Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

Book review: Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things homes in on the human cost of the digital revolution

Jonathan Taplin's book asks : why is it that creating culture – good culture that people really want – just doesn’t pay the bills anymore? How have the filmmaker, journalist and musician become the casualties of the digital age?
A worker pushes a cart among shelves lined with goods at an Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, Germany. In the United States, Amazon accounts for 65 per cent of all new book sales. Sean Gallup / Getty Images
A worker pushes a cart among shelves lined with goods at an Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, Germany. In the United States, Amazon accounts for 65 per cent of all new book sales. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Culture is dying. At a time when more is being written, made, read and listened to than ever before, the grand human endeavour of artistic creation is in serious trouble. Something sinister is happening, says Jonathan Taplin in Move Fast and Break Things. And the reason for it is the digital revolution.

How can it be that the arrival of a digital network composed of billions of music fans has not been a boon to musicians? There are more eyeballs reading more articles than ever before, yet why do journalists struggle to make ends meet? This is the question at the heart of Taplin’s book and it is an important one: why is it that creating culture – good culture that people really want – just doesn’t pay the bills anymore? How have the filmmaker, journalist and musician become the casualties of the digital age?

Taplin has a number of threads to unravel to find the answer. The first is ideology and what the digital revolution has really been about. The internet and ideology have always gone together, and in Silicon Valley, building technology has always been more than a business and the technologists have always been more than businessmen. They are social visionaries, and the technology they have built has always been an agent of societal change, intended to rattle the status quo and realise a new kind of social order.

But what vision have they wanted to realise? The internet began, Taplin explains, with the counter-culture and humanism of the 1960s. Many of the early internet pioneers were “New Communalists”; geeks on acid who imagined the internet to free our minds. They saw that the internet would create “a realm of intimate personal power … power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Computers were “personal creativity devices” that would unlock the human mind.

But the story of cultural destruction really begins in the 1980s, when a new kind of thinking was beginning to muscle out this hippy ideal. Ayn Rand had spearheaded the rise of libertarianism that saw the world as a place where superior people, people of drive, ambition and guts were struggling against the suffocating mob. A new generation of libertarian technologists reimagined the kind of emancipation that computers would bring. They saw that computers could free individuals from government regulation and taxes. And so the internet project was “hijacked by a small group of right-wing radicals to whom the ideas of democracy and decentralisation was anathema.”

The second thread is money, as the rise of the internet has catapulted those libertarian dreamers of the 1980s into positions of spectacular economic power. Over the last 20 years, we have lived through an unprecedented concentration of wealth into a single valley in California. The biggest companies in the world are now the tech companies, and many of the richest people in the world are the tech entrepreneurs. But most importantly, the digital revolution has not just created an industry of competing services that is generally wealthy, it has created a handful of vast digital monopolies. In the United States, Amazon accounts for 65 per cent of all new book sales. Facebook, with 1.6 billion users, is already bigger than any country, but it also owns WhatsApp (1 billion), Messenger (900 million) and Instagram (400 million). And Google, the most powerful tech giant of all, dominates search, video, maps, mobile and browser.

This is the rise of “winner-take-all” economics. Gone is the functioning marketplace of different players competing for your custom. Gone also are all the dynamics that push prices down and keep people honest. The size of the networks the tech giants have and the amount of data that they collect means that, in Taplin’s eyes, they might now be seen as “natural monopolies” much like rail or water companies. And if they are, Taplin argues, we need to regulate the hell out of them.

The third thread is politics, as the combination of libertarian thinking and the political power of the tech giants have not only made regulation very difficult, but also allowed the tech giants to shape the legal landscape away from one that protects the producers of culture towards one that protects the vast monopolies that control the distribution of content. Charles and David Koch – of natural-­resources conglomerate Koch Industries – have, says Taplin, conducted a “thirty-five-year assault on our democratic process”. The end result, he says, has been the removal of the will of democratic governments (and here he really means the US) to challenge the new monopolies of the tech giants. Antitrust laws, privacy regulation, general taxation and copyright protection have all been undermined exactly when, he argues, we need them most.

Much of Taplin’s narrative, up to this point, has been covered at great length by technology commentators before him. Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion was one of the first to cry foul on the techno-­utopian assumption that the internet was making all of us more free. In Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier introduced the idea of “Siren Servers” – the biggest, most powerful machines that control the networks – to explain why we have seen the rise of winner-take-all outcomes in tech. This is now a busy area for writers and commentators, and there are thousands of studies, exposés, news articles and other material detailing the new and manifold pressures the tech giants are under. The charge sheet against the tech giants is long and Taplin doesn’t always marshal this huge pool of secondary writing in a way that makes complete sense to the reader. He is prone to jump from the topic of racism on Twitter to the “gamergate” scandal and misogyny in tech, to the shortcomings of social media for constructive political debate, the vapidity of YouTube stars and the proceeds of cyber crime in a way that can make his book feel, at times, more like a grab-bag of general grievances than anything else.

That aside, Taplin achieves something important. This book isn’t only about the technology that imperils culture, but also about why culture needs to be saved. Taplin was a tour manager for Bob Dylan and a producer for Martin Scorsese’s film Mean Streets. Woven among the lines of criticism towards the libertarians, tech companies and their political allies is a moving, deeply persuasive account of how important culture really is. Taplin writes beautifully about seeing Dylan go electric at Newport for the first time in 1965. When he writes about the Hollywood of Scorsese and Coppola in the 1970s, you wish you had been there. After reading what he says about learning the art of slowness in music one evening in Woodstock from Levon Helm, you believe him when he says: “I know brave and passionate art is worth protecting and is more than just click bait for global advertising monopolies.”

So when Taplin writes about how the vast monopolies have dismantled the “cultural infrastructure” that allows this kind of art to happen, it is with an eloquent and genuine pain and anger. Partly this dismantling is happening through the concentration of bargaining power: Amazon can push down the prices of books simply because publishers don’t have anywhere else to turn. Partly it is because enforcing copyright has become so much harder, and the tech giants, with all their political power, have been reluctant to enforce it. Partly it is because these platforms have allowed amateurs – whether writers or musicians – to create enormous amounts of culture, freely available, competing for people’s attention. But overall, the decline in revenue to the content creators, artists and publishers, is staggering. US newspaper advertising revenue has fallen from US$65.8 billion (Dh241.64bn) in 2000 to $23.6bn in 2014. For newspapers in the United Kingdom, ad spend went from $4.7bn to $2.6bn, global recorded-music revenues were $27.3bn in 2000 and dropped to $10.4bn. Home-video revenue fell from $21.6bn in 2006 to $18bn in 2014. At the same time that re­venues crash­ed across the creative industries, the income of the tech giants soared. The money is now not in produ­cing culture, but in distributing it.

At its core, this book is a deeply humanistic plea. The most powerful argument in it is not the statistics, but the example of Taplin’s friend, Helm. A singer and drummer for the Band, which brought meaning and delight to huge audiences and inspiration to generations of later musicians, Levon “just wanted to earn an honest living off the great work of a lifetime”. But he couldn’t, and after the royalties dried up, Levon was forced to continue to perform after being diagnosed with throat cancer. “Here is the human cost of the digital revolution”. The decimation of culture, of course, isn’t just ruinous for the makers of it, but for all of us. The film scene that makes you contemplate your own death, or the poem that makes you remember someone you’ve lost, these are not “content”. These are what makes us who we really are.

Carl Miller is research director at Demos, the UK-based think tank. His debut book Power is being published by William Heinemann.

Updated: May 3, 2017 04:00 AM

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