THE SOCIAL FACTORY
An interview with Astra Taylor
by Liz Pelly
While reading the conclusion to Astra Taylor's The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, I was overwhelmed by that feeling you might get when you hear a perfectly relatable song - the sense that someone finally is articulating a very nuanced and human concept you had been harboring, but never had the right words for. "It may seem counterintuitive at a time of information overload, viral media, aggregation, and instant commenting to worry about our cultural supply," she writes. "But we are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty." The chapter is presented as a "Manifesto For Sustainable Culture."
Taylor is a writer, activist, documentarian filmmaker, and musician. She is responsible for two philosophy-related documentaries, Zizek and The Examined Life. She was a founding organizer of the Occupy-inspired movement Strike Debt, and continues to organize around economic injustice with The Debt Collective. In 2013 and 2014, she toured as a member of Neutral Milk Hotel, playing accordion and guitar. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Adbusters, The Nation, and elsewhere. When we met up for breakfast in the West Village in August, our conversation centered on The People's Platform, published in 2014, as well as the specific ways in which artists and musicians should be concerned with the culture of immaterial digital labor we live under.
Taylor's book interrogates the internet's relationship with culture: specifically, it challenges the idea that the web has made culture more accessible, fair, and democratic. Internet enthusiasts claim that the internet has created a cultural landscape where everything is open and free, but Taylor wants us to shout back at that narrative: Open to who? And what are the real costs of 'free culture'? Taylor provokes readers to think about economic privilege, labor rights, sustainability, and general respect for the arts; to consider who really profits off of these digital platforms we are all presently, seemingly, beholden to.
"Networks do not eradicate power: they distribute it in different ways, shuffling hierarchies and producing new mechanisms of exclusion," Taylor writes. "The 'People's Platform' is both sarcastic and aspirational," she told me. "The internet is not a people's platform. It's highly corporatized. But it could be if we had the political willpower. It could be a more civic-minded realm."
Taylor has a talent for taking extremely complicated ideas about technology, politics, and the economy and explaining them in ways that are accessible. That skill is woven all through her book, as well as our interview.
Early on in your book, you touch on this idea that much of what we do on the internet amounts to micro-labor - but it is rarely acknowledged as such. Why is that something that musicians and artists should care about?
We need to update our models of how exploitation works. If you're a human being, a musician or artist who cares about inequality, then you have to be critical of the way wealth is extracted today. What factors are contributing to the massive inequality we are living under?
We're all stuck in this old, twentieth century labor model - you go to work, you have a boss, and that's the site of labor - that isn't as dominant as it once was. That paradigm allowed artists and musicians to kind of imagine, "Oh, I'm outside of that. I'm in this exceptional space of creativity. And maybe I get paid occasionally for a gig, or a painting or a poem, but I'm not a worker. People in the factories and the kitchens are workers, but I'm this kind of beautiful outsider."
The world is a lot murkier now. Instead of being the exception in capitalism, artists are now the paradigmatic subject. Everyone is being told to be more like artists. Because the old twentieth century social contract of, "You're going to be a worker, and have this job, and maybe you'll join a union and have a lifetime of stable employment and you'll work at Ford and buy a Ford..." is breaking down.
Now we're in this world where everybody is insecure. Everybody is precarious. Students are graduating and they're deeply in debt, and then they're supposed to intern for free for years and years to maybe get a freelance job on the side. If you read the business press, what they'll say is, "Oh, everyone is kind of an artist now. Everyone is kind of a creative, free-agent entrepreneurial subject."
The position of the artist used to be the exception. Now the position of the artist has become this thing that people are kind of told to model themselves on. If you do have a job, you're not just supposed to work eight hours/day or 40 hours/week, you're supposed to work around the clock because you love it so much, you love it like you're an artist. In my opinion, it's especially incumbent upon artists that we deeply analyze and be very critical of the current paradigm because the creative ethos is being used to bolster this very exploitative new form of capitalism.
