The Rumpus Interview with Astra Taylor

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Known predominantly for her documentary films, Astra Taylor explores often-complex philosophical questions and breaks them down for the layperson. When I first heard of Taylor, it was 2008 and she was screening her second documentary, Examined Life, a tour through the political and social theories presented by eight philosophers as they move around various city landscapes: Cornel West (the only non-bipedal participant) gets to the essence of philosophy as he’s driven to Union Square; Michael Hardt talks about revolution as he rows a boat around a lake in Central Park; Peter Singer discusses materialism as he walks down Fifth Avenue; Martha Nussbaum talks about the social contract in what appears to be Riverside Park; and Lacanian-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek talks about love from a landfill. (It should be noted this was not Taylor’s first encounter with Žižek. In 2003 she released Žižek!, a documentary showcasing the philosopher’s politics and humor.)

Whatever issues Astra tackles, her focus is on justice, civics, and democracy. It was with this in mind that her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, became my most anticipated release of the year. Moving from the screen to the page, Taylor brings her unique perspective to our digital lives.

Taking on the changes the Internet has brought about to our social and economic lives, Taylor steers clear of the neurological debate: is the Internet harming our memory? Are we rewiring our brains for distraction? Instead, she asks if the Internet is as democratic as we’ve been lead to believe. Is everyone equal online? Are we being fairly compensated for our efforts? Who is seeking control of the vast pipeline of information, and how are they working to acquire it?

Astra and I met up at a café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to talk about the state of the current Internet, where our online world might be headed, and what it could mean for the creative class.

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The Rumpus: What I really like about The People’s Platform is that you step back and look at the big picture, but then you focus on the smaller components and blend both really well. While I was reading, I had your documentaries in mind—Žižek! and Examined Life—both of which take complex ideas and break them down so they can be understood by anyone with a bit of interest in the subject. This really comes through in your book, and at one point I realized that everything you do is really about democracy—it’s the through-line to all your work.

Astra Taylor: It’s really interesting you say that, because I’m thinking about my next film and possibly calling it What is Democracy? I think you are right that this is the issue that I’m circling around, especially as I come out of this book and also my work with Occupy, which was such a hope-inspiring but also a heartbreaking experience—not to mention watching all of these upheavals around the world.

Rumpus: The theme of democracy really comes through. It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a book about technology—no one ever seems to tackle it. People seem more concerned with how it’s changing our brain chemistry and how it affects our personal lives, but you take a step back. In The People’s Platform you say that we’ve had enough experience with the Internet that we can now look at the structural problems. What makes now a good time to start looking at these issues?

Taylor: Culturally, we are definitely seeing people being to ask hard questions. There’s been a major shift over the last year. The NSA revelations played a big part but there are all sorts of other issues too, like inequality and gentrification in the Bay Area, and labor abuses everywhere from Amazon’s warehouse, to Apple’s factories, to start-ups like Uber and TaskRabbit. There’s also the issue of tech titans throwing their weight around in Washington and lobbying. There was just a Reuters poll that reported that more than half of Americans are concerned that tech companies are “encroaching too much on their lives.” That’s pretty major, considering these companies were universally loved not that long ago.

The People's PlatformBut on a personal level, I just found myself fascinated by what was happening. Maybe it’s a character flaw but I tend to overanalyze whatever it is I’m engaging with or doing. And like everyone else, I was spending more and more time online.

Also, after Examined Life was finished I found myself thinking about the way creative opportunities and distribution channels were shifting. Should I be showing my films in theaters or just think about getting them out online? There were other issues, too. For example, instead of being asked to write an article, suddenly editors wanted me to make super-short videos. The assumptions of those video gigs was that kids don’t read as much news and basically need to be read to, which I found really problematic and kind of insulting. I thought, Isn’t it just that you don’t have any money and that’s why you want me to make some crappy “content” for your website?

I also found myself at technology conferences and the most obvious takeaway, for me, was that decades of media criticism was being forgotten, like all the work of the Frankfurt School, or media criticism in the vein of Robert McChesney. And worse, that it had all been replaced by Silicon Valley hype and empty rhetoric.

