To frame the commercialisation of space as being somehow related to ‘platform capitalism’ risks misunderstanding. It is certainly the case that Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, owes his wealth to Amazon but this has become a platform over time rather than being founded as one. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, owes his early success to PayPal, a finance platform which was purchased at great expense by a peer-to-peer commerce platform, but he is far from the quintessential platform capitalist. Meanwhile, there are other players in the commercial space industry, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and brand-for-hire Richard Branson, who have little to do with what we talk about when we use a term like platform capitalism.

Therefore what I mean when I talk about the interplanetary horizons of platform capitalism is not the commercial history of the founders of these companies, though they have accumulated their wealth over the period where platforms have become ubiquitous and tech firms have become the most highly valued commercial entities on the planet. This has certainly facilitated their development, with Bezos largely self-financing his company until recently and Musk cross-fertilising his reputation and leveraging the Silicon Valley cult of the founder to win attention, overcome incumbents and force his way into the lucrative field of state contracts. But we miss what is most interesting about the commercialisation of space if we focus exclusively on these figures.

What interests me is how the platform, as an operable business model but also a heuristic working analogically to collapse the vast array of future opportunities into specifiable strategies, frames the new phase of space travel we are beginning to enter into. This is something Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen explicitly invokes on pg 266-267 of Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons:

Allen also saw parallels between the space frontier and the Internet. “When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” he said. “That’s the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient, and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.… “Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO [low Earth orbit] holds similar revolutionary potential.”

The same case is made by Jeff Bezos is in terms of infrastructure. These firms are building the infrastructure which make commercial innovation in space feasible, creating facilitates and crafting pipelines which other players will be able to use. The ambition here is vast, seeking to save capitalism from itself by moving it into space. For Musk, hope lies with Mars and the extension of technological civilisation there to move beyond the confines of a dying earth. For Bezos, we must move industry beyond Earth and preserve our habitat as the place to live while commerce, mining and manufacturing expand outwards to the stars. There is a civilisational vision in both cases, necessary to recognise even if we don’t take it seriously.

It is easy to dismiss this as hubris, the outsized dreams of billionaires with too few restraints on how they spend their vast wealth. It is perhaps more fair, even if inaccurate, if we see it as an ideological front to cover expansion into the largest area of state spending which until recently remained untouched by private commerce. But I’m increasingly convinced there’s more going on here than either explanation can recognise. Platform capitalism has interplanetary horizons which we should take seriously because they make a difference, even if they prove logistically or technologically unfeasible in the longer term. This is the frontier of how digital elites think about capitalism and its future, liable to exercise an enormous influence upon our collective world in which these figures have near untrammelled power.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, presents the fascinating history through which avowed cultural radicals of the 1960s came to generate the present day dogmas of working culture under digital capitalism. In the last week, I’ve written about this in terms of the digital nomad and the digital hipster. These cultural forms are, as Turner puts it on loc 3846, “libertarian nostrums” which “can transform a series of personal losses-of time with family and neighbors, of connection to one’s body and one’s community-into a soothing narrative with which they can rationalize the limits of their own choices”.

What in reality is “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier” (loc 3838) is rationalised as a mode of living freely, living passionately and living openly. One congratulates oneself for resisting integration into the cold, mechanical life-denying system while in reality being integrated into that system in a manner which is, arguably, more comprehensive.

He makes a crucial point on loc 3838-3846 about this nomadic mode of integration. This integration is comprehensive in its scope, with ‘personal life’ constantly under threat from ‘working life’ in a way which was not the case with the careful balance of the bourgeois 9-5. Every facet of life risks being subsumed under one’s (passionate) work. But this is accentuated by the tendency of work to squeeze out what Archer and Donati call relational goods. The form of life of the digital nomad too often precludes the mundanity of everyday involvements which generate relational goods, bonds with others that produce sources of value independent of those of organisations and capital. There is not a necessary feature of freelance labour, as much as it a certain self-articulation and mode of accounting for this condition of labour: the (relative) temporal autonomy which many enjoy could facilitate a very different relationship to the social order. From loc 3838-3846:

It may in fact result in every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine chine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier. Furthermore, it may cut individual workers off from participating in local cal communities that might otherwise mitigate these effects. To stay employed, Ullman and workers like her must move from node to node within the network of sites where computers and software are manufactured and used, and in order to pick up leads for new work, they must stay in touch with one another. As a result, programmers and others often find themselves selves living in a social and physical landscape populated principally by people like themselves. To succeed within that landscape, they must often turn their attention away from another, parallel landscape: the landscape of local, material things, of town boards and PTA meetings, of embodied participation ticipation in civic life. They must declare and maintain an allegiance to their own professional network, to its sites and technologies. And they must carry with them a handful of rules that Ullman trumpets with more than a little sarcasm: `Just live by your wits and expect everyone else to do the same. Carry no dead wood. Live free or die. Yeah, surely, you can only rely on yourself.”

