The blockbuster era must die: How the Internet can save us from the cultural crisis it caused

In the age of the Internet, only cultural juggernauts are guaranteed survival. But does it have to be that way?

Published May 9, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

    (CBS/Marvel/AP/Evan Agostini/Salon)
(CBS/Marvel/AP/Evan Agostini/Salon)

"The Internet" does not lack for critics. In recent years, as Astra Taylor notes in a footnote to "The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age," we’ve been subjected to a thriving cottage industry of polemical critique. Evgeny Morozov, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Siva Vaidhyanathan and Kate Losse, to pick just a handful, have all sharpened their knives and hacked at the digital revolutionary beast.

So let's get one thing clear from the start. "The People's Platform" may be the most potent critique of Internet hype and Silicon Valley triumphalism delivered to date. By dint of her eloquent prose, thorough research and, perhaps most of all, willingness to seek nuance in the "relentlessly binary" showdown between techno-optimists and techno-skeptics, Taylor has produced something of great and lasting value. Her logic is relentless: "The Internet" has not lived up to its promise of "democratizing" culture. Quite the opposite: Quality culture is under assault — and we desperately need to do something about it.

Taylor plunges into a wide variety of topics, including the copyright wars, the corrosive influence of online advertising and the changing economics of the music and media business. But through it all runs one crucial insight: The economics of quality cultural production do not bend before the power of Moore's Law (the principle that the cost of computing power will drop by around 50 percent every 18 months). Despite all our amazing technological advances, and despite all the remarkable things we can do with our smartphones, the problem remains that writing a good book or composing a great album or putting together a serious documentary still requires a great deal of time and effort.

"The arts," Taylor writes, "depend on a type of labor input that cannot be replaced by new technologies and capital."

In fact, generating economic support for the production of time-consuming -- and often unpopular -- creative works may be even more difficult today than it was before the mainstream arrival of the Internet, thanks to our passage across the digital frontier. The ease with which cultural production that has been digitized can be copied has meant that the price of a song or a book bears little relationship to the cost of labor involved in producing it. To pick an example that bites personally: The economics of online journalism have crippled the infrastructure that once supported investigative reporting and placed extraordinary pressure on reporters to concentrate on creating the most viral content in the least amount of time.

But it gets worse. Disastrously, the vast majority of profit generated by online enterprises now is captured by technology companies, rather than the producers of content. Case in point: Amazon.

Astra Taylor makes her case. I have been following all these narratives since their inception, and I've never read a more compelling elucidation of where we are going wrong.

So how do we fix it? How do we take back "power and culture"? Here is where it gets tricky. Taylor calls for a "sustainable culture" movement modeled along the lines of the sustainable food movement. We should, as filmmaker Jem Cohen tells Taylor, "be as conscientious about the culture we take in as we are about the food we eat." This is, without doubt, essential. We need to think, each and every one of us, about how our daily actions do or do not support the kinds of cultural production we cherish. We are all autonomous actors. We don't have to succumb, every single time, to the lure of click-bait.

(Happily, there may even be some evidence that we already are doing this, if we are to believe the claims of independent booksellers that people are increasingly applying a locavore-like set of values to supporting their local brick-and-mortar bookshops instead of Amazon.)

But Taylor also makes a direct call for vastly increased state subsidization of culture as an antidote to the near-complete commercialization of artistic expression. And that's a much tougher call.

The state, as currently constituted, is broken. Co-opted by special interests and crippled by partisan antipathy, it has proven itself unable to regulate the financial industry, tackle climate change or address accelerating inequality. The prospect, as Taylor suggests, of instituting new taxes on the advertising or technology industries that would be diverted to supporting unpopular cultural production seems hopelessly quixotic. And that doesn't even get into the problem of how to insulate support for meaningful cultural production from our current toxic partisanship. The contemporary Republican Party rejects science. I do not want a President Rand Paul in charge of state-subsidized culture.

But if not the state, then who? Obviously, we shouldn't depend on the philanthropic whims of billionaires. Paradoxically, we may have to turn to the very tool that is the root of so much of our trouble: "the Internet." Because if there is one aspect to our digital-network hype that has been borne out over the years, it is that the Internet is a fantastically powerful mechanism for getting things done more cheaply and efficiently. We've got to figure out how to leverage that power to support the cultural production that we need, rather than merely assault us with the cultural production that Facebook and Google have decided we want.

* * *

Astra Taylor's ability to pierce through the techno-utopian claims made by the Clay Shirkys and Jeff Jarvises and Chris Andersons of the world is so compelling that I found myself repeatedly confronting a paradox as I grappled with "The People's Platform." If, as appears to be true, the liberating potential of "the Internet" had become so utterly compromised by commerce, then what good was it in the first place? How did it become so indispensable, so deeply entrenched in our culture?

Few people have been in a better position to see how deleterious some aspects of the great digital transformation have been than reporters like myself. I celebrated the emergence of the Internet with great gusto in the 1990s. Ever since, I've watched my own earning potential crushed by the economics of online journalism, while simultaneously finding it more and more difficult to carve out the necessary time to report and think and craft articles of lasting value. Needless to say, the kind of "churnalism" that dominates online news today is not what I dreamed of in 1994.