We are in these conditions where everything we do contributes to the profit of the system. It sounds kind of conspiratorial, but it's true. Take Google as an example. You don't work for Google, Google's not your boss, but Google profits from many of your activities on the internet ... It's not an employer/employee relationship. It's also not a consumer relationship, because you don't pay money to Google for a service or good. But Google is one of the most profitable corporations on Earth because it's extracting revenue and wealth from the network in some really troubling ways.
Historically, there's been this idea that we can either be active producers to passive consumers of culture. But now it seems like there's this other situation where people are more becoming passive producers - making stuff but not really thinking about the tools they're making it on.
It used to be that people could say, "Oh, I'm an artist and making art is inherently political because it's independent." But now even if you are an "independent" artist you are making stuff with these corporate tools that are counter to the politics of what you're trying to make. And lot of people don't see any other way of existing.
Some people respond to these conditions by saying, "I'm an artist or musician but I don't use Facebook, I don't use Twitter, I don't use Instagram." Is that really the most productive answer though? What advice do you give to artists and musicians about productively existing within these conditions during this confusing moment while also being critical of it?
I don't know if it's the most productive, but I also don't think it's counterproductive. A robust political culture means you have to have people who are making those militant stances, even if they are not necessarily sustainable, and even if they don't really end up producing the systemic change we need. I think we need all types, including people who are so deeply "Fuck The Media" that they can't do anything but write with a pen they found in the trash and a piece of paper they stole from a dumpster. In that sense I say, "Let one thousand flowers bloom," because it shows that there is a healthy debate going on. But does it mean I think that's necessarily the most effective approach in a utilitarian sense of what will get the best results for society? No.
But I still think we need more of that hardcore, critical spirit. Because the dominant attitude right now is kind of sold out, in my opinion. People don't seem to be drawing a lot of lines in terms of what they are and aren't willing to do.
I like what you said about "the passive producer." I think that's a good point. You don't even have to be making a creative object, like a video or a song, you just have to be passively clicking on the Internet and you're emitting data that generates profit for the people who own the online platforms you are using. We live in this digital economy where quality doesn't really matter. Whether you actively, consciously contribute economically doesn't matter. You're plugged into it just by letting your phone track your movements. The app you downloaded is gleaning something of value - because it will be better able to target ads at you later.
We're all in what's been called a social factory. It's not this old-fashioned, twentieth century factory of working to make widgets. Now we're embedded in this network and we're always being exploited; value is being extracted from us. The line between the inside and outside, between independent and corporate, is really blurred.
There is a lot of pining for this old day when things were supposedly really clear. When there were "the major labels and the indies!" and "the mainstream media and your local independent weekly!" Things were definitely clearer back then, but there were also signs that things were moving in this general direction. I'm thinking of the way that the majors still controlled distribution for a lot of the independent labels. ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance), which is owned by Warner, still controlled the underlying infrastructure of distribution for "indie" labels like Merge, Sub Pop, Secretly Canadian, etc. They were still ultimately relying on corporate railroad tracks.
The internet has continued that trend in the sense that the channels of distribution have been further corporatized. Now, to even participate on the internet, to use the internet as a distribution platform, is to use corporate infrastructure. There is very little non-commercial virtual space.
One of the main points of my book is that we're not actually seeing such a radical break; we're seeing the continuation of some trends that were already in place, a continuation of what some call neoliberalism, and part of that is corporations focusing more on distribution than production. Because production is expensive and distribution is cheap. Corporations don't want to invest in bands, or invest in products. Nike just wants to be a brand - they don't actually want to own the factory and make the shoes. They want to be this networked entity that doesn't invest really in the making of stuff.
This is all to say: the lines between independent and corporate are really blurred right now. So I'm sympathetic to people who just throw up their hands. But I also think it's kind of a cop out. It shows this lack of imagination.