Rumpus: What are some points that have gotten lost?

Taylor: Basically political economy—that you have to look at how funding structures shape the media landscape. You have to look at commercial interests, consolidation—the economy structures are experience. Not to be to be a vulgar materialist or be too reductive, but all of that was completely absent from the conversation. Instead we were told it was a “revolutionary” moment, where these new tools would inevitably displace the old media dinosaur and that things would be democratized and wasn’t it great we could all collaborate on these platforms.

I’d go to conference after conference and it would essentially be the talking points. Either pro or con. It’s amazing how polarized the tech conversation is. There’s also this neurological fixation, the incessant wondering what the Internet’s doing to our brain: “Does it make us stupid, does it make us distracted?” And then the other guys say, “No, it’s making us smarter than ever, and better than ever, and more connected.” And it’s like, where is the economic and social context? Why is that rarely considered? A big factor is that the enthusiast camp’s values are really rooted in Silicon Valley and in these supposedly new business models. But again, I think this such an interesting moment because things like the NSA revelations are really forcing people to recognize the connections between corporate and government surveillance. 

I mean look at all these acquisitions and mergers—WhatsApp and Oculus and et cetera. There’s no way that you can envision these tech companies as the underdog anymore. They’re always presented as though they were these little guys who you should be championing—Facebook will overthrow the cable television complex, blah blah—but it’s more likely they will merge with them.

Rumpus: And a lot of them are started in order to sell off when they become profitable.

Taylor: Right, the whole MO is to be absorbed by bigger teams. That upstart versus incumbent framework doesn’t describe reality.

The point is, there’s this new sense of skepticism and questioning toward tech, even if it is pretty inchoate. What I hope the book helps to do is help people clarify what is amiss, by presenting a critique that is grounded in economics.

Rumpus: Like we’ve analyzed all we can about the brain and the whatever, let’s dig a little bit deeper and expand beyond ourselves.

Taylor: Right. Technology isn’t simply addictive—it’s addictive because it’s a servant to business incentives. There are huge departments in these companies that are devoted to this and staffed by incredibly talented people who have skills that could be put to socially beneficial projects but who are now trying to find out how to make you click and how to maximize your time on a certain site, or encourage teenagers to “friend” more products and constantly engage with them.

The point is, this is what happens when advertising and data collection is the dominant business mode. We are encouraged to be compulsive. It’s not that we’re terrible addicts who need to go to an AA meeting and get off our gadgets.

Rumpus: It’s manufactured.

Taylor: Exactly. And that’s where some of the old media criticism is really useful. Instead of Manufacturing Consent, it’s Manufacturing Compulsion. It’s not just that we all as individuals should reevaluate our relationship with our devices—maybe you should, on a personal level—but in terms of balancing the micro and the macro and the personal and the structural, it’s actually a bigger issue than you and your phone addiction.

Rumpus: You bring up so many good points in your book, like how the Internet being democratic is a myth and how it’s difficult to find diversity online. I’m a nightmare when it comes to data mining and privacy because I should be the person who is outraged about the government and corporations collecting my information, but I’m one of these people that thinks that if you’re not doing anything wrong, who cares. Or if you’re duped by advertising, it’s your own fault. But your book made me realize that it’s more harmful than I imagined.

Taylor: Yeah, it’s always the balance between the individual’s subjective experience and the social structural condition. As individuals we have access to more than we’ve ever had before. Giving up our data seems a small price to pay, especially if, as you say, we don’t feel we have anything to hide.

Examined LifeWhen I was a teenager growing up in Athens, Georgia we would go to the local movie theater, read the local weekly, and go to the library. Now you can read papers from all over the world. But that doesn’t necessarily make it more diverse because I can read The New York Times and The Guardian, which are these massive international brands that are going to survive, and I can read my friend’s chats to me and hear from all these tiny personal voices, but there’s still this whole middle zone; there’s a mid-city paper that might have shut down. There’s this divergence out there between the very small and the very large with the middle disappearing. There is something paradoxical going on where there is this access and we can seek out things on the fringes, but that doesn’t describe the overall reality, because the big are bigger than ever. And of course the things that get the most attention online tend to be similar to those that succeeded under the old model.