The reality underlying the ideals of the digital nomad and the digital hipster is the digital monad. If we treat these ideals too seriously, working life under digital capitalism eats away at our independent sources of esteem and value, leaving us with no locus of fulfilment other than work. The more we invest ourselves in working life, the harder it becomes to imagine a life which is not centred around work.

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.

In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis recounts a meeting with Larry Summer which took place in April 2015. Only months into his tenure as Finance Minister, he looked to this architect of the neoliberal world order for support as hostilities with European leaders over Greece’s fiscal future rapidly intensified. Coming straight from a meeting at the IMF in Washington, Varoufakis was met with an immediate warning from Summers that he had “made a big mistake”. This began a long conversation which ended with a fascinating warning. From loc 1050:

Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me. 

‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’

When reading of this exchange in a review of the memoir, I immediately thought back to a story Elizabeth Warren had told about an encounter with Summers in a Washington curry restaurant early in her move from academia to politics. Upon purchasing Varoufakis’s book, I found that I wasn’t the only person to notice this parallel and be fascinated by it. As he recounts in an end note to the book:

A few months after I had resigned the ministry, my good friend and academic colleague Tony Aspromourgos, upon hearing about my exchanges with Larry Summers, confirmed my suspicion when he sent me this quotation from Senator Elizabeth Warren, documented in 2014: 

Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice … He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People –powerful people –listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticize other insiders. I had been warned. John Cassidy (2014), ‘Elizabeth Warren’s Moment’, New York Review of Books, Vol. 61 (no. 9), 22/ 5–4/ 6/ 14, pp. 4–8.

Could this be seen as the professional socialisation of technocratic elites? Does Summers engage in a particularly practiced and performative example of something which takes a cruder form elsewhere? Does he particularly focus on those like Varoufakis and Warren who have moved from the academy to politics? As he reflects on loc 156, the technocratic oath is something which transcends agreements of strategy and analysis:

We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.

One of the arguments which pervades Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, concerns the materiality of digital labour. As someone whose back and neck start to ache if I spend too much time at a computer, I’ve always found the tendency to assume there is something mysteriously immaterial about using computers to be rather absurd. But there’s more to Scholz’s argument then this generic tendency to fail to recognise the embodied character of digital engagement. From Loc 4103

It’s worth remembering that whether a worker toils in an Amazon warehouse or works for crowdSPRING, her body will get tired and hungry. She’ll have to take care of car payments, medical bills for her children, and student debts, not to mention saving for retirement. Digital work makes the body of the worker invisible but no less real or expendable.

It strikes me that what we are talking about here is the epistemic fallacy: taking what we know to exhaust what is. The mediation involved in digital labour  impedes or entirely prevents knowledge of the material circumstances of the worker. The disaggregation and workflows facilitated by data infrastructures similarly obscure knowledge of the many workers whose efforts combine, in enormously complex way, to produce discernible outcomes. The political economy and social-technical infrastructure of digital labour is certainly complex, but it’s nonetheless useful to recognise the underlying epistemological issue at work here.

One of the things that I liked about Platform Capitalism, by Nick Srineck, was its concern to avoid analysing the tech sector as sui generis. By situating it in social and economic history, we are left with a much richer account of where it came from, why it is the way it is and where it is going. The myth of exceptionalism concerning technology militates against this, as the protagonists of grand disruptive projects don’t take kindly to being regarded as mundane organisations driven by environmental constraints and enablements like all others. 

The consequences of this exceptionalism aren’t just analytical though. Exceptionalism licenses a view of the digital economy as disembedded, obscuring the manifold ways in which it is dependent on the wider context. This section from Uberpaid and Underworked, by Trebor Scholz, loc 1014 illustrates this powerfully:

Rarely acknowledged are also the networks of care that sustain contingent workers. Just for one moment, think about the families that are paying the price for just-in-time scheduling of work hours. Who is caring for their children when they face unpredictable work schedules, often decided only days or hours in advance? And let’s not forget that government programs like the Food Stamp Act of 1964, introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, are essential in providing subsistence for crowdworkers and Walmart “associates” alike. In this way, personal networks of care, global supply chains, American taxpayers, academia, and the military sustain the digital economy.

