The Internet is a Mirror: An Interview With Astra Taylor

by Sara Black McCulloch

People line up to cast their votes outside polling station in Majuli, a large river island in Brahmaputra river

Once, someone tweeted that the Internet was garbage, and I retweeted it. Twitter was feeling like a huge circle jerk. Google was refining that search personalization algorithm, but Gmail wasn’t sending my emails. OkCupid sent me an email with a picture of a guinea pig with an arrow connecting a “YOU” to it. And I quit Facebook over a year ago, so that my feelings wouldn’t be toyed with or updated.

Astra Taylor is a multi-hyphenate: documentary filmmaker (Examined Life, Zizek!), writer (The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age), and activist (The Rolling Jubilee campaign) doesn’t so much think that the Internet is garbage, but rather that it could be more democratic. She was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Doc Conference, where she spoke about how the Internet is affecting documentary filmmakers. We sat down together to discuss her book, women on the Internet, and drinking from the fire hose of social media.

Sara: You’re here discussing film distribution models in the digital age. Last time you were at the festival, you were here with your film Examined Life. Not too long after, you found your film online. In your book, you discuss how some people get to protect their work and others have to deal with it being online for free. What does this mean for an artist in terms of copyright and in terms of getting your work out there?

Astra: That was a flashpoint in the beginning stages of this debate with Napster and the Metallica guys coming down against it, and it seemed very obviously polarized: there were downloaders and there were the big artists. The situation has always been more complicated than that because Napster was always a commercial, advertise-funded business so it wasn’t a more equitable model for musicians — it was great for listeners. The conversation got stuck, frozen in time.

After Examined Life came out, I was going to these conferences on the future of media and Web 2.0; looking back, I was wondering why I gravitated to them. I think it was because, at that moment in 2009, a lot of political hope was being put into the digital sphere. It was the height of that Web 2.0 utopianism. I vividly remember going to one conference and it was right when Iran’s Twitter revolution was happening. It was this amazing thing that everyone had been waiting for — political action and cultural exchange. But if you listened, you would always hear these hackneyed stories about musicians being freed from record labels and the Napsterization of higher ed or the Napsterization of this or the Napsterization of that, and you would never see a musician on the stage. Or you’d hear about how Radiohead had released their music for free — but of course they backtracked and then stopped doing that. So it was very hackneyed anecdotes without a lot of complexity. Complexity was something, it seemed, that had to be brought to the table.

As a documentary filmmaker, I think I’m positioned to thoughtfully weigh in on the copyright debate. Documentary filmmakers don’t have the illusion that they’re “Artists,” creating the essence of what it is they’re communicating, because we’re gleaners. We glean reality and we depend on other people’s footage, so we really depend on fair use and fair dealing.

At the same time, we have to have some rights to our finished products, because if we didn’t, then these huge distribution platforms would never have to give anything back. So we’re in that middle zone of being licensers and licensees and not being the copyright maximalists that were the Metallicas or the RIAAs. We’re not being these free culture/open culture enthusiasts who often, when you engage them in conversation — which I did; I actually became friends with lots of them — when you actually dug in and talked to them about it, they would finally just say “Well, you know, advertising-supported media is the future — that’s the way that things can be free. (We have free television, free commercial radio…) And that was just where I was like, You’re insane.

As for ad collaborations: This is not an unequivocally progressive movement, this is something that is really embedded in the tech community, which is rooted in Silicon Valley, which has this very free-market libertarian ethos, and that’s why they use vague terminology like “open culture.” When you investigate the word open, it doesn’t actually mean anything! It’s just a marketing buzzword.

Sara: Is that the general attitude now — that because something is on the Internet or made with disposable technology, it’s considered ephemeral — and we, in turn, value it less?

Astra: It’s a complicated question because — and I only tackle it briefly in a footnote in the book — there’s kind of a paradox: things we do on the Internet could technically follow us forever. You never know when a bad photo is going to haunt you, you could turn out to be one of those teachers who are punished because they were photographed at a barbecue having a drink or something. There’s a sense that everything out there could linger forever. On the other hand, the reality is that digital media is really ephemeral, and there have been hundreds — and I have the statistics in the footnote — but hundreds of new video mediums. All these new codec…

Sara: Polaroid…

Astra: Yeah! And not everything is so interoperable, so just because you’re shooting on some digital video camera today doesn’t mean that your disc media or hard drive will be readable. It’s actually harder; it takes so much more work to archive digital media because you have to have the hardware and software that will read it. So, real digital archivists — you go into their space and they can have like Amigas and the Mac computer that you would laugh at someone for having, they have all these tools — DVCAM decks that I used to edit my Zizek! film (2005), which were cutting edge.