It’s the same thing in a way with privacy. You can say “I’m not doing anything wrong, therefore this doesn’t concern me,” but what does it mean about our society if we’re all being watched and recorded? The personal experience—negotiating this as individuals—doesn’t describe the social reality and the broader social costs. As a citizen I might be well-behaved and have nothing salacious or radical about me, I might be a total bore, but I might suffer somehow if other people are being spied on and blocked from doing important work that might have a collective benefit down the road. The personal doesn’t necessarily translate to the social.

Rumpus: I like your point about data mining and how companies are ultimately changing our culture based on their findings. They’re learning how to cater to the crowd and posting for page views rather than art and quality.

Taylor: I think it’s a really complicated issue because, again, when you’re navigating this stuff as an individual you can put on your blinders and say, “I’m just going to make whatever I want. I’m not going to compromise. And I’m going to read what I want, they can’t influence me, I’m safe.” But I’m interested in the way the whole cultural landscape can shift over time. Okay, this will seem like a silly example, but look at the whole discourse around “selling out,” a concept people say is irrelevant because there’s no more distinction between mainstream and underground, inside and outside (which I don’t really believe, but that’s another issue).

Rumpus: We used to get so enraged by Nirvana. Now it’s like, whatever.

Taylor: Yeah, and I’m a little bit of that old guard. My point, though, is that if lines have indeed shifted, it’s not so much that the younger generation just doesn’t care, it’s that we have ceded more and more of our public life over to the private sector. If you grow up with advertising at school, you have come of age in a sold-out world.

Rumpus: It almost seems like that’s the goal: selling out and gaining commercial success.

Taylor: Something I try to underscore in one part of the book is when people aren’t being funded to create work by publishers or labels or whatever, then advertisers end up filling in that gap. Advertisers are happy to see the stuff they’ve branded out there for free, they don’t care about scarcity, they want any message they’re invested in to be shared and to be abundant and to be passed along.

One thing that struck me about going to those tech conferences was all the enthusiasm for free culture, and remixing, and social media, but people’s greatest ambition was to be sponsored by Chipotle or something equivalent to that. It was this weird mix of collaborative, utopian claims and this total acquiescence to commercial imperatives. I think that overall, ultimately the impact of advertisers calling the shots is a more cloying, complacent culture. For example, it was just announced that Unilever is branding environmental content at The Guardian. How radical or pointed can that content be?

Rumpus: And it brings up a good point to what you were saying before, about all these business models being based on Silicon Valley. Is it that tech has taken over pop culture and the arts and now there’s a different mindset? Is there a scaling back of art for art’s sake in favor of the abundance that technology allows for?

Taylor: I acknowledge this really briefly in my book—there wasn’t ever some eden where there was art for art’s sake and artists got paid for their art and everything was rosy. In fact, if you look at the early days in television, you see how that was absolutely not the case. Early on, America took one path and went down the advertising road, and in the UK they founded the BBC and developed a different kind of public broadcasting. There was a point where TV was so beholden to commercial interest that people—civil society—actually rose up and said, “This is ridiculous: we have our soap-selling soap operas, cigarette-sponsored news broadcast; we have our rigged quiz shows—let’s put some checks and balances here.”

Technology and television didn’t dictate one path or the other—it was civil society and public policy intervening in creating alternative funding models. So I think that’s one of the questions for our time: do we want to intervene in this model or completely acquiesce and leave it to the unfettered, not-actually-that-free market? Neither path is inevitable. But I think there’s a culture of Silicon Valley that seems to have the attitude that you can have it both ways, that you can be an insurgent but also, ultimately, it’s paid for by advertising, when in fact advertising is totally retrograde. Now that’s an industry we should be disrupting, and maybe you disrupt it by funding public media. None of this is technological destiny; there are only social choices.

Rumpus: Do you feel that we’re at a point now where if we don’t do something, it’s going to get beyond us?

