Platform Surveillance

My notes on Wood, D. M., & Monahan, T. (2019). Platform Surveillance. Surveillance & Society, 17(1/2), 1-6.

In this editorial, David Murakami Wood and Torin Monahan introduce a special issue of Surveillance & Society which considers platform capitalism from the perspective of surveillance studies. Their focus is on how “digital platforms fundamentally transform social practices and relations, recasting them as surveillant exchanges whose coordination must be technologically mediated and therefore made exploitable as data” (1). This highlights hoe surveillance is intrinsic to platforms, using the epistemic primacy they enjoy over activity taking place through them in order to “become dominant social structures in their own right, subordinating other institutions, conjuring or sedimenting social divisions and inequalities, and setting the terms upon which individuals, organizations, and governments interact” (1). They draw other institutions into their logic of surveillance, while encouraging the emerging of subjective orientations consistent with and supportive of that logic. They argue that the centrality of surveillance to platforms mean that “surveillance studies is uniquely positioned to investigate and theorize these phenomena” (2).

Reflecting on the slipperiness of the term ‘platform’, which has transmuted from a precise computer science term to a pervasive concept in only a few years, they suggest it is “not just a particular kind of organizational form associated with the tech industry and social media, but an entirely new mode of governance, perhaps an authentic political economic descriptor of the structure of the information age” (2). In computing “it is the foundation upon which other computing processes are built, or the environment within which such processes run” (2) which can encompass hardware, operating system and higher level processes within other applications can run. This can computing use spawned a broader tech use in which services like social media are seen as platforms, in that they “form the basis for other activities, which can be experienced and described from the individual user perspective as something with minimal technical knowledge and input” (2). Then there is what Wood and Monahan describe as a maximalist approach in which ‘platform’ is used was a metaphor for infrastructural operations across multiple arenas, as in the case of someone like Bratton who sees the platform as a replacement for corporation and nation state. They summarise the classical sense of infrastructure on pg 3:

Infrastructures establish contexts for practice. They enable, support, and afford certain practices while necessarily disabling, eroding, and resisting others. Whereas classically, one might envision infrastructures as the various forms of hardware that sustain life—the pipes, roads, electrical lines, and communication grids that form the backdrop of modern existence—they manifest analytically as relational properties apprehended through use (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Larkin 2013) or failure (Bowker and Star 1999; Graham and Thrift 2007). Infrastructures are also necessarily political in their differential allocation of resources and services and in their establishment of regimes of capital and violence (Cowen 2014; Parks and Starosielski 2015).

In this sense, we can say that “digital platforms are already becoming infrastructural in their properties and effects” (3). The big tech firms are increasingly involved in undersea cabling operations as an example of infrastructure in the classical sense. But scale of operation on some digital platforms rivals that of existing public or private infrastructure, breaking down any sense of a clear distinction between them. If I understand correctly, their point is to ask how something like Facebook could be regards as non-infrastructural while something like the cellular network would be infrastructural. If it’s just a matter of how many people are on the grid and how pervasive it is, the biggest digital platforms are clearly becoming infrastructural. But this reflects a wider ambiguity, which I think cuts through this literature, concerning whether platforms are a type of infrastructure, the emerging infrastructure will take or something analogous to but different from infrastructure.

But this still raises the question of what the systemic implications are of the proliferation of platforms. Is this the next stage of capitalism or possibly something beyond it? Is it something which deviates from the logic of capitalism or something which expresses its next stage? Surveillance capitalism is just one of “an increasing multitude of terms for a hydra-headed phenomenon that also includes the information economy, affective capitalism, the gig economy, the sharing economy, and many more” (4). They argue that the commodification of ‘behavioural exhaust’ described by Zuboff might be reaching its peak given the growing political and regulatory backlash against it. They suggest her “inevitable path to a Skinnerian society of rational control” in which datafication consumes life itself lacks an economic rationality and that “what appears to be emerging is a battle for the ‘payment space’ and specifically how micropayments might be made properly functional in both online and offline spaces” (4). The partnership between Microsoft and MasterCard suggests a new infrastructure of persistent identification without the ubiquitous datamining and advertising which constitutes the current business model of platforms. Recognising this gap between technical infrastructure and business model is important if we are to see the opportunities which become apparent during such a stage of transition. As they write, “The platform could be just another differently shaped vessel for capital accumulation, or it could be a way of finally breaking the alignment of the state and nation and reorienting more ineluctably with capital through pervasive surveillance and the persistent manipulation of data, in an entirely new form of governmentality”. But there are more hopeful possibilities which are opened up by the same transition which we must “see and seize” (5).

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