Now everything is on little cards. I think that’s part of it — on the one hand, we assume we can store things, that there’s infinite space and that it’ll last, but actually, it will become obsolete much faster. And then you have these films archives, they’re in a place and, if you have the right equipment, you can look at 16mm film and it’s a more lasting medium. It actually does make working with more recent archival footage more of a challenge because you expect it to stay up there.

I even think about that as a writer, too, because we like to embed links now, but a huge percentage of links go dead in two or three years. So in our articles — instead of explaining what we’re trying to explain, we just link and assume — it’s not going to make any sense in a couple of years! Those links are not going to work. So I have actually stopped writing like that. If I write an essay, it has to make sense on its own terms, it can’t depend on people following the links, because the links might not work. We’re going to be writing this gibberish…like our argument is going to be bolstered by what? A totally dead link.

Sara: So what happens in terms of longevity? Not just for an essay you’re writing, but a career, a work of art, or a project?

Astra: Part of my argument is that these problems are from the old media model, it’s just intensified online. The Internet invented “click bait,” but it’s an interactive version of whatever you’d see on newspaper stands. So that idea of timeliness…you have this medium where you shouldn’t be beholden to the news peg, where you also have infinite space on a webpage and you can scroll forever, and yet, articles are getting shorter and shorter. And again, it’s because the business model hasn’t been adapted that much. There are countervailing tendencies, so a lot of these platforms do privilege timeliness and chronology. Sometimes, with Facebook, things will surface, but it’s never that old…it’ll be from a year ago. But with Netflix or even music platforms — they do allow you to see movies that have just left your local theatre. There are counterexamples, but I think they go against the grain.

The tendency is towards timeliness. And it’s tricky. I mean, I think my book will be completely outdated in a couple of years. Sometimes you just need to say that this is timely…I’m weighing in at this point. My next project will be…I’m going back. I’m not drinking from the fire hose of social media ever again.

Sara: In your book, you bring up unpaid internships and how this coincides with how a lot of the people who were developing the hardware and software of the Internet were not getting paid to innovate. This somehow justified not paying their employees properly, or at all.

Astra: Yeah. It’s part of the ideology of neoliberalism, which is a world in which all responsibility and all risk and all possible reward is shifted to the individual, because if you make your billions, they’re not going to tax you very much, so you get your reward. I was surprised to hear these people talking about how great it is that people can be amateurs and do all of this unpaid work for the love of it when they themselves were corporate consultants. There was just this amazing hypocrisy there.

But you’re right, it ties into this startup culture where it’s like you work 80 hours a week for The Big Payoff. But, I think the thing is, as artists and journalists — I’m not working for The Big Payoff! I’m working to just barely survive so that I can keep doing something that I think is socially valuable. I’m not…there isn’t the giant pot at the end of the rainbow.

That gulf between the winners and losers is being amplified and it’s increasingly delusional to bet on it anyway. So, to me, the interesting background of it is how everything is our responsibility as individuals, so yes, you’re supposed to pay for your own education and go into debt for that, then work a ton for free and build your own personal brand — and by the way, you should be saving to pay for your own health care! It’s part of this larger nightmare that we’re all stuck in. And artists are tongue-tied because they’re accused of “doing it for the money.” And then you say, “Well, no, there is no money.”

The problem with our society is that people are getting paid to do socially destructive shit and people who do socially valuable work fall further and further into debt and that’s a social arrangement and the world doesn’t have to be that way. For me, I’m happy for artists to get paid. I think that hedge fund managers who are betting on red-lined mortgages, for example — they should not get paid.

Sara: But those people can fail, too. White, privileged men usually have the freedom to fail.

Astra: My friend made a great observation — that there’s just this amazing white privilege in second chances. She underscored that double standard by framing it as these men getting by on their looks.

Sara: But there are women calling out white male privilege online. People are creating spaces to discuss this.

Astra: The thing is, human beings are creative and we’re going to carve out a space to communicate and push back, whatever circumstances we’re in. There are moments of humanity in the most dire of circumstances, but the platform isn’t there to protect the interests of marginalized voices and is, in fact, shaped in a lot of ways that don’t actually help their cause. I have also seen more and more complaints about the lack of women sourced in writing. Freelance journalists have also complained about their tweets being used as reporting by people who get paid. And then people start saying “Well, I’m not going to tweet what I’m seeing anymore because I’m getting ripped off.”

