Digital Capitalism and the Platform Wars

Reluctantly cut from my paper on the Sociology of the Digital Archive: any thoughts appreciated. This is a tentative first sketch at where my current project will be leading after the ‘distraction’ and the ‘fragile movements’ phase: 

It has been frequently suggested that this digitalization represents a removal of constraint: on production, on organization, on circulation. The contents of the archive have been freed from constraints that were formerly assumed to be inevitable (Hoskins 2009: loc 575-591). But such a claim sits too easily with the aforementioned tendency to conceive of post, late, liquid or accelerated modernity in terms of the infinite vistas of possibility opening up to subjects (even if these opportunities might be coded in negative terms, as vectors through which disorientation intensifies). It also serves to obscures the political economy of the digitalized archive, something which is becoming ever more central to what has been referred to by some as digital capitalism[1. An interesting isomorphism is beginning to develop within the technology sector which, I wish to suggest, cannot be adequately understood in abstraction from the digitalization of the archive. We are seeing a winner-takes-all competitive dynamic coupled with excessive capitalization and the ability it gives to undertake vast new initiatives as well as to acquire promising start ups[2]. This leads the giants increasingly to seek to compete on every front. For instance Apple, Google and Amazon all offer online music and video services. All three produce tablet computers and the operating systems associated with them. All three offer ‘smart TV’ plug in services that are increasingly indistinguishable. Each of them is also cutting strategic deals with smaller companies, producing what Van Dijck (2013: loc 3327) describes as “a few major platform chains – microsystems vertically integrated by means of ownership, shareholder, and partnership constructions”. This creates incentives towards the ‘siloization’ of the archive, as chains seek to win competitive advantage by gaining exclusive access to popular content, inevitably on a temporary basis given that these actions incentivise content producers to negotiate new deals, leaving popular content circulating between particular closed ecoystems. In this environment, we can also seen the genesis of digitally native content producers, as services like Amazon Prime and Netflix seek to capitalize upon their position by producing prestige content which is available to their subscribers only, sometimes with significant critical success.

This emerging political economy of the (digital) archive does not only shape the distribution of ‘content’. As Archer (2014) discussed, digitalization challenges intellectual property because of its infinite reproducibility, incentivizing regimes of intellectual property that seek ‘lock down’. The vertical integration of platforms is intensifying those tendencies, as well as contributing to the insecurity of content providers who are locked out of direct revenue generation, encouraging them to lend ever greater weight to the enforcement of intellectual property regimes. This ‘war of the platforms’ is in its infancy but its unfolding seems likely to comprehensively transform the experience of the archive, as each emerging conglomerate seeks to exploit the growing growing costs of leaving a closed ecosystem to lock down a long term user base (Vogelstein 2013). Far from being an end point, our present state of digitalization represents a starting point of a broader cycle of social interaction with profound systemic ramifications for capitalism as a whole.

[1] It is widely acknowledged that digitalisation was a technological precondition for financialization and yet the former is usually considered as a feature of, rather than foundation for, the latter.