Digital inequality persists

Author says technology is not the answer to world’s injustices

If you’ve ever attended a digital conference — say SXSW Interactive — then the narrative surrounding the Internet should be very familiar: With collaborative sites like Wikipedia crowdsourcing has replaced top-down mass media. The social web meanwhile has corrected capitalism’s imbalances: Thanks to countless platforms entrepreneurs can create market and share their products with few barriers driven by the engines of merit and innovation. Meanwhile the digital workplace has built a mobile workforce one unhinged by traditional offices spaces (which don’t allow dogs!) restrictive hours (the best spin classes are at 9 a.m.!) and powered by a project-based economy (#DWYL!).

The Internet’s made democracy more democratic right? Well not quite.

As author Astra Taylor details in her phenomenally important book The People’s Platform (Random House Canada) technology is a tool not a solution to the world’s injustices. As Taylor explains it despite digital culture’s self-perpetuated myths of freedom access and opportunity material-world inequities still persist.

“Techno-utopians are a small fringe but they’ve had a disproportionate influence on the broader conversation” Taylor says noting that technology’s biggest champions often ignore how material realities can effect the digital world. “The basic insight [of my book] is that technology can’t transform the world in the way it thinks it can — it isn’t enough to transcend or subvert market forces. If you’re not acknowledging that in your predictions [about the trajectory of digital culture] you’re basically wrong.”

Even the language of the digital landscape she argues is riddled with misleading platitudes. Take the word “freedom” for example. It’s a word thrown around with aplomb — especially in the conversation surrounding copyright — but few acknowledge its double meaning: On one hand digital-rights critics pan copyright law as the enemy of free speech. On the other the idea of free content removes the financial incentive for people to create — it relegates art production (or cynically “content”) to the realm of hobbyists.

Taylor’s perspectives on cultural creation however don’t stem from her experiences as a writer. Actually she’s best known for Žižek! a documentary film celebrating Slovenian philosopher/cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Unsurprisingly she ties her fascination with language to her philosophy background.

“The words we use and the frameworks we build around them really matter” she says. “’Open’ is another word that signifies how confused we are. When people wanted to rebrand free software as business-friendly they called it ‘open-source.’ ‘Free’ software was rooted in a very specific political critique about free speech but it was scaring off investors and limiting its market potential. So people made a specific attempt to rebrand it as ‘open-source.’

“But the digital and material worlds aren’t separate when you’re talking about openness. There’s still a disparity of wealth and there are still structural disadvantages. They’re only going to be more amplified in a more open world. Openness doesn’t put everyone on even footing.”

That might sound theoretical but it isn’t. The People’s Platform isn’t easy to stomach — and that’s because it presents plenty of devastating truths. For example Wikipedia sought to promote participation and knowledge-sharing but paradoxically less than 15 per cent of its editors are women. According to studies men and women are equally web-savvy but a significantly larger percentage of men consider themselves “experts.” Women meanwhile are a miniscule fraction of the programming community.

To the web-savvy this shouldn’t be surprising. Twitter and Facebook are self-empowering publishing platforms but it’s also the echo chamber that led to the bullying of say Rehtaeh Parsons. Reddit’s anonymity was meant to be an equalizer of race gender and class; meanwhile it’s bred a culture of fedora-toting ‘niceguys’ who less-than-secretly feel entitled to sleep with women. Web-based media didn’t facilitate citizen’s journalism as many predicted; instead it’s a place where deep-pocketed brands target advertising with ever-growing specificity gather hyper-specific user data and share branded editorial.

These things aren’t just reflections of material-world inequalities. They’re amplifications of them. “Access and participation are great but access to what? In these spaces there’s subtle forms of discrimination. People aren’t given the tools or know-how to participate on [every platform]. You need structures and institution methods of ‘onboarding’ people” says Astra who is also a documentary filmmaker and played an integral role in the Occupy movement.

“You can’t just erase barriers and expect that everything’s going to magically be egalitarian.”

The People’s Platform is nothing short of a clear-headed gut-check but Taylor’s message is deceptively simple: That technology is a tool not a solution. And even if technology has boundless democratizing potential at current it hasn’t levelled inequalities.

Instead it’s placed power in the hands of a different set of players. In media the journalists struggle to find work but advertisers thrive in a landscape of endlessly targeted ads. Platforms like Google and Facebook have become multinational powerhouses which like traditional publications don’t sell content — they sell their audience’s eyes. Meanwhile in an era where content is free the value of labour has been diminished: Creators must continually struggle harder to prove their value often for diminishing returns.

In other words: The more things change the more they stay the same. “The basic insight of a great Canadian doc like [Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s 1992 doc] Manufacturing Consent is that you need to follow the money” Taylor adds. “ Manufacturing Consent ’s analysis isn’t out of date but it feels like we’ve lost decades of media criticism. [The Internet] has completely changed the media landscape but we’re not in a brave new world.”

The People’s Platform by Astra Taylor Random House Canada 288 pp.