Recognising this context makes it easier to see the grim reality underlying the lofty rhetoric of the sharing economy. From loc 1290:

What if the engine of the “sharing economy” is not the instinct to share, but rather economic desperation? Just consider the 8–10 million Americans who are unemployed and the almost eight million who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 78 They are piecing together a living wage by working with companies like Uber but only few make a good living in the Hunger Games.

In Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek seeks to address what he sees as a profound oversight in the existing literature on digital capitalism. One set of contributions focuses on emerging technologies and their implications for privacy and surveillance but ignores the economic analysis of ownership and profitability. Another set critically analyses the values embodied in corporate behaviour but neglects the broader context of a capitalist system. A further set addresses the ills of the ‘sharing economy’ but fails to situate these in terms of broader economic trends. Finally, there are those which analyse the emerging economic trends in the technology sector but treat them in a way which is decontextualised from wider historical changes.

In contrast, he intends to offer “an economic history of capitalism and digital technology, while recognising the diversity of economic forms and the competitive tensions inherent in the contemporary economy” (loc 155). This involves “abstracting from them as cultural actors defined by the values of the Californian ideology, or as political actors seeking to wield power” (loc 166) and instead simply taking “major tech companies” as “economic actors within a capitalist mode of production”. Such an undertaking requires that we distinguish the technology sector from the digital economy. The former is relatively small, employing around 2.5% of the US labour force and contributing around 6.8% of the value added by private companies (loc 157). In contrast, the digital economy has taken on a systemic importance that is obscured if we analyse it on a sectoral basis:

we can say that the digital economy refers to those businesses that increasingly rely upon information technology, data, and the internet for their business models. This is an area that cuts across traditional sectors –including manufacturing, services, transportation, mining, and telecommunications –and is in fact becoming essential to much of the economy today. Understood in this way, the digital economy is far more important than a simple sectoral analysis might suggest. In the first place, it appears to be the most dynamic sector of the contemporary economy –an area from which constant innovation is purportedly emerging and that seems to be guiding economic growth forward. The digital economy appears to be a leading light in an otherwise rather stagnant economic context. Secondly, digital technology is becoming systematically important, much in the same way as finance. As the digital economy is an increasingly pervasive infrastructure for the contemporary economy, its collapse would be economically devastating. Lastly, because of its dynamism, the digital economy is presented as an ideal that can legitimate contemporary capitalism more broadly. The digital economy is becoming a hegemonic model: cities are to become smart, businesses must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent.

Loc 157-178

His analysis locates the nascent importance of the digital economy against a backdrop of a “long decline in manufacturing probability” across a “sluggish production sector”. Digitalisation has been seized upon a set of mechanisms through which these problems might be ameliorated, leading to the growth of the platform as the business model best able to ensure returns from these emerging opportunities (loc 178). This represents a historicisation of the platform, drawing out the linkages between the contemporary platforms which dominate the breathless discourse of ‘disruption’ and earlier upheavals in capitalism which digitalisation played an (often under-acknowledged) part in. For instance, consider the technological prerequisites which allowed a transition from Fordism to post-Fordism, driven by a crisis of overcapacity and overproduction in global markets:

Companies were increasingly told by shareholders and management consultants to cut back to their core competencies, any excess workers being laid off and inventories kept to a minimum. This was mandated and enabled by the rise of increasingly sophisticated supply chain software, as manufacturers would demand and expect supplies to arrive as needed. And there was a move away from the mass production of homogeneous goods and towards increasingly customised goods that responded to consumer demand.

Loc 294

The point is not that technology was the agent of these changes but rather that it facilitated new ways of organising production in time and space. Recognising the political agency involved in the onset of neoliberal ‘reforms’ shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of the role technology played in allowing the reorganisation of production. Historicising the digital economy necessitates that we understand this interplay between digitalisation and financialisation from the outset, something which of course came to the fore with the dot com boom. 

