A Piece of the Action: Recent Books on the Digital Economy
By Ron HoganJuly 19, 2017
Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin
The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly
The Upstarts by Brad Stone
So when I discovered the internet a few years later, I immediately grokked its anarchic potential, and I wasn’t the only one. Just as the increased availability of desktop publishing tools and photocopying technology had spurred an outpouring of print zines, so the growing network of Usenet newsgroups — and, soon enough, the World Wide Web — would lower the barrier to publication even further. With the means of production readily at hand, we could all become pamphleteers, sharing our outlier visions of millennial utopianism or patriarchal counterrevolution, posting serial installments of an erotic science fiction saga, or just arguing over exactly which books belong in the cyberpunk canon.
So it was a bit jarring when I opened The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly’s 2016 manifesto (reprinted in paperback last month) delineating “the twelve technological forces that will shape our future,” and read that none of us saw that revolution coming, that “what we all failed to see was how much of this brave new online world would be manufactured by users, not big institutions.” Now, it’s true that those of us who took part in the early iterations of digital media, back when it was still called “new media,” quickly figured out that — allow me to brush off my Althusser for a moment — if there’s one thing the ideological state apparatuses are good at, it’s assimilating resistance. We saw Time Warner launch its Pathfinder portal not too long after the web became the next big thing, and even those of us who derided the execution of that particular project could see that, while corporate media institutions might stumble here and there, they would eventually make their way onto the playing field, deploying their marketing dollars and existing platforms to try to take up as much of consumers’ mental bandwidth as they could. It wouldn’t be quite as hard to get noticed as it was in the pre-internet era, but it wouldn’t be easy, either.
Yes, a few new big shots would assert themselves; as Kelly mentions indirectly, there was a time, before it was absorbed into Condé Nast, that Wired aimed to be one of them. Kelly recalls that moment when he, as the magazine’s original executive editor, didn’t see the point of allowing anyone and everyone to publish on the Hotwired website and letting readers gravitate to the content that appealed to them the most. “The work of most unedited amateurs was simply not that interesting or consistently reliable,” he writes. “There had to be something else besides the pure anarchy of the bottom.” (Full disclosure: After Kelly and his colleagues hit upon that “something else” — namely, editorially curated content — they retained twentysomething me to go onto Usenet and convince people to come look at it. That was an interesting year.)
Here’s the thing, though: we didn’t all miss the boat on “user-generated content.” Of course we didn’t. We might have called it “cyberzines” or “independent media” or whatever our favorite term may have been at the time, but we saw its potential, we dreamed of its success, and many of us toiled away at our computers, building upon our visions. (And many of us still do.) What we failed to recognize is how much of our effort would be subsumed by new aggregators. With a smattering of celebrities and pundits to lure readers in, The Huffington Post became a clearinghouse for bloggers eager to give their unedited writing away for free. Amazon.com’s users gladly shared their opinions in the form of “customer reviews,” and when Goodreads proved exceedingly successful at getting people to express their feelings about books, Amazon liked that so much they bought the company. YouTube became a central repository for our uploaded videos. We even willingly posted our family photos and innermost feelings on Facebook and Twitter.
You could regard this as the preservation of the status quo with a few new faces rotated into the mix, but Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, offers a much bleaker outlook in Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Taplin delves into the “anarcho-capitalist” mindset of men like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who is as famous for bankrolling the destruction of Gawker Media as he is for declaring he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible.” What Taplin sees in that mindset is the makings of “an oligarchy in which only the brightest and richest get to determine our future,” an ultra-libertarian world where economic might makes right.
Taplin is particularly concerned with the ways near-monopolies on digital distribution hurt the creative classes, from musicians whose incomes drop as we choose to stream our music rather than buy albums to authors who watch helplessly as Amazon undercuts their royalties by offering used books alongside new editions. He has some thoughts on how to combat the problem, largely focused on co-operative creative distribution networks that can funnel more money back to the artists rather than skimming a large percentage off the top for “overhead.” He’s even hopeful that such a system, at least in the musical realm, will lead to a renaissance of regional microcultures — a lot like the zine revolution once hoped for by many of us in the publishing world.
