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Putting agents, ethics and politics at the heart of our account of platform capitalism

Notes for week 4 of the CPGJ Platform Capitalism Reading Group

I thought this short talk by danah boyd was really powerful in linking the utopian dreams of internet radicals to the anxieties and outcomes of work. Framing the future of work in terms of automation, as if that says everything which is needed to be said, obscures “the broader anxiety about identities that’s shaping both technology and work”. It’s important we reclaim this a focus of our analysis because people who can no longer “find their identity through their working environment” and realise they are in a situation “where institutions and information intermediaries no longer have their back” will not stand inertly as the rug is pulled out from beneath their feet. Their responses may be self-destructive (the opioid crisis), socially destructive (religious extremism) or socially transformational (activism). However it’s important to recognise how the activism through which people find this meaning might come to be destructive (and disruptive) in turn:

People often find themselves by engaging with others through collective action, but collective action isn’t always productive. Consider this in light of the broader conversation about media manipulation: for those who have grown up gaming, running a raid on America’s political establishment is thrilling. It’s exhilarating to game the media to say ridiculous things. Hacking the attention economy produces a rush. It doesn’t matter whether or not you memed the president into being if you believe you did. It doesn’t even matter if your comrades were foreign agents with a much darker agenda.

These people are responding to an environment which looks the way it does because of a past activism, intended to “create a public that was more broadly accessible, but ended up enabling a new wave of corrosive populism to take hold”. These people wants to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Platform capitalism was “birthed out of idealism” yet became something profoundly different, now “emblematic of corrosive neoliberalism and libertarianism run amok”. Early adopters saw themselves as marginal (“geeks, freaks, and queers”) and “turned to technology to build solidarity and feel less alone”. As boyd observes, it wasn’t so long ago that this utopianism seemed tenable to many,

A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

What hath we wrought?

I thought this talk setup questions rather than answered them. How do the cultural frames promulgated by technologists lock in the outcomes their innovations have made possible? How do we politicise technology in a way that recognises the ever-present possibility of corruption and abuse? How can we ensure technologists take responsibility for what they produce? Can the instinct to disrupt the status quo through technology take a positive form or should the lesson of the last couple of decades be that this will inevitably lead us to dark places? The talk also does something foundational to how I approach platform capitalism: it brings the agents back in without losing the focus on the technology.

Categories: Philosophy of Technology The Political Economy of Digital Capitalism Thinking

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