Astonishingly, nearly 1% of US GDP consisted of VC invested in tech companies at the height of the sector in the late 1990s, with 50,000 companies formed and over $256 billion invested in them. This influx of capital facilitated a ‘growth before profits’ model which is still familiar today, licensed by the expectations of immense wealth to be generated if enough market share was captured in a still hazily envisioned digital economy. This speculative boom led to a vast investment in digital infrastructure through which our contemporary digital economy was able to emerge:

This excitement about the new industry translated into a massive injection of capital into the fixed assets of the internet. While investment in computers and information technology had been going on for decades, the level of investment in the period between 1995 and 2000 remains unprecedented to this day. In 1980 the level of annual investment in computers and peripheral equipment was $ 50.1 billion; by 1990 it had reached $ 154.6 billion; and at the height of the bubble, in 2000, it reached an unsurpassed peak of $ 412.8 billion. 16 This was a global shift as well: in the low-income economies, telecommunications was the largest sector for foreign direct investment in the 1990s –with over $ 331 billion invested in it. Companies began spending extraordinary amounts to modernise their computing infrastructure and, in conjunction with a series of regulatory changes introduced by the US government, 18 this laid the basis for the mainstreaming of the internet in the early years of the new millennium. Concretely, this investment meant that millions of miles of fibre-optic and submarine cables were laid out, major advances in software and network design were established, and large investments in databases and servers were made.

Loc 314-333

Coping with the eventual crash through lowering mortgage rates in turn sowed the seeds of the future housing bubble. The story is one of a continued ‘asset-price Keynesianism’ where interest rate reductions were used to encourage continued rises in asset prices, seeking to encourage investment and consumption in the absence of deficit financed stimulus or any resurgence in the manufacturing sector. This low interest rate environment within the global economy has, argues Srnicek, provided “a  key enabling condition for parts of today’s digital economy to arise” (loc 377) by reducing returns on a range of assets and encouraging investors to seek higher yields elsewhere. This is the context within which platforms emerged and were readily able to find vast investment, even in the absence of profitability. But what are platforms?

What are platforms? At the most general level, platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact. They therefore position themselves as intermediaries that bring together different users: customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects. More often than not, these platforms also come with a series of tools that enable their users to build their own products, services, and marketplaces. Microsoft’s Windows operating system enables software developers to create applications for it and sell them to consumers; Apple’s App Store and its associated ecosystem (XCode and the iOS SDK) enable developers to build and sell new apps to users; Google’s search engine provides a platform for advertisers and content providers to target people searching for information; and Uber’s taxi app enables drivers and passengers to exchange rides for cash. Rather than having to build a marketplace from the ground up, a platform provides the basic infrastructure to mediate between different groups. This is the key to its advantage over traditional business models when it comes to data, since a platform positions itself between users, and as the ground upon which their activities occur, which thus gives it privileged access to record them.

Loc 596-618

He identifies three key characteristics of platforms which are interconnected:

  1. Platforms mediate interaction between groups, providing an epistemic privilege in relation such interactions (and their potential monetisation). They are a mechanism for producing and extracting data from interactions.
  2. Platforms are reliant on network effects, such that their value to users grows in line with the number of such users. This leads to a ‘winner-takes-all’ or ‘winner-takes-most’ dynamic. The more a platform grows, the easier it is for it to grow more and the potential value of its epistemic privilege increases in line with this.
  3. Platforms often use cross-subsidisation to encourage more users on to the network, exhibiting a dynamic pricing structure often entailing free products and services because of the gains that can be made elsewhere. This helps encourage more users on to the platform.

The mediating character of platforms means they “gain not only access to more data but also control and governance over the rules of the game” (loc 636). With this comes the challenge of facilitating continued growth within a competitive environment, using cross-subsidisation and leveraging network effects to position oneself as the central platform within a domain of activity. However in spite of these shared characteristics, different types of platform have emerged within different spheres of social life. Srnicek identifies 5 types:

The first type is that of advertising platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook), which extract information on users, undertake a labour of analysis, and then use the products of that process to sell ad space. The second type is that of cloud platforms (e.g. AWS, Salesforce), which own the hardware and software of digital-dependent businesses and are renting them out as needed. The third type is that of industrial platforms (e.g. GE, Siemens), which build the hardware and software necessary to transform traditional manufacturing into internet-connected processes that lower the costs of production and transform goods into services. The fourth type is that of product platforms (e.g. Rolls Royce, Spotify), which generate revenue by using other platforms to transform a traditional good into a service and by collecting rent or subscription fees on them. Finally, the fifth type is that of lean platforms (e.g. Uber, Airbnb), which attempt to reduce their ownership of assets to a minimum and to profit by reducing costs as much as possible.