Move Fast and Break Things is most interesting, however, when Taplin tugs at the roots of the digital economy’s libertarian ethos. His disdain for John Perry Barlow’s vision of “cyberspace as the new American frontier […] [and] the hacker as countercultural brigand,” for example, is palpable. It’s worth noting that Kelly also invokes Barlow, citing his 1996 essay “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” as a testament to “the end of old media.” If you go back and read the actual document, however, Barlow’s target was never the media conglomerates:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
“Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” Barlow would continue, and again: “You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces.” (There’s an especially fun bit where he declares “do not think that you can build [cyberspace], as though it were a public construction project,” perhaps momentarily forgetting that the internet grew out of a Department of Defense–funded computer network connecting three state universities with Stanford’s research institute.) Strip away the bombast, though, and what you get is not all that dissimilar from the position espoused by Sean Parker, the creator of the infamous file-sharing service Napster and Facebook’s first president: “It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.”
According to the techno-plutocrats, governments don’t innovate or radically transform people’s lives; they just get in the way of the entrepreneurs who want to do that, then try to take as much of their money as possible. (Amazon famously set up shop in Seattle as much to minimize the sales tax it would be required to collect as to maximize its access to a robust technology sector.) Or, as Kelly puts it, “People of the Book favor solutions by laws, while People of the Screen favor technology as a solution to all problems.” That attitude permeates The Upstarts, Brad Stone’s account of “how Uber, Airbnb, and the killer companies of the new Silicon Valley are changing the world,” crystallized in two separate quotes by Uber’s now-ousted CEO, Travis Kalanick:
Every city Uber rolls into is going to be a better place when we’re done with it and if you live in that city, your world of transportation is changing forever, and it will be oh so Uber when that change arrives.
Our product is so superior to the status quo that if we give people the opportunity to see it or try it, in any place in the world where government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the people, they will demand it and defend its right to exist.
Stone sees the obvious parallels between Kalanick’s aggressive build-up of Uber into a global go-between connecting drivers and riders and Brian Chesky’s tenacious development of Airbnb, a global exchange where people looking for a place to stay can find people with a spare room (or apartment). Apart from a bit of ribbon-tying at the end, however, Stone is much more interested in how they did it than why. Or, perhaps, Stone expects the significance of Uber and Airbnb’s battles with municipal taxi and hotel regulators to speak for itself, allowing him to dive into the gory details of planning and promotion. (It must be said that the edition of The Upstarts I read didn’t cover the sexual harassment scandals that dogged Uber throughout early 2017, contributing to Kalanick’s forced resignation in late June.)
Looking past Stone’s intricate play-by-play to the wider context, it’s hard not to view Uber and Airbnb as a new iteration of the upheaval and consolidation Taplin describes. The difference is that while Amazon, Facebook, and Google tighten their control over the entertainment we consume, the personal details we share, and the information we uncover, Uber and Airbnb want to stake a claim on how we move through the material world. Kelly describes this state of affairs as a new form of socialism untethered from the state, “designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization.” To me, it sounds more like Sigma Iotia II, the gangster-themed planet in the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action.” It’s a world that, though torn apart by gang wars as the Enterprise arrives, is made to run smoothly when Captain Kirk inserts himself and his superior phaser technology into the conflict on behalf of the Federation, declares himself the victor, and then withdraws to allow the society to rule itself … as long as the Federation gets its cut. Kirk promises that money would be reinvested back into the planet — but that works mainly because the post-scarcity Federation can afford to treat Sigma Iotia II as an extended, world-sized experiment in developmental sociology.
So let’s tweak that scenario: when someone like Peter Thiel decides his investment deserves as large a return as possible no matter what, preferably to underwrite an even greater widening of the gap between himself and the hoi polloi, we’re led just a little further down the path to a world where freedom of choice becomes an increasingly restricted luxury — and, where choice is restricted, it can be that much more readily manipulated. As Taplin observes, when searches and recommendation engines constantly nudge us toward what’s already popular, we end up with, say, a music industry where 80 percent of the revenue derives from just one percent of the product. Now imagine a similar imbalance in the audience for online news, and consider: Who’s going to control that sliver of news, and what will go into it?
Ron Hogan helped create the literary internet by launching Beatrice.com in 1995. He is an active presence in New York City’s literary scene, hosting and curating events such as Lady Jane’s Salon, the first monthly reading series dedicated to romance fiction.
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