Taylor: I don’t know. Again, it does seem like frustration is mounting in interesting ways, but I’m not sure there will be some dramatic tipping point. Then again, looking back on the history of television, you never know. People had to fight and articulate the politics and the rationale for different funding mechanisms. That was a long and drawn-out battle fought in different countries; it’s not like BBC and the CBC in Canada just magically appeared out of the ether. People had to organize for it. I’m always willing to be surprised.

Rumpus: What do you think the issues are now that could drive people?

Taylor: I don’t know. More recognition about corporate and government surveillance and how they intersect certainly helps. Are we on the tail-end of a generation that is enamored with the novelty of these devices and will younger people coming of age be more blasé about them in a healthy way? You look back at the history of any medium and the people who were there when it was developing, whether it was the telegraph or cable television or radio, thought, This is amazing, it’s going change everything, or, The human community will finally be able to recognize each other and speak and be one—I mean, some people thought the telegraph or television would usher in world peace. There’s always a utopian fervor. But then by the time we grew up, television was just the “boob tube.” So maybe it’s just not us. Maybe it’s people who have been raised in these network waters that will have a better sense of their limitations and their possibilities and who will be able to respond meaningfully. The generation who is there when these things develop can’t see clearly. They’re blinded by novelty.

I believe there was a poll recently that said people who are most skeptical of technology are actually younger. As long as it’s a healthy skepticism that’s reassuring. What we need to do is take that inchoate sense that something isn’t right and give it a structural component and the sense that things can be another way.

Rumpus: Another issue that I’m a nightmare on is net neutrality. I feel like that’s one of those things where no one is going to notice until it’s gone. My understanding of net neutrality is that right now all the pipelines are equal—whether you’re a huge corporation or a personal blog, everything is the same speed, and what the big companies are lobbying for is for them to have better access so it’s faster. For example, Bank of America’s website would load faster than The Rumpus. Where does that stand now?

ZizekTaylor: One connection I see between the work I did on philosophy and my work on technology is that both communities tend to mystify and create an atmosphere of complexity. Whether it’s a professional, academic keeping people out by using certain mystifying language, or technologists presenting their work as incredibly complicated, no one can understand it (especially not “moms,” who are always invoked as the ultimate know-nothings, which is incredibly insulting to a whole lot of people). One sad consequence of this is that people don’t feel permitted to try understand Internet infrastructure, so I’m really grateful to groups like Free Press and other nonprofits who are trying to make the issue urgent and comprehensible. And Andre Blum’s book Tubes is great on this topic.

One of the big myths about people growing up is that they are “digital natives;” that just because they’ve been raised with the Internet—that you’re very adept at using the app on your phone—it doesn’t mean you have any idea about how the Internet actually works. All this stuff—about the materiality of the network, what it’s made of, and how it works—should be part of a basic media literacy, because we depend on this technology for more and more aspects of our day-to-day lives.

Rumpus: Net neutrality is such a basic and easily-graspable concept: one day this is going to go faster than that.

Taylor: Yeah. The issue is paying for prominence, too. Maybe that’s just the American way. After all, you walk into Barnes & Noble and the books on the front table are paid for. Go to Amazon.com and the books on the front page are paid for. You pay to play. The idea that we will pay for a plan and certain services will not count against our data limit (like you get to go to Amazon and it wouldn’t count as data usage, because Amazon’s paying the telecom company)—that may just be the future. But it’s a crappy one. It could be a big tragedy in the end, but I suppose deep down I kind of agree with you—that it could be one that we wake up to when it’s too late.

Maybe the opening is that we do still have this idea that this is a place where data should be treated equally—The Rumpus should load as fast as Amazon.com—and a place where things haven’t been totally sold out yet. There are still these shreds of idealism about the Internet and I think we shouldn’t let go of them.

Part of the impetus for writing this book was that so much of the conversation coming out of the tech circles was like “hypothetically, the Internet can do X or Y, therefore it will inevitably do that,” but there was no acknowledgment of the market not letting us do X, Y, or Z unless we build in resistance. The market won’t let us treat all data equally because there’s a potential to make huge gobs of money not doing that. In the United States of America, people will pay to be first unless we do something to stop them. We don’t have defenses built in because we haven’t been investing in criticism that would help us mount a defense. Instead we’ve been criticizing these superficial aspects, like whether we are all more distracted. We really need to articulate a defense, a critique, that merges awareness of the technology with a more traditional, progressive, left-wing critique of the market.