Loc 657

Much of his subsequent analysis concerns the competitive conditions under which each type of platform operates, as well as how this is shaping the emerging field and platform capitalism as a whole. I don’t agree with all of it but it’s definitely worth reading in full. I understand his core points to be the following:

  1. The necessity of ‘data extraction’ has a basis in a longer term crisis of profitability within capitalism. These are, in effect, technical fixes for a systemic deterioration afflicting manufacturing and platforms represent a formalisation of these into a new emergent form.
  2. The financial conditions under which this platform economy has been able to emerge were historically specific and should not be assumed to continue indefinitely. The infrastructure through which ‘data extraction’ become technically viable, as well as the emergence of platforms as operating businesses were deeply dependent upon this.
  3. Platforms as emergent forms exhibit characteristics which shape competition between them, as well as guiding the unfolding of the digital economy as a whole. The fierce competition between them, the competitive challenges specific to categories of platforms, the dynamics of network effects and the affordances of their cash hoarding are leading to platform isomorphism. They have an inevitable drive towards monopoly, further incentivised by the dynamics of accruing investment, which leaves them orientated towards becoming owners of the infrastructure of society.

The analysis of platform tendencies is probably my favourite part of the book. He talks about expansion of extraction, positioning as a gatekeeper, convergence of markets and enclosure of ecosystems. These are analysed in the final chapter in some detail and offer a convincing meso-level account of the claimed macro tendency towards monopoly or oligopoly.

Reading the excellent Selected Exaggerations, a book of interviews with Peter Sloterdijk, I was struck by his remarks about taxation and the state in an interview from 2001. He bemoans the punitive taxation he claims exists in Germany, arguing that it reflects a broader domination of society by the state. German citizens are “punished for success” and the trust society is based on gradually finds itself eroded. On loc 1798-1813 he goes on to call for a ‘social movement of entrepreneurs’:

SLOTERDIJK: Precisely. There are countless areas of redistribution that could be organized much more intelligently and efficiently by alternative means. I am thinking of unemployment benefits, of the whole welfare state that should be organized more in terms of incentives, much more in terms of entrepreneurship and less in terms of the consumer state.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you saying that entrepreneurial thinking is supposed to save the welfare state?

SLOTERDIJK: Yes, entrepreneurs will raise the banners of hope again. Without a movement of entrepreneurs, as there was once a workers’ movement, the economy can no longer explain itself adequately to society.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: And what will be written on the banners?

SLOTERDIJK: ‘Entrepreneurs of the world, unite’ –what else? At the moment only entrepreneurs can convincingly represent the interests of the industries and services that produce the hardware, that is, the real value of productive industry, against the phantom superstructure of speculative finance economy. Only an entrepreneurs’ movement can act in the anti-capitalist way that is needed now. It is time for entrepreneurial anti-capitalism.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: The entrepreneur as alternative to the distorted picture of globalization, of the anonymous flow of money around the globe?

SLOTERDIJK: Entrepreneurs must show that an operative economy, not the dictatorship of the lottery bosses, is the foundation of the market economy. Entrepreneurs are the social democracy of tomorrow.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you serious?

SLOTERDIJK: Of course. At the moment entrepreneurs may describe themselves in neoliberal terms, but this is becoming increasingly false as the years go by, because in the end they can only justify themselves as producers of the net value that serves the other side of redistribution.

It’s a fascinating interview, filled with remarks I object to deeply. What struck me was the parallel to the themes (though not their articulation) of the contemporary populist right, both in the US and the UK. The awkward combination of populism and capital, fulminating against the 47% while framing it as a progressive revolt in the universal interests against a overweaning state captured by dependents. Genealogically speaking, it’s obvious that Sloterdijk was not a progenitor of the Anglo-American populist right. But philosophically speaking, it’s perhaps meaningful to suggest that he was. At least in so far as what he’s doing here can be classified as philosophy, though that’s perhaps a topic for another post.

Myself and Tom Brock are currently working on a paper in which we analyse the discourse of ‘intelligence’ in terms of the individualisation of structural advantage: a whole range of factors are wrapped up into the descriptor of someone as ‘intelligent’ which explains a complex outcome in terms of a somewhat mysterious and inevitably overloaded personal characteristic.