Sara: In terms of language and these buzzwords that are used to describe the Internet, I wanted to know what you thought of the word “Like” as a signifier of positive feedback and attention.

Astra: It’s weird because it was a word, that a few years ago, we considered to be polluting our language and we made it more of a marquee of like, a descriptor — of LIKE, a descriptor! [laughter] It was already a word that was polluting speech.

I also think, for everybody, it creates an element of social awkwardness when there’s something shared on social media that liking is the totally inappropriate response to. We all hit that everyday — where you’re like, I really don’t like this at all, this is terrible news, and now I have to use my brain and comment on this instead. Sometimes I just want my sense of discomfort to be automated.

In terms of the feedback loop it creates, there is this sort of relentless positivity. There was a study a few years back that showed that people tend to show things that provoke awe or outrage. Certainly, it limits our communication.

Sara: What did you think about the Facebook and OKCupid social experiments?

Astra: This is just the extent of the research we heard about, but it is interesting that we actually got to know about it. We know they’re doing things behind the scenes, but at what point? Is it in terms of physical safety and dating; then emotional safety, in terms of trying to create an emotional scenario where people are exposed to negative feedback that was proven to affect their mood? It’s crazy. What is amazing to me is how few people worry about this.

One thing in the documentary world is that there was this announcement of metrics to determine what films are popular and a lot of it depends on your social media metrics. It’s total ignorance of how much these platforms are games and the weird stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. We know the happy/sad emotional contagion experiment, so what if you’re making a really sad documentary and you’re throttled by Facebook? Do we as a community want to institutionalize these…measurements of what success is when they’re so twisted? But it’s this old media model coming back with a vengeance: we had Nielsen ratings (SoundScan, BookScan). Now it’s so much more granular. It’s just amazing to me that there was this period where people were like “We’re breaking free of all that!” And now we’re living that as individuals.

Sara: Right. OkCupid wanted to test the strength of their algorithm — so they could essentially provide a better service. But, in order for OkCupid to keep going, they would need people to return to the site, no? So, for some reason, I was thinking that that they’re testing this algorithm to eventually mess with the success rate, because they need to provide the promise of a connection or a match.

Astra: Well, OkCupid seems to privilege sameness and overlap. I mean, how does an algorithm capture those magical points of difference and attraction, you know? But also, people still have to meet in person and suss each other out.

But the whole thing about these algorithms and how much power we want to give them…there was a speech given by a woman from Netflix, and she did a good job of articulating all of the positive things about their personalization algorithm, which is that it can surface things you wouldn’t otherwise find, it can service older things so they can have a longer life, but ultimately it has to be engineered to give you more of what you like, or the business model won’t work. It can’t be engineered to throw risk at you and, unlike the OkCupid scenario, where there is a real, ethical argument against throwing some guy who’s the polar opposite to you, there could be an argument for introducing people to artistic creations that are radically different. But, if Netflix does that too much, then people will be frustrated with the service and won’t use it, so it really depends on the context. It was interesting, though — she gave the completely positive “Why personalization algorithms are great.” And I couldn’t discount it entirely.

Sara: I fact check and I use Google. And sometimes, even after I have cleared my history (so that I can find the better sources) I still get the most unreliable ones. I have to go to the tenth page before I find what I’m looking for.

Astra: That kind of media literacy is something we need, too — people need to learn about it because most of us don’t go past the first page. You’re seeing the way the algorithm is personalizing your response, but in a way that you don’t want. You’re saying “I’m not looking for the best coffee shop, I’m putting on a different consciousness and I’m being a fact checker.”

Sara: It’s like I can’t have these two, separate identities.

Astra: Yeah! I’ve never really heard anyone really articulate that.

Sara: Does this happen to you?

Astra: I’ve never really noticed it! But that’s interesting — we all have multiple identities, even under our own name, we’re not necessarily ashamed of them and the searches. Google is pushing us to be our own date book. Like, Google knows you’re going to work today, so it’ll tell you where to stop to pick up coffee along the way. And it’s a very banal concept of the self. And Google Scholar is hidden further and further in the background, so it’s interesting.

Sara: You have argued how all forms of communication promised to liberate us, but they instead amplify inequities. They also facilitate discrimination.

