip side, she doesn’t think the encryption-heavy, cloak-and-dagger approach of movements like Anonymous are the answer to democratizing the web, either.
“As an organizer, your whole aim is to organize people to help shape the public discourse,” she says. “To achieve real political change, you kind of need people to be who they are. I’m not sure encrypting everything and operating in the shadows is going to help us get there. We expect democracy to be this unmediated, spontaneous thing but maybe it requires more organization and institution-building and traditions that we’ve started to forget. Maybe we need to reinvent some things. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.