Reading Matthew Desmond’s superb Evicted, I was struck by the possibility of reversing the analysis. On loc 3108, he describes the extremely difficult circumstances one of his research participants faces:

Before she was evicted, Larraine had $ 164 left over after paying the rent. She could have put some of that away, shunning cable and Walmart. If Larraine somehow managed to save $ 50 a month, nearly one-third of her after-rent income, by the end of the year she would have $ 600 to show for it—enough to cover a single month’s rent. And that would have come at considerable sacrifice, since she would sometimes have had to forgo things like hot water and clothes. Larraine could have at least saved what she spent on cable. But to an older woman who lived in a trailer park isolated from the rest of the city, who had no car, who didn’t know how to use the Internet, who only sometimes had a phone, who no longer worked, and who sometimes was seized with fibromyalgia attacks and cluster migraines—cable was a valued friend.

But as he puts it, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.” Much as the fortune of someone like Trump is explained, not least of all by themselves, in terms of their intrinsic talent, we see people like Larraine condemned for failing to exercise an imputed latent power that would be near magical in its presumed capacity to resolve the difficulties of her situation.

An absolutely fascinating article from Arlie Hochschild, whose new book on the American right sounds like a must read:

Traditional Tea Party supporters wanted to cut both the practice of cutting in line, and government rewards for doing so. Followers of Donald Trump, on the other hand, wanted to keep government benefits and remove shame from the act of receiving them – but restrict those benefits, implicitly, to native-born Americans, preferably white.

A really interesting suggestion from loc 3681-3691 from Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

In terms of fully decentralized commerce, these platform cooperatives are still just steps along the way to digital distributism. As long as there’s a central platform—a Web site or other hub to maintain—there will always be a need for central funding and an emphasis on command and control. At the very least, there will be an ongoing dynamic tension between the provider-owners on the periphery and the manager-facilitators in the middle. As P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens puts it, “a truly free P2P logic at the front-end is highly improbable if the back-end is under exclusive control and ownership.” 96 Trust and authentication are rendered by the platform, which may not necessarily end in extractive monopoly but will remain biased toward more industrial-style models and behaviors. That’s what’s threatening Mondragon’s integrity and operations today. The answer, of course—the last piece of the puzzle—would be to replace platforms with protocols.

For instance, imagine a platform-independent Uber, owned by the drivers who use it. There’s no server to maintain, no venture capital to pay back, no new verticals or horizontals in which to expand, no acquisition, and no exit. There are just drivers whose labor and vehicles constitute ownership of the enterprise. One such experiment, La’Zooz, is a blockchain-managed ridesharing app, where the currency (Zooz) is mined through “proof of movement.” 97 So instead of supplying and driving cars as underpaid freelancers for Uber or Lyft, drivers are co-owners of a transportation collective organized through distributed protocols.

From Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, by Douglas Rushkoff, loc 3167:

So they accept the hypergrowth logic of the startup economy as if it really were the religion of technology development. They listen to their new mentors and accept their teachings as gifts of wisdom. These folks already gave me millions of dollars; of course they have my best interests at heart. After all, these are young and impressionable developers. At age nineteen or twenty, the prefrontal cortex isn’t even fully developed yet. 42 That’s the part of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control. These are the years when one’s ability to weigh priorities against one another is developed. The founders’ original desires for a realistic, if limited, success are quickly replaced by venture capital’s requirement for a home run. Before long, they have forgotten whatever social need they left college to serve and have convinced themselves that absolute market domination is the only possible way forward. As one young entrepreneur explained to me after his second board meeting, “I get it now. A win is total, or it’s nothing.”

From Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, loc 2256:

Besides, consumer research is all about winning some portion of a fixed number of purchases. It doesn’t create more consumption. If anything, technological solutions tend to make markets smaller and less likely to spawn associated industries in shipping, resource management, and labor services.

Digital advertising might ultimately capture the entirety of advertising budgets, but it does nothing to expand these budgets. There are upper limits on the revenue growth of the corporations that define the ‘attention economy’: how are they going to respond to these?

In the last few months I’ve become very interested in the status accorded to coding as a labour market strategy. It’s held up as both individually rational and a viable strategy for governments seeking to grow the human capital of their citizens. However, as Douglas Rushkoff observes in his Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, we’re likely to see growing numbers of coding jobs outsourced to lower cost countries through computational clearing houses. Furthermore, from Loc 866:

Besides, learning code is hard, particularly for adults who don’t remember their algebra and haven’t been raised thinking algorithmically. Learning code well enough to be a competent programmer is even harder. Although I certainly believe that any member of our highly digital society should be familiar with how these platforms work, universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.

Whatever demand for skills currently exists is likely to diminish with time, while available opportunities risk being swamped by aspirants given a wider context of occupational insecurity in which areas seen as focal points for growth are seized upon in an ever quicker fashion.