Astra: I think one way I’ve been framing this in my mind is how these new technologies have been eroding consumer protection and civil rights progress. Consumer protection is a really new thing in the United States; people worked really hard so that there were questions that couldn’t be asked on a loan application. Or civil rights — that you can’t discriminate against prospective employees. And feminists fought to have protections in the workplace so they could be harassed. Or, there was a century of labor organizing and workers’ rights. So these are progressive strongholds that I don’t think people have totally gotten their minds around how the Internet challenges all these fronts. Labor is maybe the most visible example.

The consumer protection stuff is fascinating, because in an economy that is greatly unequal, there are things that can amplify that inequality. Denying poor people credit or making them pay high interest rates. So when there are all these services online that boast about the fact that they can read people’s social media profiles and then say “Oh you’re a lending risk” because they can infer things they can’t legally ask on the application. So they can infer that you’re a single mother, for instance, and then they can discriminate without you knowing about it. So this is a huge setback and something that isn’t really discussed.

I’m not the one who originally made this argument, but scholars like Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks, when they talked about harassment online — you can make the analogy back to the counterargument to workplace harassment: a guy can say what he wants to say to you because it’s his free speech. They had to work so hard to change that conception, and now we’re having that conversation over again as though the initial one never happened. There was this fantasy with the Internet, that it was beyond regulation and it was this magical space, so we don’t have to worry about those old fights — workers’ rights, women’s rights, consumer protections, for privacy for the poor. But no, we do and we’ve just wasted a lot of time.

Sara: I mean, so many women are having those debates every single day on Twitter.

Astra: It’s fascinating how those dynamics have carried over. You yourself can craft your personal Twitter feed so that you’re seeing the most diverse, brilliant people, but in general, research shows that even women are more likely to follow men and it brings up these issues of who’s voices get to be heard. And whose voices are funded.

And women who are incessantly harassed are essentially told “Don’t wear a short skirt,” only it’s “Don’t use the Internet.” I mention in my book — how a study showed that women get 25 times the harassing messages that men get and the academic’s advice was “Maybe you should tell your daughters to use a boy’s name.” And I just thought that was so sad that we can’t even be women on the Internet.

I think there are still real challenges about how you can remedy that. On the one hand, there is a lot of debate on Twitter about what to do about trolls and harassment, but the point is, we need all of those things that encourage equity at the social level. The Internet is a mirror and, in a way, an amplifier of inequalities. We need to go back to basics and it’s like, how do you make the world more equal?

This is where the word “open” is so annoying and misleading, because we know that in an open space, people who throw their hats into the ring tend to be people who are very empowered; they tend to be guys; they tend to be white people; they tend to be people with resources. You need to create on-ramps and you need to invite other voices, you can’t just expect them to show up in equal numbers.

Sara: Absolutely. I wonder sometimes what would happen if you were dealing with an illness and tweeted about it or wrote about it as you were just applying for medical insurance. What if that were used against you?

Astra: The big data stuff is crazy because there is so much happening with our information that we haven’t seen and I have felt reluctant — like, should people talk about illnesses online? On the one hand, all these Internet boosters are like “Wow, it’s magic, you can have these communities that can discuss illness,” but then it’s like, what you just said — well, what if this person isn’t insured? That’s used against them. We haven’t fully accounted for that power imbalance and that’s why I was so annoyed that people who just see the community and the conversations and not the larger power structures…it’s a boon to insurers, it’s a boon to employers who spy on their employees and discriminate.

It’s definitely an interesting moment and there are people who are thinking about all this. People are also thinking about what sort of privacy protections would inhibit these data brokers from collecting and using this information. There’s definitely not enough attention to it.

In my book, I trickily avoid proposing how I would organize every social media platform. I’m simply trying to make the point that they’re not neutral right now, and it’s not good enough to say (with the Mute button) “Oh, I don’t want the paternalism of someone enforcing diversity on me or putting something I should hear in front of my face” because the thing is, it’s already paternalistic, it’s already all these corporations already there using it as an advertising platform. So why don’t we think about what a more publically accountable model would be. It would be an interesting thing to have people brainstorm.

Sara: Have people been sharing any ideas with you? Because it seems as though the conversations tend to center around regulation, and not finding ways for more voices to be heard.

Astra: No! It’s so at odds with the entire model right now. I can see it happening in a more negative way — like the things that Facebook can’t do and regulating against emotional manipulation and not showing things to children. But a really proactive, public discussion about what a democratic, accountable algorithm is? I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything written about that.

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.