Yes, the landscape has changed. We have the internet, and the internet is fully corporatized. But all's not lost. It's time to be creative. I mean, somebody had to invent the independent labels and book publishers and collectives of yore in response to their time and circumstances. People invented independent weeklies and there were hundreds or maybe thousands of them across the country at some point and they were really vibrant. What are we going to invent for this moment that brings in some kind of political values we care about?
For me, it's important to think about carving out non-commercial space on the web. Spaces that aren't totally stuck in that social factory, data-extraction-and-advertising model. It requires some creativity, but there are people trying to do it. There are spaces like ... this zine. OR Books was founded by some friends of mine with the mission of avoiding Amazon. And there are projects like CASH Music, which creates these non-profit open-source tools for artists so they can start to control distribution without necessarily having to go through a larger corporate platform.
When building these alternatives there are always going to be trade offs. You might lose reach or visibility by leaving the central corporate hubs. But you might gain other things: a sense of dignity, a sense of principles. Or you might actually get a bigger piece of any revenue you make. You might feel like you're in a community. Everybody needs to consider the tradeoffs for themselves.
In general, I would like to see people thinking more about non-commercial alternatives online, and co-operative business models. Like, why should Netflix - and I could say this about iTunes, I could say this about Uber - ultimately be earning profit for the small number of people who are investors, executives, or shareholders, when they are basically just distribution outlets built on the films other people have made, the music other people have made, the driving labor of tens of thousands of drivers? That's not a technological problem but an economic one.
I'm a little befuddled as to why there aren't more experiments in non-commercial directions. I know they are hard. There are technological things about the internet that are working against you. We are so legitimately locked into these big platforms. As a filmmaker, it would be hard to ditch Netflix if you know that 90% of your audience has a Netflix account. But Netflix is not exclusive, so you could be on Netflix and then also be on some cooperative film distribution site at the same time.
When people bemoan the lack of independence, I get it, but I also feel that we are being a bit lazy. There are really strong political arguments for wanting to create alternatives. To me, it comes down to how twisted the advertising model is. And it's way more twisted than just seeing annoying ads. There are all sorts of perverse social consequences that I am obsessed with. I'm amazed that this retrograde model dominates the high-tech landscape.
Can you speak to some of the 'perverse social consequences' of the current advertising landscape online?
Today when you say you don't like ads, people say, "Use Ad Blocker!" There's this idea that the ads are just what you see and if you can block them it's solved. But it goes way beyond that. If you just think advertising just has to do with what you see, and those stupid pre-roles you see on YouTube, you don't understand the whole picture. Those ads are a symptom of a deeper disease, and that disease is the whole data-driven economy. We don't pay for Google or Facebook with money, but we pay with our private information.
Spotify actually just today announced that they want to have total access to your phone if you have the app on your phone. They want to be able to have all your photos, to know where you are, and to look at your interactions with other people. It even says something about how "you might need legal permission from your contacts". In other words, they don't want to just scrape your data, but also your friends data, but since your friends might not have granted permission for this, that's on you legally. Which is insane! [laughter.] That was really egregious, so it was in the news, but usually this stuff is buried in terms of service agreements we all just click without reading.
So there's a dignity/privacy element.
But it's really what they are doing with that data. The data gets compiled by data brokers, and it's used to sort and track us and to target us. This can have deeply discriminatory effects.
Recently I signed up for a second Facebook account to do political organizing. I was mostly organizing with low-income women, single moms, who had been targeted by a predatory for-profit college. They were disproportionately black, poor, unemployed, and vulnerable in lots of ways. Facebook, of course, started to assume that I was part of that community and the ads I started getting completely changed, to all of these scams and predatory financial services and lead generators, which are these sites that basically try to get your data to sell you a loan or a sub-prime mortgage.
It just provided this window into what a different online existence might look like. And you can say, "Oh, well, people should be savvy and not click on these ads." But they were expertly targeted to connect to circumstances that Facebook thought I was in, and which many of these people actually are in. We are in a world where some people are served ads for American Express and others are served ads for fucking payday loans.