"What writers need," writes Taylor, "whatever format their work comes in, is a reprieve from churnalism's demands for more stories, more scoops, more stuff. They need the time and space to take the long view. Above all, they need the freedom to follow ideas that don't pan out. Investigative reporting is a leap of faith, one that often means coming back empty-handed."

The irony that I keep confronting is that the initial epiphany that led me, personally, to embrace the Internet was the realization, in the summer of 1993, as I perused an online forum populated by anime enthusiasts, that the Internet made my job much, much easier. I could locate potential sources and get up to speed on background information so much more efficiently than in those old benighted days when all I had was a phone and a phone book and no clue where to even start. Jacked into cyberspace, I could be a better journalist. That was incredibly exciting.

So it hasn't quite worked out the way I expected. But that doesn't mean the utility of our networked tools is hype, or necessarily bad for society. Every single day millions, even billions, of us are using theses tools to accomplish tasks that previously entailed more hassle and greater expense. We shouldn't let go of the fact that there really is a there there.

It is bizarre that my industry is a shadow of its former self, but at the same time, as an individual, I have more access to sources of information and opinion and academic research and government data than ever before. As Taylor writes, "It's entirely possible for each of us, as individuals, to experience an increase in diversity while overall diversity decreases, however paradoxical that may seem." And yet even as she decries what the Internet has wrought, Taylor has a very straightforward answer to the question of whether "we want to go back to a time when all we had access to was the hometown weekly or the neighborhood cinema."

That answer is: "Of course not."

* * *

We don't want to go back, so we must go forward. The obvious next step is to wonder why we aren't using our magical tools to support more meaningful cultural production and to counteract the oversupply of content that panders to our worst and laziest impulses.

And here I have some questions for Taylor. In a book that explores the economic constraints on cultural production, it seems odd that only a single paragraph is dedicated to crowd-funding. Taylor writes that it is "shortsighted" to suggest that "crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter can replace government agencies" to subsidize and promote cultural production, and that crowd-funding tends to disproportionately award "well-known and often well-resourced individuals a significant advantage." Crowd-funding, argues Taylor, has no responsibility to "concern itself with the larger public good" and the "whole cultural ecology."

That all may be true, but it deserves at least a chapter of its own for closer examination. Are there ways to design nonprofit crowd-funding platforms that divert income streams purposefully to projects that aren't masterminded by the well-known? As these platforms mature and we become more comfortable with them, isn't it at least possible that we will be more willing to subsidize not necessarily commercially viable cultural production by channeling our dollars directly through such platforms than indirectly via taxes? We know that social media networks have proven to be extraordinarily potent at fundraising. The hard part here is becoming more conscientious, and realizing that sustainable culture is a vital part of our social fabric. The easy part may turn out to be acting upon that realization, and aggregating our dollars to support the anti-fracking documentary or long-form investigative report. If recommendation services like Yelp can steer us to the locally owned independent taqueria that kicks Taco Bell's ass, then what's stopping us from building services that more effectively channel our dollars toward the local, independent artist?

Another eye-raising absence in "The People's Platform" is the do-it-yourself Maker movement; Taylor doesn't devote a single paragraph to it. This may be because she subscribes to Evgeny Morozov's thesis that the Makers represent nothing more than a diversion from real politics, but it still seems a little odd. I defy anyone to visit a Maker's Faire and not realize that it is a festival of meaningful cultural production occurring in a profoundly democratic fashion. No, we cannot magically reduce the amount of time and talent and effort necessary to write a symphony, but the Maker movement and related phenomena like Etsy suggest there are ways in which technology is empowering artists and craftspeople to carve out survivable niches in a mass production system.

Democratizing culture means choosing, as a society, to invest in work that is not obviously popular or marketable or easy to understand. It means supporting diverse populations to devote themselves to critical, creative work and then elevating their efforts so they can compete on a platform that is anything but equal ... If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error."

Sing it, Astra! But do we have the capacity to develop those structures in the context of our current political system, or should we focus outside it? I don’t mean to endorse a libertarian approach to cultural production here. I would dearly love to live in a society where my tax dollars supported the creation of quality culture independently of what advertisers will pay for and the Internet masses will click on. But as we survey the current status quo, it's worth remembering that the sustainable food movement was propelled, not by government diktat, but by the grass roots. And as we consider how dysfunctional our current government is, and how hard it is to get something as basic as healthcare or a decent minimum wage through our political system, it seems possible that our energy might be better spent tinkering with the powerful tools that we have access to that actually do work, in order to ensure that they deliver us the culture that we must have.

It is undeniable that to this point, as Taylor writes, "networked technologies" have not resolved "the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive." But with writers like Taylor helping illuminate exactly how we are falling short, doesn't the necessary task then become figuring out how to incorporate those insights into how we use our tools? It seems obvious that the rapid innovation of the last couple of decades has outstripped our ability to fully understand what we are doing to ourselves. But maybe we can catch up.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Astra Taylor Blockbusters Editor's Picks Internet Culture Pop Culture The Internet The People's Platform