Once upon a time the internet seemed like a youthful, disruptive, even subversive wonder. It could give a voice to the voiceless, could hold the powerful to account, was able to challenge the prevailing culture, and break monopolies. It could democratize capitalism. So, what the heck happened?
What no one could have predicted was that the internet – and all its component parts: the enabled platforms, apps and internet sites – would become the 21st century’s opium of the people. The web has become a religion devotees devour unquestioningly. Need to know more in a subject? Wiki it. Need to see what San Diego looks like? Try Google Maps. Want the latest bestseller? Click on Amazon. Need to abominably abuse someone anonymously? Use Twitter.
A new book Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin offers a devastating critique of the way the internet is devouring us and the way in which we have allowed ourselves to become unwitting victims. The title of the book comes from Mark Zuckerberg’s famous mantra. And it’s Facebook, Amazon and Google that are in Taplin’s crosshairs. The internet can manipulate the news and has affected our politics. Without it we might not have had Trumpageddon. Meantime journalism, popular music and films and the very soul of the artist has been or is in the process of being traduced or, as Taplin puts it: “eroded beyond recognition” by the digi-age. He argues that while “the web has become critical to all our lives as well as the world economy and the decisions on how it is designed have never been voted upon by anyone”.
This disturbing analysis paints a picture of a Wild West – companies and web developers operating in an unregulated environment – where anything goes and following the letter of the law and paying taxes seem optional. We, the public, willingly put ourselves in harm’s way from bots, data mining, stealth marketing, augmented reality, circular sourcing, intellectual property theft, fake news, influencer selling, paid-for content and plain old-fashioned fraud. And let’s ignore the bombardment of ads on our devices.
This fascinating and densely-argued book hums with ideas. They are not the ravings of an old analogue geezer but an invocation to stop and think and even revolt. Of course, everyone knows that there is no such thing as a free download. Taplin freely admits to surrendering “all my personal data to Facebook in return for the ability to share my vacation photos”. An app he once downloaded started asking permission to grab his contact list, SMS data and a bunch of other stuff. According to Taplin, Americans get 44% of their news from Facebook and internet companies, once seen as offering more convenience and better value than bricks-and-mortar shops have now become vast monopolies worth billions. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal (and ardent Trump supporter) has said “competition is for losers”.
But is “content surveillance” of your smart phone a price worth paying? The popular music industry has suffered. “Since 2000 global recorded music revenues have fallen from $27.3bn to $10.4bn per year,” writes Taplin. The dead tree media is in terminal decline, illegal downloads are a way of life. The gig economy threatens to rob anyone with a creative spark in their body. Musicians, writers, photographers and filmmakers – once revealers or rebels they are now just a content provider who was lucky if they get paid. They have been nicknamed “the precariat“.
“Strikingly, the internet was created with government funding and built on the principles of decentralisation – principles we need to find our way back to if we are to overcome the power of corporate monopolies in the digital age,” writes Taplin.
So why should any of this matter? Because the culture is being altered. Consider the repetitive nature of dance and rap music now and this parade of capes ‘n’ tights superhero movies that get made. Tiresome and inoffensive, these films are specifically designed to play to a worldwide market.
The major global players often seem above the law. Facebook has been accused of being too concerned with the financial bottom line to employ enough moderators to remove hate speech and child abuse images. Amazon is great on logistics, but on paying taxes less so.
What’s the answer to this threat to our culture from a tsunami of garbage – gifs and memes and forgettable 140 character soundbites?
Taplin’s cri de coeur seems to be not “break things” but “think globally, act locally”. “It seems to me that co-op [any enterprise operated by its members for the mutual benefit] is the ideal way for producers of creative work to band together and get content distributed at a fair price,” he writes. Essentially cutting out the middleman. Co-operative ventures “do not ask artists to forego distribution outlets but rather enable them to take advantage of a series of distribution windows that could lead to much higher income. The module exists in the music business in the form of Bandcamp.” And the photo agency Magnum has successfully been operating as a co-op for decades.
Taplin imagines a future “in which [music] artists would release first to their fans through sites like Bandcamp taking in 85% of the subscription revenue. The second release, three weeks later, would be to Apple Music and Spotify Premium from which the artist would probably get 70%. The third release would be to ad-supported streaming services such as YouTube”.
Taplin, a director emeritus of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and a former tour manager for Bob Dylan as well as a film producer for Martin Scorsese, is also very impressed with the BBC model of public broadcaster, integrating TV radio and online. “I think big changes could happen if we approach the problem of the monopolisation of the internet with honesty, a sense of history, and a determination to protect what we all agree is important: a cultural inheritance,” he says.
“Facebook and Google must be willing to alter their business model to protect our privacy and help thousands of artists create a sustainable culture for centuries, not just make a few software designers billionaires.”