There was a recent study at Carnegie Mellon showing that Google targets ads for high-paying jobs more to men than women. There are all of these discriminatory impacts that we've only begun to see the beginnings of. We're headed towards a data-driven algorithmic future where our experiences will be determined by our digital dust - poor people will get price gouged and reverse-red lined and white dudes will see ads for white collar jobs.
I'm very troubled by all of that on deeper, social-discrimination level.
On the level we can all see I'm also concerned. Yes, there are the annoying ads we can block, but then there's also the whole world of native content and branded advertising that is on the rise with the web. The perverse incentives that are created by catering to corporate sponsorship drive me crazy. Sure, it was imperfectly implemented but the old idea that there was a line between advertising and editorial sections in the newspaper was a pretty decent one. It wasn't just a function of the fact the news was printed on paper. It was a decision people made because there was an ethical imperative. And I just think it's insane that we've let that go. And that we use cutting edge technology to justify it.
People will say they can be corporately sponsored without it changing their work, but I'm skeptical. I read an interview with this guy on IndieWire where he was saying, "Yea, it doesn't affect my art," about his sunglasses-company-sponsored video. And then half of the fucking video was people lovingly caressing their sunglasses. I think it's tacky. The $600 billion we spend on advertising is a total fucking waste of money. You could spend that 600 billion dollars instead on funding the arts, or arts in school, or anything instead of selling us shit we don't even want. And by the way we're also paying for the ads because it just means the price of the product goes up, when the ad budget is factored in ...
This is where I get like a teenager - but I can't believe that we just take for granted that this totally insane roundabout way of funding culture is the main legitimate way to do it.
What should people do? How should people survive? On a personal level, I would never make sponsored content or branded content of any kind, but I do occasionally write for websites that are advertiser-supported, and have native content sections. Everybody has their own line. Nobody draws a pure, perfect line. There's no way to completely extract yourself from the data-collection advertiser model, but I think we have to start chipping away at it through individual and collective action however we can. That means I want to be involved in projects that try to carve out non-commercial space and be part of trying to build alternatives or amplify alternatives. I think it's really crucial.
People may have talked about independent culture more a few decades ago. But actually, it's needed a lot more now. It's a more urgent time.
I feel like, in independent music scenes, there's so much pointing fingers and wanting to call out people who claim to care about DIY but then, like, write for ad-sponsored websites. When really we should be expending energy instead on more productive things, like actively creating new non-commercial space on the Internet...
The thing about finger-pointing is it can always be pointed back at us, and for good reason. Purity politics are not going to get us where we want to go. That's why I wanted to focus on the systemic level - what are the driving forces that are creating the conditions of utter commercialism? And a lot of it is the underlying inequality problem. For me, when I think, "What should people do?" Join a social movement. Start a new Occupy that's more effective, that addresses the issue of unfettered capitalism.
The Internet is wonderful and problematic in different ways, but it also historically coincided with this Republican revolution that attacked the state, cut funding for the arts, attacked the very idea of public goods. It set up a crazy neoliberal worldview that says free speech is great, and free speech is also something corporations can engage in. So, Citizens United means corporations can give piles of cash to political candidates because of free speech! The same twisted logic is at work in online advertising and data collection. Why is it legal for these advertisers to do behavioral marketing targeted to poor, vulnerable populations? Because it's their corporate free speech, their first amendment right, to use private data they have sucked up however they want.
That's not a technological problem. That's a problem of market logic gone insane.
You can be critical of the system even as you are standing within it. You don't have to be perfectly pure to be pissed off. At the same time, I think we do all have to wrestle with our own consciences.
How do you see your activism with Strike Debt - the spirit of it - as being connected to the points you are making in your book?
My book was written at the same time Occupy Wall Street was happening. I'm totally aware of the problems with Occupy. But I also have been studying social movements for a long time. Moments like that do not just happen very often. And so, I very strongly felt, when Occupy started, "I don't just want to criticize it, I want to try to contribute to it and see how far I can help push it." Instead of just being an intellectual on the sidelines saying, "Oh, their general assembly model is so naive" ... which, it was kind of naive, but I still think the underlying point that Occupy made is totally right. Which is that capitalism is undermining democracy. And people need to start getting in the way and saying no.
