Theater of Cruelty

The sweat of the work

Move Fast and Break Things
Forfatter: Jonathan Taplin
Forlag: Lindhardt og Ringhof (Danmark)
The book Move Fast and Break Things draws sharp criticism of Google, Facebook and Amazon, but at the same time is partly romantic and uninhibited.


It should have been so good, but it went so wrong. The tale of the roots of the Internet often takes its starting point in the near strange rendezvous between the interests of the military and a counterculture that wanted easier access to more free information. Technological achievements combined with state aid and input from the innovative parts of the hippie culture thus formed the foundation of what we today call the Internet. But something went wrong along the way. As a result, we did not have easy access to information from all over the world in decentralized form. Instead, we got a few companies that controlled most of the centralist – yes, almost monopoly-like conditions guided by Ayn Rand's libertarian philosophy.

In the book Move Fast and Break Things Jonathan Taplin sets out to find out what went so terribly wrong.

Revenge Cruise. Taplin has a deeply interesting and diverse past as manager for Bob Dylan, film producer (among others Mean Streets and Wim Wender's films Until the End of the World) as well as media entrepreneur. He is thus a human being founded in the process of creating works of art. There is also no doubt that Taplin is in many ways out in a personal revenge against the internet mastodons. His basic point is that the big companies – and that is to say Google, Facebook and Amazon – have ruined the conditions for the content providers, which includes everything from musicians over filmmakers to journalists and writers. Taplin thus believes that art in the age of the monopoly internet is under tremendous pressure. This is due to several factors.

There is no doubt that Taplin is in many ways out in a personal revenge campaign against the internet mastodonts.

Firstly, few companies have some huge market shares in their industries. For example, Amazon holds 70 percent of the e-book market, while Facebook has 77 percent of the mobile social media market. Therefore, a content producer will be largely forced to partner with the mastodoners to penetrate.

Second, these fierce market shares as well as savvy lobbyist efforts are causing so much political power that the giga companies are exempt from the type of legislation that would otherwise taint corporate actions. Taplin believes that the state simply acts differently to the Internet mastodonts in comparison to all sorts of other industries.

And third, the big companies invest very little money in producing content themselves. This leaves them up to the users, thereby creating a culture where clicks will always be the deciding factor, both for users and for companies. Ergo, Taplin believes that these companies are breaking down the existing artistic infrastructures to create some that enable the production of something that hits the masses more easily and thereby can get clicks, more big data generated and thus sell even more and better targeted ads, which is the crucial factor for the continued growth of the mastodons.

We also fix the problem ourselves. Taplin also unfolds his argument to deal with more than just the creative artists, for whom it is a pity, according to himself. However, we are all part of the misery. "Vanity trumps the desire for privacy," says Kevin Kelly, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. For his part, Jonathan Taplin is by no means immaculate. He also uses social media and thereby submits data to be able to share holiday photos with his friends and tell about his daily chores. And this is probably a point in itself. That we can be quite critical of the new media, but that the media landscape has been arranged in such a way that you have to be extremely careful and partly stand a good distance outside the masses if you want to avoid the technology mammoths' platforms. So we happily share our data on social media, knowing that this data is at the core of the mastodons' business model. Without big data, no unique access for advertisers to target their message and thus no billion-dollar revenue for Internet companies. "If you do not pay for it, you are not the customer, but the product," as the book puts it.

I know a professor at the University of Berkeley who calls this phenomenon 'sweat of work', meaning that companies get users to deliver the content and then can harvest both the fruits of work in the form of the content, but – and this is all the more important – also can benefit from the sweat of the crop, which is all the imprints and information we continually leave behind while working for the mastodons. An almost paradoxical element of that observation is that the University of Berkeley, which otherwise has its foundation in counterculture and critical thinking, has chosen Google as the email platform for all students and staff.

"If you do not pay for it, you are not the customer, but the product."

Romance or real criticism? Taplin's book is in many ways a well-crafted vendetta written on equal parts indignation and passion. It overflows with quotes from near and far, sometimes tending the superfluous. It may seem that Taplin cannot quite stand as a guarantor of the heated argument. At the same time, he often succumbs to anecdotal tales, especially about his time as a rock manager. The idea of ​​these anecdotes is enough to situate the argument essentially of artistic feats, but they seem strangely disturbing and actually tend to take the sting out of the author's critical approach.

Nor am I sure the situation is as glaring as Taplin presents it. For example, you can find a wealth of content production from both YouTube and Amazon. Of course, one can criticize this for not having artistic merit, but that is another talk. And whether the culture in Silicon Valley is now also driven by an anti-democratic, libertarian and almost oligarchy-homage thinking is perhaps somewhat speculative. In any case, the big investor in Facebook and founder of PayPal, entrepreneur Peter Thiel, about whom Taplin has many grim things to say, recently relocated Silicon Valley in favor of Los Angeles because he believed that the culture among IT the entrepreneurs in the valley had become far too left-leaning.

Perhaps Taplin is just as legally unvarnished about the current situation and just as legally romanticizing when it comes to the old days. Nevertheless, it is an extremely relevant and thought-provoking book he has authored. A book that should provoke discussions, hopefully also in political circles.

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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