Death by in­ter­net

Jonathan Taplin’s ac­count of how the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion is thriv­ing at the ex­pense of cre­ativ­ity and cul­ture hits home the hard­est when he high­lights the hu­man cost, writes Carl Miller

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ul­ture is dy­ing. At a time when more is be­ing writ­ten, made, read and lis­tened to than ever be­fore, the grand hu­man en­deav­our of artis­tic cre­ation is in se­ri­ous trou­ble. Some­thing sin­is­ter is hap­pen­ing, says Jonathan Taplin in Move Fast and Break Things. And the rea­son for it is the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion.

How can it be that the ar­rival of a dig­i­tal net­work com­posed of bil­lions of mu­sic fans has not been a boon to mu­si­cians? There are more eye­balls read­ing more ar­ti­cles than ever be­fore, yet why do jour­nal­ists strug­gle to make ends meet? This is the ques­tion at the heart of Taplin’s book and it is an im­por­tant one: why is it that cre­at­ing cul­ture – good cul­ture that peo­ple re­ally want – just doesn’t pay the bills any­more? How have the film­maker, jour­nal­ist and mu­si­cian be­come the ca­su­al­ties of the dig­i­tal age?

Taplin has a num­ber of threads to un­ravel to find the an­swer. The first is ide­ol­ogy and what the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has re­ally been about. The in­ter­net and ide­ol­ogy have al­ways gone to­gether, and in Sil­i­con Val­ley, build­ing tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been more than a busi­ness and the tech­nol­o­gists have al­ways been more than busi­ness­men. They are so­cial vi­sion­ar­ies, and the tech­nol­ogy they have built has al­ways been an agent of so­ci­etal change, in­tended to rat­tle the sta­tus quo and re­alise a new kind of so­cial or­der.

But what vi­sion have they wanted to re­alise? The in­ter­net be­gan, Taplin ex­plains, with the counter-cul­ture and hu­man­ism of the 1960s. Many of the early in­ter­net pioneers were “New Com­mu­nal­ists”; geeks on acid who imag­ined the in­ter­net to free our minds. They saw that the in­ter­net would cre­ate “a realm of in­ti­mate per­sonal power … power of the in­di­vid­ual to con­duct his own ed­u­ca­tion, find his own in­spi­ra­tion,

Cshape his own en­vi­ron­ment and share his ad­ven­ture with who­ever is in­ter­ested.” Com­put­ers were “per­sonal cre­ativ­ity de­vices” that would un­lock the hu­man mind.

But the story of cul­tural de­struc­tion re­ally be­gins in the 1980s, when a new kind of think­ing was be­gin­ning to mus­cle out this hippy ideal. Ayn Rand had spear­headed the rise of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism that saw the world as a place where su­pe­rior peo­ple, peo­ple of drive, am­bi­tion and guts were strug­gling against the suf­fo­cat­ing mob. A new gen­er­a­tion of lib­er­tar­ian tech­nol­o­gists reimag­ined the kind of eman­ci­pa­tion that com­put­ers would bring. They saw that com­put­ers could free in­di­vid­u­als from govern­ment reg­u­la­tion and taxes. And so the in­ter­net project was “hi­jacked by a small group of right-wing rad­i­cals to whom the ideas of democ­racy and de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion was anath­ema.”

The sec­ond thread is money, as the rise of the in­ter­net has cat­a­pulted those lib­er­tar­ian dream­ers of the 1980s into po­si­tions of spec­tac­u­lar eco­nomic power. Over the last 20 years, we have lived through an un­prece­dented con­cen­tra­tion of wealth into a sin­gle val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia. The big­gest com­pa­nies in the world are now the tech com­pa­nies, and many of the rich­est peo­ple in the world are the tech en­trepreneurs. But most im­por­tantly, the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has not just cre­ated an in­dus­try of com­pet­ing ser­vices that is gen­er­ally wealthy, it has cre­ated a hand­ful of vast dig­i­tal mo­nop­o­lies. In the United States, Ama­zon ac­counts for 65 per cent of all new book sales. Face­book, with 1.6 bil­lion users, is al­ready big­ger than any coun­try, but it also owns What­sApp (1 bil­lion), Mes­sen­ger (900 mil­lion) and In­sta­gram (400 mil­lion). And Google, the most pow­er­ful tech gi­ant of all, dom­i­nates search, video, maps, mo­bile and browser.

This is the rise of “win­ner-takeall” eco­nom­ics. Gone is the func­tion­ing mar­ket­place of dif­fer­ent play­ers com­pet­ing for your cus­tom. Gone also are all the dy­nam­ics that push prices down and keep peo­ple hon­est. The size of the net­works the tech gi­ants have and the amount of data that they col­lect means that, in Taplin’s eyes, they might now be seen as “nat­u­ral mo­nop­o­lies” much like rail or wa­ter com­pa­nies. And if they are, Taplin ar­gues, we need to reg­u­late the hell out of them.

The third thread is pol­i­tics, as the com­bi­na­tion of lib­er­tar­ian think­ing and the po­lit­i­cal power of the tech gi­ants have not only made reg­u­la­tion very dif­fi­cult, but also al­lowed the tech gi­ants to shape the le­gal land­scape away from one that pro­tects the pro­duc­ers of cul­ture to­wards one that pro­tects the vast mo­nop­o­lies that con­trol the distri­bu­tion of con­tent. Charles and David Koch – of nat­u­ral-re­sources con­glom­er­ate Koch In­dus­tries – have, says Taplin, con­ducted a “thirty-fiveyear as­sault on our demo­cratic process”. The end re­sult, he says, has been the re­moval of the will of demo­cratic gov­ern­ments (and here he re­ally means the US) to chal­lenge the new mo­nop­o­lies of the tech gi­ants. An­titrust laws, pri­vacy reg­u­la­tion, gen­eral tax­a­tion and copy­right pro­tec­tion have all been un­der­mined ex­actly when, he ar­gues, we need them most.