There’s an amusing account of 3 scenarios of learning to code here:

Scenario 1

Person 1: “I tried to learn to code once. I had a hard time. Life got in the way, and I am no longer trying to learn to code.”

Marketer: “Coding is easy!”

Person 1: “What? Oh. Maybe coding is easy after all. Maybe I’m just dumb.”

Scenario 2

Person 2: “I want to learn to code, but it sounds hard.”

Marketer: “Coding is easy!”

Person 2: “Really?”

Marketer: “Yes. Buy my course/program/e-book and you’ll be an elite coder in less than a month.”

Person 2

Shut up and take my money!

Person 2, one month later: “I thought coding was supposed to be easy. Maybe I’m just dumb.”

Scenario 3

Person 3: I have no interest in ever learning to code. I’m a successful manager. If I ever need something coded, I’ll just pay someone to code it for me.

Marketer: Coding is easy!

Person 3: Oh, OK. Figures. In that case, I guess I won’t pay those code monkeys very much, or hold their work in very high regard.

From No Such Thing as a Free Gift, by Linsey McGoey, loc 2771:

The tendency for political objectives to drive economic decisions –which are then propagated as purely technical policies geared at improving economic growth –is a well-known operating principle within the IMF. The late economist Jacques Polak, a former IMF director of research and one of the longest serving staffers –the IMF honoured him after his death by naming its annual research conference after him –once put it bluntly. ‘The proprieties of the Fund’, he said, ‘contain an unwritten rule that, if at all possible, political arguments be dressed up in economic garb’.

From Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 46. A mechanism which operates at every level, from the individual to the international:

A decade or so ago, Argentina decided to repay its debt to the IMF ahead of time (with financial help from Venezuela). The IMF’s reaction was on the face of it surprising: instead of being glad that it was getting its money back, the IMF (or, rather, its top representatives) expressed their concern that Argentina would use this new freedom and financial independence from international institutions to abandon tight financial politics and engage in careless spending. This uneasiness made palpable the true stakes of the debtor/creditor relationship: debt is an instrument with which to control and regulate the debtor, and, as such, it strives for its own expanded reproduction.

From Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 35. As he goes on to say on pg 107, “the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce.”

These elites, the main culprits for the 2008 financial meltdown, now impose themselves as experts, the only ones who can lead us on the painful path of financial recovery, and whose advice should therefore trump parliamentary politics, or, as Mario Monti put it: ‘Those who govern must not allow themselves to be completely bound by parliamentarians.’ 

 What, then, is this higher force whose authority can suspend the decisions of the democratically elected representatives of the people? The answer was provided back in 1998 by Hans Tietmeyer, then governor of the Deutsches Bundesbank, who praised national governments for preferring ‘the permanent plebiscite of global markets’ to the ‘plebiscite of the ballot box’. 

Note the democratic rhetoric of this obscene statement: global markets are more democratic than parliamentary elections since the process of voting goes on in them permanently (and is permanently reflected in market fluctuations) and at a global level –not only every four years, and within the confines of a nation-state. The underlying idea is that, freed from this higher control of markets (and experts), parliamentary-democratic decisions are ‘irresponsible’.

This is a worryingly plausible account of how outwardly post-democratic regimes in former liberal democracies could seek legitimacy. From pg 107:

The paradox is that, precisely because it lacks democratic legitimacy, an authoritarian regime can sometimes be more responsible towards its subjects than one that was democratically elected: since it lacks democratic legitimacy, it has to legitimize itself by providing services to the citizens, with the underlying reasoning, ‘True, we are not democratically elected, but as such, since we do not have to play the game of striving for cheap popularity, we can focus on citizens’ real needs.’ A democratically elected government, on the contrary, can fully exert its power for the narrow private interests of its members; they already have the legitimacy provided by elections, so they don’t need any further legitimization and can feel safe doing what they want –they can say to those who complain, ‘You elected us, now it’s too late.’

A powerful polemic by Paul Mason in the Guardian arguing that the post-democratic character of the EU is intimately connection to the reemergence of fascism across Europe:

All this suggests that those of us who want Brexit in order to reimpose democracy, promote social justice and subordinate companies to the rule of law should bide our time. But here’s the price we will pay. Hungary is one electoral accident away from going fascist; the French conservative elite is one false move away from handing the presidency to the Front National; in Austria the far-right FPÖ swept the first round of the presidential polls. Geert Wilders’s virulently Islamophobic PVV is leading the Dutch opinion polls.

