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book review

Author Astra Taylor.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It's been suggested by some of the digerati that social-media obligations and big-data machinations have led us into a new state of feudalism. Digital serfs (that's us, by the way) labour in digital fields, producing profit for companies like Facebook and Google, which monetize the "content" we create for them. Meanwhile, we serfs receive only shimmers of entertainment as payment for our contributions. Because the term – Digital Feudalism – also suggests a throwback to medieval times, it reminds us that technological progress is not the same thing as human progress; there is no law stating that freedom of information must lead to the freedom of the oppressed.

Astra Taylor – documentary maker, Occupy activist, and now author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age – is a key player among those thinkers. Her book is a bracing expression of intelligent outrage – with the manifesto vibe of No Logo and the prescience of Silent Spring. By delivering a streetwise economic analysis of our technological reality, she leaves her reader feeling at once charged and newly aware of being duped.

Mainly that's because Taylor's so good at dismantling certain myths that Silicon Valley likes to tout. One myth is that the digital serf should be satisfied with distractions: instead of our share of the profits, the digital serf gets to validate her taste on Pinterest or entertain himself on YouTube. What's more, this myth suggests that there is no money being made when we spend hours writing restaurant reviews on Yelp or posting material to Facebook – whereas most of our digital lives indeed serve to profit a very few within that cryptic 1 per cent.

An associated myth is that private companies can support culture just as well, if not better than, governments and non-profits. "This time around," writes Taylor, "no one's claiming the market will be democratized – instead, the promise is that culture will be." If we take for granted that a new book of Anne Carson poetry matters at least as much as 50 Shades of Grey, though, then it seems we lose out when the less profitable work is sacrificed at the altar of the online world's aggressively free market (Taylor details how online merchants consolidate sales among a very few bestsellers): "A laissez-faire system will inevitably underinvest in less profitable cultural works, no matter how worthy, enriching, or utterly vital they are."

In fact, Taylor's vision of our techno-economic reality is one where we're consistently being fooled. We were told the Internet would free up the marketplace and instead it led to the birth of some of the largest corporations in history; we were told it would free up media, too, creating a new generation of freedom-fighting bloggers, but instead our communications are more centralized and monitored than ever before. "It was supposed to make our culture more open," she writes, "but the companies that dominate the technology industry are shockingly opaque….Instead of decommodifying art and culture, every communication has become an advertising opportunity."

Some things, Taylor reminds us, depend on the kind of labour that isn't easily aggregated; and some worthwhile things aren't "optimized" as far as search engines are concerned. It is the ruthlessness and deregulation of the online marketplace (its dissimilarity to public institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts or the CBC) that seems to worry Taylor most – the idea, for example, that artists should be happy to work for fame, or even just beer tickets. Taylor herself worked for two years on a $500,000 documentary called Examined Life (a set of vignettes with contemporary thinkers) and days after its release the entire 90-minute film was posted online for free. When she asked those responsible to take it down for a few months, giving her a chance to recoup costs, Taylor was informed by the YouTube pirates that, "philosophy is free."

All is not lost, though. Taylor suggests that our best hope lies in breaking our obsession with "free" and focusing instead on "fair." Easier said, perhaps. But the Internet needs, "Established fair trade principles…including transparency and accountability, payment of just prices, nondiscrimination and gender and racial equity, and respect for the environment."

We can aspire to greater things than free stuff. We can aspire to a just world – one where digital feudalism is replaced by a sustainable digital economy, where "content creators" (that's you, with every click and like and post) aren't fooled into believing that the lords of big data are interested in anything besides profits.

Silicon Valley would have us believe that state-regulated online systems would never work because the government can't keep up (witness the debacle of America's new health-care website). But Taylor offers a little history lesson: Mark Zuckerberg would have no Internet to play on if it weren't for "massive and ongoing funding from the federal government of the United States, which invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of many years to create it." (The U.S. government funded the development of the microprocessor, too.) And "In the standard narrative of techno-triumphalism, all of this history is repressed."

Taylor's book is a smart and needful reminder that we sacrifice our systems of knowledge and communication to corporate interests at our great peril. More importantly, it reminds us that there is no single destiny for us; that we can, and must, engineer more than machines – we must engineer modes of use.

Michael Harris's first book of non-fiction, The End of Absence, will be published in August.

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