What I thought of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin

When Jon Taplin appeared on ABC’s Nightline a couple of months ago I had a string of recommendations to engage with his work – notably from my mum and Joe Hutton – as well as colleagues at UWA. After reading his latest book “Move fast and break things” I understand why.

Taplin explores the effect of digital monopolies on cultural production throughout the book. Some of the arguments were painfully familiar to me; I’ve also written about ‘The big data public and its problems’ in an upcoming issue of New Media and Society. My argument being that the network benefits of sharing one particular system (Google, Amazon, Facebook) actually creates a tendency towards homogenisation and the loss of difference.

Taplin explores this phenomenon through music – outlining how the prevalence of YouTube as a music streaming service has eroded regional and stylistic differences in musical styles. But where Taplin really added to my understanding of the digital media ‘ecology’ was in the description of how the internet behemoths act as monopsony – creating a market situation where there is only one ‘buyer’ of cultural goods – specifically YouTube for music, Facebook for news, Google for information and Amazon for books.  By being the only place where artists can effectively sell their material online, these vendors can issue demands about pricing and distribution that are essentially noncompetitive and unfair to the artists… What this means is that unless you’re at the very top of your game (whatever that game is) it is becoming harder and harder to survive through producing things.

Taplin does a great job of exploring the libertarian philosophical underpinnings of these industries and also equating what is going on in the digital world to the increasing economic stratification within late industrial economies. In this world you’re either flourishing because you’re riding the tech wave and are either enjoying or employing a digital monopoly or you’re sidelined and becoming increasingly powerless.

The book is not without its weaknesses, Taplin paints an overly rosy picture of the A&R culture of music labels and it’s clear that he is writing from a position where – as a producer of cultural commodities – he has been undercut by digital tools.

However, his intimate experience of seeing his friends, colleagues and family struggle in the new media world adds passion to his writing. More importantly, his research into how Google has infiltrated the upper echelons of the US democratic system is really illuminating. He also points out how ineffective the judiciary and legislature has been in trying to curtail the noncompetitive practices of these digital giants.

He presents a re-decentralised, local and competitive vision of a better digital future, which I also feel has to be the way forward. However, he doesn’t really outline how we would get there, with some of his ideas seeming to be based upon the collective will to disengage with the ‘masses’.

I feel the problem with this optimism is that we are all too concerned with what ‘everyone else’ is thinking to have the will to break away from that and seek more local and subjective experiences. However, I do think these local and subjective experiences are still, actually, more rewarding, so maybe that’s the field that digital media can open up.

TL;DR It was a fascinating book and well worth a read.

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