Summer books: Astra Taylor’s ‘The People’s Platform’

Astra TaylorSummer is time to catch up on reading all of those books I bought during the school year. Let’s begin with Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

I enjoyed the book, political economy applied to the contemporary digital media world. It covers a lot of topics, from search engines to copyright to video to technological innovation to the regulatory process, in lively prose. I learned a lot, and was directed to many references I am anxious to look up.

Attracting the most heat from Taylor are what we might call the internet utopians, whose visions of free culture for everybody everywhere, transforming the world, never came to pass, and whose remarks from a decade or so ago provide an almost too easy target.

What did they get wrong? That there are aspects of the economics of industry that did not change with the internet. To name a few:

  • ‘Distribution’ is a sector characterized by very large returns to scale, thus leading to concentration in a small number of large firms. This is as true of carbonated beverages as it is of movies, books and songs, and now such things as search engines and social networks.
  • Distribution of cultural content can be profitable when used as a device to attract advertisers.
  • For cultural goods, which are ‘experience goods’, we expect information cascades – we are influenced by what everybody else is reading, or listening to, because that provides us with some useful (though not fail-safe) information about the quality of those goods.
  • The arts, especially those where there is low-cost reproduction – e.g. books, recordings, videos – will have a few superstar artists and many struggling ones, since consumers will want to buy from the best, even if it costs a few dollars more.
  • Because the production of books, song recordings, videos, images, is subject to very high fixed costs but low, near-zero marginal costs for copies, there will be large rents created for popular products, with creators, producers, distributors, retailers and consumers all wanting as big a share of the rents as they can get.
  • Live performance is subject to cost disease.
  • Copyright has the challenge of finding a balance, across many genres and changing technology, between incentives for creators and access for users.
  • The political process is subject to the logic of collective action, such that the side of an industry with a few, very large players will organize to exert much more influence on policy than the side of the industry (usually the consumers) who number in the millions, and all have relatively small amounts at stake, even if in aggregate the small amounts add up to a vast sum.

Each of these issues are ones I could have included in a course on the economics of the arts twenty years ago, and would still include today. Of course the internet changes things – more people will read this meager blog post than I ever could have got to read a short book review twenty years ago – but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of information and cultural goods.

My main question for the author, then, arises from this very fact that she does seem to recognize: what can be done to make for a more democratic cultural world? I do not believe much can be done to change that list of bullet points above. I can criticize certain policies – I agree with the author that the continual extension of copyright term is bad policy, for example – but what are we really after here? She writes (pp. 126-7):

Cultural democracy means that a diversity of voices and viewpoints is expressed and accessible; that visibility and notoriety should not be the consequence of cumulative advantage alone; and that influence within the cultural field is achieved by a variety of factors, not simply ceded to those who can afford to pay to be seen and heard.

Then I too am a fan of cultural democracy. But I was left unconvinced that there were policy solutions waiting to be picked up, such that we can ‘take back power and culture.’ To be fair, Astra Taylor never suggests that any of her hopes would be easy to achieve, and she takes care to recognize the challenges. But I did not finish the book with a clear sense of direction. We can dislike much of what comes out of Silicon Valley, strategies and pronouncements. But where do we go from here, in terms of feasible cultural policy?

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  1. Thanks for the interesting article and a summation of how the Internet has not significantly changed the fundamental principles of the marketplace.

    You write: “But where do we go from here, in terms of feasible cultural policy?” I’m wondering what you mean by “cultural policy.” Does the USA have one? Isn’t our policy for the most part to have no policy? Are you suggesting that we should have a cultural policy?

    Or are you speaking about policies that affect the arts in the marketplace and thus some aspects of the non-profit arts? If so, can marketplace policies alone be considered a complete and effective cultural policy?

    • I am speaking of all public policies that affect the arts, commercial and nonprofit alike, and in that sense the US does have cultural policy, although not necessarily a coherent one. That said, having a ‘minister of culture’ is no guarantee of coherent cultural policy either, since the dept of culture still has to deal with all the same policy issues and the political pressures that come with them (I am thinking of Canada, for example).

      In terms of nonprofits, most policy affecting them is indirect – their tax treatment, for example, is determined by policies affecting the entire nonprofit sector, not just the arts.

      • These practices seem to result in a non-policy through diffusion. Most arts policy in Europe is determined at the municipal and state levels. Even in highly centralized countries like France, culture is seen as something inherently local. In practice, a Federal minister would likely be just another method of non-policy through diffusion.