Much of Taplin’s nar­ra­tive, up to this point, has been cov­ered at great length by tech­nol­ogy com­men­ta­tors be­fore him. Evgeny Moro­zov in The Net Delu­sion was one of the first to cry foul on the techno-utopian as­sump­tion that the in­ter­net was mak­ing all of us more free. In Who Owns the Fu­ture, Jaron Lanier in­tro­duced the idea of “Siren Servers” – the big­gest, most pow­er­ful ma­chines that con­trol the net­works – to ex­plain why we have seen the rise of win­ner-take-all out­comes in tech. This is now a busy area for writ­ers and com­men­ta­tors, and there are thou­sands of stud­ies, ex­posés, news ar­ti­cles and other ma­te­rial de­tail­ing the new and man­i­fold pres­sures the tech gi­ants are un­der. The charge sheet against the tech gi­ants is long and Taplin doesn’t al­ways marshal this huge pool of sec­ondary writ­ing in a way that makes com­plete sense to the reader. He is prone to jump from the topic of racism on Twit­ter to the “gamer­gate” scan­dal and misog­yny in tech, to the short­com­ings of so­cial me­dia for con­struc­tive po­lit­i­cal de­bate, the va­pid­ity of YouTube stars and the pro­ceeds of cy­ber crime in a way that can make his book feel, at times, more like a grab-bag of gen­eral griev­ances than any­thing else.

That aside, Taplin achieves some­thing im­por­tant. This book isn’t only about the tech­nol­ogy that im­per­ils cul­ture, but also about why cul­ture needs to be saved. Taplin was a tour man­ager for Bob Dy­lan and a pro­ducer for Martin Scors­ese’s film Mean Streets. Wo­ven among the lines of crit­i­cism to­wards the lib­er­tar­i­ans, tech com­pa­nies and their po­lit­i­cal al­lies is a mov­ing, deeply per­sua­sive ac­count of how im­por­tant cul­ture re­ally is. Taplin writes beau­ti­fully about see­ing Dy­lan go elec­tric at New­port for the first time in 1965. When he writes about the Hol­ly­wood of Scors­ese and Cop­pola in the 1970s, you wish you had been there. Af­ter read­ing what he says about learn­ing the art of slow­ness in mu­sic one evening in Wood­stock from Levon Helm, you be­lieve him when he says: “I know brave and pas­sion­ate art is worth pro­tect­ing and is more than just click bait for global advertising mo­nop­o­lies.”

So when Taplin writes about how the vast mo­nop­o­lies have dis­man­tled the “cul­tural in­fras­truc­ture” that al­lows this kind of art to hap­pen, it is with an elo­quent and gen­uine pain and anger. Partly this dis­man­tling is hap­pen­ing through the con­cen­tra­tion of bar­gain­ing power: Ama­zon can push down the prices of books sim­ply be­cause pub­lish­ers don’t have any­where else to turn. Partly it is be­cause en­forc­ing copy­right has be­come so much harder, and the tech gi­ants, with all their po­lit­i­cal power, have been re­luc­tant to en­force it. Partly it is be­cause these plat­forms have al­lowed am­a­teurs – whether writ­ers or mu­si­cians – to cre­ate enor­mous amounts of cul­ture, freely avail­able, com­pet­ing for peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. But over­all, the decline in rev­enue to the con­tent cre­ators, artists and pub­lish­ers, is stag­ger­ing. US news­pa­per advertising rev­enue has fallen from US$65.8 bil­lion (Dh241.64bn) in 2000 to $23.6bn in 2014. For news­pa­pers in the United King­dom, ad spend went from $4.7bn to $2.6bn, global recorded-mu­sic rev­enues were $27.3bn in 2000 and dropped to $10.4bn. Home-video rev­enue fell from $21.6bn in 2006 to $18bn in 2014. At the same time that rev­enues crashed across the cre­ative in­dus­tries, the in­come of the tech gi­ants soared. The money is now not in pro­duc­ing cul­ture, but in dis­tribut­ing it.

At its core, this book is a deeply hu­man­is­tic plea. The most pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment in it is not the sta­tis­tics, but the ex­am­ple of Taplin’s friend, Helm. A singer and drum­mer for the Band, which brought mean­ing and de­light to huge au­di­ences and in­spi­ra­tion to gen­er­a­tions of later mu­si­cians, Levon “just wanted to earn an hon­est liv­ing off the great work of a life­time”. But he couldn’t, and af­ter the roy­al­ties dried up, Levon was forced to con­tinue to per­form af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with throat can­cer. “Here is the hu­man cost of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion”. The dec­i­ma­tion of cul­ture, of course, isn’t just ru­inous for the mak­ers of it, but for all of us. The film scene that makes you con­tem­plate your own death, or the poem that makes you re­mem­ber some­one you’ve lost, these are not “con­tent”. These are what makes us who we re­ally are.

Carl Miller is re­search direc­tor at Demos, the UK-based think tank. His de­but book Power is be­ing pub­lished by Wil­liam Heine­mann.

Jonathan Taplin Macmil­lan Dh64

Move Fast and Break Things

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