Astra Taylor on the sad state of today’s digital media climate

Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain – consolidation, centralization, and commercialism – and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive. The Internet does not close the distance between hits and flops, stars and the rest of us, but rather magnifies the gap, eroding the middle space between the very popular and virtually unknown. And there is no guarantee that the lucky few who find success in the winner-take-all economy online are more diverse, authentic or compelling than those who succeeded under the old system.

Despite the exciting opportunities the Internet offers, we are witnessing not a leveling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement, with new winners and losers. In the place of Hollywood moguls, we now have Silicon Valley tycoons (or, more precisely, we have Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley tycoons). The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors – these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.

Indeed, the advertising industry is flourishing as never before. In a world where creative work holds diminishing value, where culture is “free”, and where fields like journalism are in crisis, advertising dollars provide the unacknowledged lifeblood of the digital economy. Moreover, the constant upgrading of devices, operating systems, and Web sites; the move toward “walled gardens” and cloud computing; the creep of algorithms and automation into every corner of our lives; the trend toward filtering and personalization; the lack of diversity; the privacy violations: all these developments are driven largely by commercial incentives. Corporate power and the quest for profit are as fundamental to new media as old. From a certain angle, the emerging order looks suspiciously like the old one.

In fact, the phrase “new media” is something of a misnomer because it implies that the old media are on their way out, as though at the final stage of some natural, evolutionary process. Contrary to all the talk of dinosaurs, this is more a period of adaptation than extinction. Instead of distinct old and new media, what we have is a complex cultural ecosystem that spans the analog and digital, encompassing physical places and online spaces, material objects and digial copies, fleshy bodies and virtual identities.

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People are beginning to recognize that Silicon Valley platitudes about “changing the world” and maxims like “don’t be evil” are not enough to ensure that some of the biggest corporations on Earth will behave well. The risk, however, is that we will respond to troubling disclosures and other disappointments with cynicism and resignation when what we need is clearheaded and rigorous inquiry into the obstacles that have stalled some of the positive changes the Internet was supposed to usher in.

First and foremost, we need to rethink how power operates in a post-broadcast era. It was easy, under the old-media model, to point the finger at television executives and newspaper editors (and even book publishers) and the way they shaped the cultural and social landscape from on high. In a networked age, things are far more ambiguous, yet new-media thinking, with its radical sheen and easy talk of revolution, ignores these nuances. the state is painted largely as a source of problematic authority, while private enterprise is given a gree pass; democracy, fuzzily defined, is attained through “sharing”, “collaboration”, “innovation” and “disruption”.

From the preface to Astra Taylor’s book The people’s platform (2014)

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