Book Review: ‘The People’s Platform’

My Observer review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions.

The launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 transformed the internet into a mainstream medium and brought the corporate world online, so from then on the die was cast. What happened is that the two universes effectively merged, so we now live in a strange amalgam of meat- and cyberspace in which the elements of each run riot. A virtual space that once had no crime and no surveillance has become one with an abundance of each; and the “real” world has been destabilised by the astonishing power and properties of networks.

Yet public understanding of the implications of this convergence lags some way behind the emerging reality, which is why we need books like this. Astra Taylor is a talented documentary-maker who was dismayed by the way her work was appropriated and pirated online. But instead of fuming silently in her studio, she set out to seek an understanding of the paradoxical world that the merging of cyberspace and meatspace has produced. What she finds is a world which is, on the one hand, hooked on an evangelical narrative about the liberating, empowering, enlightening, democratising power of information technology while, on the other, being increasingly dominated and controlled by the corporations that have effectively captured the technology.

The big question about the net was always whether it would be as revolutionary as its early evangelists believed. Would it really lead to the overthrow of the old, established order? We are now beginning to see that the answer is: no. We were intoxicated by the exuberance of our own evangelism. “From a certain angle,” writes Taylor, “the emerging order looks suspiciously like the old one.” In fact, she concludes, “Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume and connect. The companies that provide these and related services are quickly becoming the Disneys of the digital world – monoliths hungry for quarterly profits, answerable to their shareholders not us, their users, and more influential, more ubiquitous, and more insinuated into the fabric of our everyday lives than Mickey Mouse ever was. As such they pose a whole new set of challenges to the health of our culture.”