Rumpus: It feels like there’s this thing underneath that’s pulsing but it’s just not being tapped into.

Taylor: Ultimately, the current argument is “not having net neutrality will hurt innovation,” and you can make that argument, but I would rather make the public good argument, which is not just about innovation or nurturing new companies that will add to the nation’s GDP, it’s actually about creating a democratic public sphere. I feel like we’re stuck in the former mode of reacting because that’s what gains traction in Washington. But I really believe we need a robust public good argument. Net neutrality is not just about creating the next Instagram or Farmville or whatever.

Rumpus: This brings me to a really great point in your book that I loved. You write about the Internet from a creator’s point of view. One of your points about democracy is workers’ rights and exploitation. I feel like it’s so easy to an exploit an artist because they will go 24/7 if you let them and it’s like, I am doing this for the love. Now that I’ve read your book this seems to be popping up in the news.

I think a few weeks ago there was an article in the Times about a woman who produces a number of shows on YouTube, in which she stars. She has a whole set-up in her apartment and is spending all of her money on props and paying production people. It seems like people are bankrupting themselves in the hopes of getting something more later on; I feel like that impulse is easy to exploit.

Taylor: Working on that chapter, along with the one on copyright, I really wrestled with, How do I feel about this? Because it’s really complicated. I work for free all the time, as a writer but also as an activist. The decisions we have to make as individuals are really fraught but also can be really wonderful and we’re all navigating this reality to the best of our abilities. But, again, I wanted to take a step back and look at the broader context. There was all this enthusiasm about amateurism and the idea that people could now just make videos in their bedroom, or blog news stories and share it online, and isn’t this great? Now we can do it just for the love of it and not try to be professionals, corrupted by careerism.

Astra Taylor_Deborah BaicOn the one hand, I’m a kind of crazy anarchist-sympathizer with a hippie background, so this sounds pretty good to me. Make something for the love of it! But the reality is so much more complicated. One thing I point out is, a lot of people tooting the horn of amateurism, actually, these people were professionals. Some are professors who are employed full time. Others are marketers or business consultants. There’s something odd about telling people, artists, that they need to work for free to be pure while you’re sitting there getting a salary that ultimately is paid by a generation of young people going deeply into debt for their education.

I think somebody who is more self-reflective should ask why they personally aren’t going on that path. If amateurism is so great, why didn’t you stay one? You have to look at the larger economy, a backdrop of unemployment; it’s shitty out there. College graduates are now competing with people who are less educated for low-level jobs. It’s bitterly ironic, considering that people used to think technology would bring more broadly-shared prosperity. Look back on the utopian dreams of the previous century, or even the century before that, where people thought machines would ultimately give us a quality of life where our needs would be taken care of so we could all basically be artists together in the evening, after we had fished, hunted, raised cattle—or whatever it was Marx imagined for us.

Now it almost seems like the techno-utopian scenario is, “Well, the economy is going to hell but you can participate on this platform that ultimately is this enormous profit generator for a few people.” How did our dreams become so…

Rumpus: Quantifiable?

Taylor: Diminished. To go from the vision that we would all be free to express ourselves creatively because our material needs were being met, to this reality where nobody has money, people are unemployed, and the machines are harnessed by the lucky guys who Facebook or Google and we’re supposed to be happy just to contribute content to their site.

I try to look at the evolution of these utopian claims. In the late ‘60s there was an assumption that the wealth generated by industry would be taxed and then put into social programs and it would provide a baseline of stability that would allow people to have the time for self-expression; and that social contract has eroded over the last four decades and now it’s every person for themselves. One consequence of this is that people are expected to make it on their own by chasing clicks or building a brand. What a diminished vision that is.

