Is the Internet broken?

Review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things

The aim of Taplin’s book is to demonstrate how Silicon Valley (both its literal companies and its figurative ideologies) has impacted – or corrupted – the creative industries. In order to do this, he tracks the origins of the internet itself, from early utopian ideals of decentralization to its colonisation by corporate America.

Who is this guy? 

Formerly a tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, Jonathan Taplin’s career has traversed many domains of the entertainment industry. He worked as a producer on films such as Mean Streets (1973) and To Die For (1995) and is now a member of the Academy. An expert in digital media entertainment, he currently sits as the Director Emeritus of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in California.

What’s it all about?

The web has become an integral part of everyday life across the globe, and Taplin argues that the global population – the very users who make it what it is – have had no say in its design or its operating methods. Instead, these decisions have been made by a very small, very powerful group of men on the American west coast who have manipulated the legal system for company gains. Each of the book’s early chapters start with a personality then – Peter Thiel, Sean Parker, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg – and tell a vaguely chronologically story of how each has poisoned in the web in some way. Taplin focuses the crux of his argument on the three biggest online players: Amazon, Facebook, and Google and identifies them as “surveillance marketers”, whose core motivation is to mine data from their users and monetize it, either by selling it on to advertisers (Google & Facebook) or by using it to induce consumers to spend more (Amazon). Taplin’s anger is palpable throughout: for him, a central issue is the relocation of revenue from creators (whether they be journalists, movie producers, authors or musicians) to owners of platforms. Thus, as you might expect, the music industry and the far-reaching impact of Napster provides a large chunk of the narrative.

The later chapters move away from the creative industries and focus on how internet companies are changing American democracy via their proliferation of fake news, collusion with government surveillance and facilitation of narcissistic personalities like Donald Trump. By and large, this has all come about because our shared ethics, or moral intelligence, have not been able to keep up with the speed of technological advancement. Thus, in his conclusion, Taplin offers some suggestions for how to fix the internet before things get any worse.

 So, what are his solutions?

Taplin has a variety of suggestions for how best to tackle the problems established throughout the book. Primarily laws around ‘fair use’ need to be redefined by the Library of Congress in order to prevent YouTube and Facebook from abusing its current rules.* Similarly, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) needs to develop much tighter regulation around ad fraud and data collection. He also acknowledges the current threat to the labour market from automation and tech companies and recommends a universal basic income (UBI), free health care, and a deep reduction in the length of the workday in order to combat it. He believes the creative industries – musicians and filmmakers – need to start thinking globally but acting locally. In other words, using the late nineteenth-century cooperative Sunkist Growers as an example, he argues that artists should run a video and audio streaming site as a non-profit cooperative, and a film distribution cooperative should be established at the same time. He believes the model of Magnum Photos has already proven this can work. Most importantly, in order to create a new America renaissance, a really good public media system is needed. Here he points to the BBC and its annual licensing fee as a pillar of best practice. The media system in the USA needs to break the grip currently held by advertising, otherwise content-creators will never truly acquire the creative freedom they need.

*Fair Use permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder. For eg. this is how local stations can broadcast clips from sports games, even if the rights to that game are owned by someone else.

Is it any good? 

Where to start! While reading this book I felt as though everything in the news was relevant – there was the EU-Google antitrust ruling, the announcement that Amazon was launching a new assault on the grocery business, the widespread analysis of a rotten corporate culture at Uber and then, this week, accusations that Spotify is manufacturing digital music from ‘fake’ bands in order to drive revenue. Rather than underlining the insight of the book, I think this serves as a reminder of the ubiquity of technology. It is engrained and intertwined in nearly every aspect of our daily habits, often without us even realising. Stories about the internet have become stories about life.

Amazon recently purchased grocery giant Whole Foods

Taplin has clearly witnessed the human impact of the web’s destructive powers: friends from The Band were forced to go back on the road in their seventies in order to pay for healthcare. While it is fascinating to read these real-life stories, it does not make for a very balanced approach to the subject matter. Taplin comes across as someone with an axe to grind, who looks back at the free-spirit of the sixties and seventies through rose-tinted glasses. It is worth remembering that the creative industries were far from perfect then either. However, what he does bring to the table is the voice of experience. One of the most dominant take-aways here is that most of Silicon Valley’s innovators were incredibly immature when they built their world-altering companies. In particular, Mark Zuckerberg was naïve about his duty of care to users. In many cases then, the arrogance of youth outweighed measured decision making. After all, there is a big difference between asking ‘can we do this’ and asking ‘should we do this’.

Mark Zuckerberg in 2005

Silicon Valley seems to be at a cross roads. It has become the new Wall Street and the prime target for a populist backlash. There is a growing awareness of the level of misogyny, increasing pressure on companies to pay their taxes, widespread condemnation of platforms’ inability to police adverse content and there seems to be a slowdown in innovation, which has been reflected in Snap.Inc’s ill-fated IPO. Everyone is poised for the next big thing but so far it hasn’t manifest itself. Taplin believes that part of the problem is that innovation has been too tech-focused; creative minds need to be given the same respect as the coders. Perhaps, this is all just part of the cyclical nature of history: there have been moments of seismic change in the past, and it has always taken industry, legislation and humanity a while to catch up and adapt. (A good comparison is with the printing press, a new technology that invented the need for an image copyright law, which was eventually brought about in the UK (centuries later) by William Hogarth in the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734).

I have heard several people (incl. Taplin) compare the leaders of technology companies to the swaggering male superheroes of the Marvel comic franchise. Both believe they are saving the world, and both want to do so without the interference of pesky governments. The general consensus seems to be that they should heed the advice of Spiderman’s wise ol’ Auntie May: with great power, comes great responsibility.

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