I was writing the book at the same time and you can see even from the title, The People's Platform. It's inspired by the People's Microphone. The "People's Platform" is both sarcastic and aspirational. The internet is not a people's platform. It's highly corporatized. But it could be if we had the political willpower. It could be a more civic-minded realm.
To me, what we're facing ultimately are economic problems more than technological problems. Technology provides amazing tools, and I think we can use them, but BitCoin and BlockChain are not going to fix the perverse financial arrangements that we've established. There's not going to be some magic tool that creates this democratic paradise. That's why activism is important to me on a fundamental level.
To go back to your first first question - we're not in the twentieth century model of working in a factory anymore, with stable jobs. Right now we're in this precarious, insecure age. If you want to mobilize people around economic issues, it used to be that you'd say, "Join a labor union and fight with your boss. And then all of the labor unions should join together and change the political landscape!" I personally like that model, but it's on the decline. It also leaves out all of the people today who don't have clear bosses. And all of the people today who are only employed part-time. Or people who can't find a job. And yet all still connected to the economy. They're still being fucked. And a lot of them have debt.
The Debt Collective grew out of Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee, a debt buying and abolishing project I am part of. For me, organizing around debt is one creative response to this moment.
Indebtedness offers a way for people who aren't in the traditional workforce to aggregate, to come together, and to demand change. The Debt Collective looks at debt as a sort of asset. At a certain point, collectively you owe so much money that you have a kind of economic power. We see student debtors, who together owe 1.3 trillion dollars, as having 1.3 trillion dollars of leverage that they are not using. Today a million people default on their student loans every year one by one. What if they all bound together and worked collectively and made demands? People have so much power they're not using.
The debtor is in this networked system because they might be in debt - their student loans might be owed to a bank, maybe Chase or Citibank, or the federal government. Again, it's not this immediate relationship of 'the employer and the employed'. I think many future economic struggles will take this form of more roundabout connections. Look at musicians trying to advocate for themselves on the internet - it's the same thing. You're not necessarily battling with your record label - who already wasn't really your employer. You're trying to negotiate with Spotify. Where the fuck is Spotify? It's everywhere and nowhere, just like Chase Bank is everywhere and nowhere. We can't just be nostalgic for old models of the old labor union, or the old independent record label scene. We have to create new models that are for this moment. Because there are lots of things that are actually good about this moment. There's lots of potential and plenty of tools we could use - the Internet is one of those tools.
We need to have a clear political vision and how capitalism works today and how the culture industry works today. Then we need to build creative responses.
To provide some personal context, can you speak to some events and influences in your life that have shaped you into a person for whom thinking about the internet, labor, and economic injustice is important?
I think being raised with a kind of outsider ethos was key. I was lucky to grow up in a family where even something basic like going to school was up for debate and where I always felt like I had a real say over my own time and what I wanted to learn about or do. Certainly my sister, Sunaura Taylor, who is an artist and disability rights activist, left a big mark on my thinking about the world and how it can be more or less accessible and inclusive depending on the social choices we all make. We grew up in Athens, Georgia, a small town known for its music scene. I couldn't wait to leave Athens but it does have a strong independent spirit and it gave me a lot, including my excellent partner. For me, economic justice is simply foundational. I want to play a modest part in a much bigger project of solidarity and liberation, which is why I've stuck with the debt organizing. In the end, I'm just a political, intellectual person by temperament, but I'm not one that would thrive in a traditional academic environment. What I like about activism is that it's a laboratory for experimenting with ideas. And as someone who cares about how ideas spread I have to care about media, and that means thinking seriously about the Internet, in all its glory and all its grossness. I think there's tremendous potential with these new communications tools and we should fight to make good on it.
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