Friday, May 02, 2014

Crowdfunding asTruly Democratic Decision-Making

Bookforum reviews The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. With a title like that, you would think this would be a celebration of things like Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. However, this review makes it seem that it's more of a complaint that crowdfunding could replace things like the National Endowment for the Arts (and for the Humanities):
A central argument in Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is that Web-enabled innovations like crowdfunding make for wonderful add-ons to, but very poor substitutes for, existing cultural institutions.

Taylor argues for what she terms "cultural democracy," which seems to not be democracy per se, but rather central government spending on the arts. There is a huge difference between the two, which Taylor seems to not understand.

For example:
A good example of cultural democracy in action is France’s Lang law, which seeks to protect small bookstores from chains and online retailers like Amazon by banning the discounting of books.

Now, can someone please explain to me how it is that banning the discounting of books -- which would make books more affordable for poor people to buy -- makes culture more democratic? It doesn't. Rather, it cuts off a large number of people from buying books by making books less affordable. Culture is not democratized; rather, a few businesses are protected at the expense of everyone else -- and the culture.

Now, the reviewer does ask a rather pertinent question. I would include myself in the "some", given the example given:
what does it mean to democratize culture? To some, it means getting rid of gatekeepers such as the National Endowment for the Arts and replacing them with some kind of direct democracy, in which citizens can simply cast their votes for or against particular films or books.

I would hardly get rid of all gatekeepers. There are roles for journals, magazines, publishing houses, etc. and their editors (and galleries, etc. for the arts). But when it comes to funding, it seems clear to me that direct funding of works you would like to see made is indeed more democratic than having a government-run gatekeeper.
But this is definitely not how Taylor sees it. “Democratizing culture,” she writes, “means choosing, as a society, to invest in work that is not obviously popular or marketable or easy to understand. It means supporting diverse populations to devote themselves to critical, creative work and then elevating their efforts so they can compete on a platform that is anything but equal.”

What makes Taylor think that "society" is ever going to want to invest in works not obviously popular or marketable or easy to understand? Think about it. Somehow all of the individuals of society don't want your work that is not popular, marketable, or easy to understand, but when they are collectivized into "society," they suddenly have the insight and wisdom to not only do so, but to pick those works that will stand the test of time. This is nonsense on stilts. Government "experts" are not democratic. Government experts are oligarchic. Aristocratic, at best (and more typically, the worst get on top). And those government experts are not even democratically elected. They are appointed. And the only one appointed is the top person, who is more of a figurehead, while the people making the actual decisions are neither elected nor appointed by an elected official. In other words, there is nothing even remotely democratic about the NEA or NEH. More, picking works that the majority would not pick is also not democratic, but is outright anti-democratic. If you want to defend the existence of the NEA and/or NEH, "democracy" is about the silliest approach one can take.

Of course, I suspect that Taylor is like altogether too many people nowadays, who call "democratic" any outcome with which they agree. That is a perversion of democracy. But that is another topic.

The real problem is that Taylor does not seem to understand that crowdfunding is much more likely to fund works not obviously popular, marketable, or easy to understand. You don't have to have a majority vote to get funded; you need a small minority who believe in your project enough to put up money for it to get funded. It is much more likely that your odd project will find a few people who want to see that odd project brought to life than it is that your odd project will get the attention of a bureaucrat off in Washington, D.C. This makes crowdfunding a far more democratic way of doing things.
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