As an individual navigating this reality, you have to make choices to survive. Sometimes you happily work for free if it’s something you love and believe in. I’m not categorically saying that working for free is bad. I’m just looking at the broader implications of it, and also challenge this idea—and again, this is an argument made by certain people in the tech world—that amateurs are automatically more pure and will triumph over stodgy professionals. One thing that’s important to point out is that this kind of populism has a long and mixed history. It’s part of this tradition of problematic anti-elitism where the elites are always the liberal class—the intellectuals, the professors, the artists—and not the economic elites. Why are we so mad and aggrieved at newspaper editors but not at corporate executives? I think we need to look more at the latter, at economic elites.

Rumpus: This brings up the copyright issue as well, which is tricky for me, too. You say in your book that when your documentary Examined Life came out it was ripped off on the Internet right away.

Taylor: Yeah, and I never did a DMCA take-down or anything. I related to the people who thought it should be up there for the world to see. I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t think people should see it. But I also understood the contradiction of my situation, the bind I was in, which is that there is no way I could have devoted two years of my life to make the film if the only distribution channel I had was YouTube—that would just never make economic sense.

I was shocked when I tried to articulate this to someone who had posted the film and asked them to remove it for a few months, and I actually told them that after that they could put it back up and they were just completely unwilling to compromise—you’d think I was Rupert Murdoch or something.

Rumpus: Coming from publishing, where people expect e-books to be cheap, or even free, this devaluation is disconcerting to me. Some people don’t see the work that goes into things. Are people going to expect everything for free at some point?

Google Data Center_Connie ZhouTaylor: It’s very complicated. There’s been this broader mechanism, an industry, which wants people to use free services, from the old days of advertising-supported papers and magazines, to ad-supported free television. It wasn’t that people wanted things for free and asked for advertising to fund it—it’s that these companies wanted to amass an audience whose “eyeballs” they could sell, and they gave people things for free to do that. Free services and content has been foisted upon us because there wasn’t the will power to explore other options.

I would like people to be more aware of the fact that ultimately we are paying for things, and it’s not just as privacy advocates point out that we’re paying with our time and our data. We’re also paying with money, because the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising is just factored into the cost of the goods that we buy. It’s all coming out of our pocket, just in a really roundabout way.

Rumpus: What would be a good first step towards public funding?

Taylor: I think this book is a modest intervention into the debate. First we need to rethink the terms and recognize that we’ve imported this language from the technocratic class, from Silicon Valley, that talks about openness and transparency. We haven’t developed a progressive vocabulary. We say something is “public,” but we just mean it’s viewable online. Or we say it’s “open,” but we just mean it’s accessible. I would like for us to think about terms critically and maybe change our vocabulary a bit. What if pubic actually meant publicly-funded, or social meant socialized.

We like to say the Internet is the ultimate library. But libraries are libraries because people come together and fund them through taxes. Libraries actually exist, all over the country, so why is it such a reach to imagine and to someday build a public institution that has a digital aspect to it? Of course the problem is that libraries and other public services are being defunded and are under attack, so there’s a bigger progressive struggle this plays into.

Rumpus: If someone were to take one thing away from The People’s Platform, what would you hope it would be?

Taylor: Just that, that we shouldn’t be afraid to think big and make suggestions that sound crazy. Right now there’s this growing but pretty rudimentary sense that something’s not right, that technology companies are gaining power and conspiring with the government in scary ways. All the utopianism of the early days of the Internet seems to have dissipated. But I don’t want us to lose that utopianism altogether, even if it was naïve and ill-informed and sometimes silly. Rather I want us to ask about the obstacles that are preventing the good stuff from coming to fruition. Let’s investigate and think about creating something worthwhile instead of assuming that there is an inevitable track of increased centralization, consolidation, and commercialization that we can’t do anything about.

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Featured image of Astra Taylor © by Deborah DeGraffenreid.

Second image of Astra Taylor © by Deborah Baic.

Google Data Center photo © by Connie Zhou.


Gabrielle is an incurable book pusher. When she’s not reading, or forcing others to, she’s listening to an inordinate amount of podcasts, taking pictures of weird things that cross her path, and drinking obscene amounts of coffee. She writes about art & culture over at The Contextual Life and can be found on Twitter at @contextual_life. More from this author →