The EU’s economic failure is fuelling racism and the ultra right. Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU with the Third Reich was facile. The more accurate comparison is with the Weimar Republic: a flawed democracy whose failures fuelled the rise of fascism. And this swing to the far right prompts the more basic dilemma: do I even want to be part of the same electorate as millions of closet Nazis in mainland Europe?

The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.

I knew data brokerage was big but I didn’t realise it was this big. From The Data Revolution by Rob Kitchin, loc 1039:

Epsilon is reputed to own data on 300 million company loyalty card members worldwide, with a databank holding data related to 250 million consumers in the United States alone (Edwards 2013). Acxiom is reputed to have constructed a databank concerning 500 million active consumers worldwide (about 190 million individuals and 126 million households in the United States), with about 1,500 data points per person, its servers processing over 50 trillion data transactions a year, and its turnover exceeding one billion dollars (Singer 2012a). It also manages separate customer databases for, or works with, 47 of the Fortune 100 companies (Singer 2012a). Datalogix claim to store data relating to over a trillion dollars’ worth of offline purchases (Edwards 2013). Other data broker and analysis companies include Alliance Data Systems, eBureau, ChoicePoint, Corelogic, Equifax, Experian, ID Analytics, Infogroup, Innovis, Intelius, Recorded Future, Seisint and TransUnion.

In their interesting history of the rise and fall of Research In Motion, Losing the Signal, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff describe how close a patent troll came to taking down what was at the time becoming the dominant player in the nascent market for smart phones. A patent was salvaged from a failed company and later used to sue RIM and came close to getting them locked out of the U.S. market. From pg 122:

The skeletal company was part of a growing breed of patent trolls whose primary business was to sue businesses allegedly infringing on their rights. Lawyers represented trolls on the contingency they would share a portion of any court awards. It was a booming business. U.S. lawsuits filed by patent trolls rose sharply to 428 in 2007 and 2,750 just five years later, by which point they accounted for nearly 60 percent of all U.S. patent lawsuits, double the level of five years earlier. 

Stout started the hunt for licensing fees by writing letters to dozens of communications companies suggesting they were infringing on its technology. One of the last letters was sent in January 2000 to RIM. NTP received no replies from most of the targets, including RIM.

If we accept the argument that intellectual property laws are intended to preserve profitability in the face of the infinite reproducibility of ideas, patent trolling comes to look like a fascinating systematic pathology. The very system designed to ensure the profitability of ideas leads, under conditions of accelerated competitive individualism, to the destruction of that system from within: what’s designed to facilitate innovation -> application in fact comes to pervasively disrupt it.

On pg 124 there’s a good summary of recent history:

Patent fights snowballed in the Information Age. Computing and communication advances arrived with such velocity that U.S. patent applications increased fourfold in the decade ending in 2010.8 Leading the way was the mobile phone business, accounting for nearly 25 percent of total U.S. patents granted in 2013, up from 5 percent in 2001.9 Many breakthroughs were based on software concepts, opening a new front in the patent wars involving a labyrinth of algorithms and code. These feuds became high-stakes battlegrounds when U.S. courts began handing out rich awards for patent infringements.

On page 128 they describe the long term damage to the company:

Few people knew of the emotional toll the case took on RIM’s chiefs. Lazaridis looked for solace in his faith, and Balsillie in his new guru. The humiliating legal spectacle had unnerved the company’s leaders and diverted their attention from emerging competitors. “We lost some of who we were through that,” says Patrick Spence. “That’s ultimately the cost to the company. It’s not the $ 612 million. It’s what that cost us in terms of taking focus away from where we needed to go.”

The necessity of resisting patent trolls incentivises tactics which may skew corporate priorities. From pg 145-146:

What Balsillie prized most of all was Motorola’s vast arsenal of intellectual property rights. There were an estimated seventeen thousand issued mobile patents, most of them for dated cellphone technology that was more valuable in the legal arena, where RIM and its competitors faced a constant onslaught of patent lawsuits. RIM’s dealmaker was obsessed with intellectual property after the emotionally scarring NTP war. He lobbied governments on both sides of the border and spoke to business groups to push for reforms that might prevent the legal brinksmanship that nearly flattened RIM. Washington and Ottawa were receptive, but progress was slow. In this vacuum, tech companies strengthened their legal rights by acquiring patent collections from struggling rivals. With Motorola’s patent chest, RIM would hold a much stronger hand against patent trolls and competitors alike.