My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(1), 28-35.

How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:

I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.

Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.

Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:

Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.

Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:

Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.

Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:

How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.

My notes on Philip Cooke (2018) Generative growth with ‘thin’ globalization: Cambridge’s crossover model of innovation, European Planning Studies, 26:9, 1815-1834, DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2017.1421908

Since moving to Cambridge in July 2017, I’ve become fascinated by the transformation underway within the city and what it reveals about the political economy of the UK. This paper by Philip Cooke argues that Cambridge is in a state of growth comparable to Silicon Valley (on a larger scale) and Israel (on a small-country scale). In 2017 there 4330 technology firms in the city, employing 59,102 people and generating £11.1 billion revenues in the previous year. This includes five firms worth more than £1 billion in an area which has the highest concentration of Nobel prizewinners in the world (pg 1816). The benefits of regional clusters have tended to be couched in terms of knowledge-based interactions taking place on a local level and lowered transaction costs between firms. However Cooke is concerned by the process through which clusters diversify and come to constitute a cluster-platform. From pg 1817:

This takes a specific meaning of ‘platform’ metaphorically comprising ‘boards’ or ‘planks’ that give strength to different but related elements which may be mounted upon it. This is different from the more specialized idea of a ‘technology platform’ such as a smartphone Appstore. Here, the variety of applications is specialized at the App-level but diversified at the device level.

The “crossover potentiality” which characterises a cluster-platform has radical economic consequences. It is built on three features: (1) world class university research providing “cognitive raw materials … at the leading edge of problem definition” and dedicated research centres which can solve problems early (2) global corporations with specific needs able to enter into long-term relationships with ‘knowledge suppliers’, providing the grounds for SMEs to flourish (3) internationalisation which facilitates the rapid diffusion of innovation outside of the country of origin. These factors have allowed the existing high-tech cluster of Cambridge to evolve into a “diversified cluster-platform”.

One of the striking features of it is the preponderance of “many micro-sized firms in all sectors” (pg 1818). Cooke argues that a much higher potential for innovation comes with this structure, citing examples such as “algorithms designed for turbulence in rivers transmuted into AI for currency trading, which, in turn, mutated into cybersecurity forensics” (pg 1819). What makes these ‘cognitive crossovers’ possible? They can’t be controlled by a single corporate actor but capital accumulation at this advanced stage depends upon them. There are five main forms which relationships between Cambridge firms and external firms take: partnership, commissions, ownership, acquisition and alliances (pg 1828).

They also depend upon a macro-social context which is heading in the other direction. Unfortunately, the reliance on highly skilled labour, particularly from outside the EU where majors in emergent disciplines and design engineering approaches are more common, places “the cluster-platform in head-to-head disagreement with the U.K.’s populist anti-immigration regime associated with the Brexit debâcle”. Risk finance is in shorter supply, though this was helped by quantitative easing and low interest rates (pg 1821). Furthermore, continued research funding is necessary, particularly “‘flexible research funding’ that furthers and fosters :‘knowledge at interfaces’ (‘crossover’) types of interdisciplinary research profile to evolve along multiple inter-dependent research pathways” (pg 1822). This is one reason why a university like Cambridge has begun to sell its own bonds, described on pg 1822:

In the U.K., the Bank of England currently buys bonds issued by some universities, including Cambridge. The largest university bond was a £350 million issue from Cambridge in 2012 with a maturity date of 2052. Such bonds are sold to finance university research and teaching – deemed officially to make a material contribution to the U.K. economy.

Furthermore, private funds like Cambridge Innovation Capital and institutional actors like University of Cambridge Enterprise have placed the UK at the top of league table for university venture funds. The latter has administered deals “involving 11 companies that were sold or stock exchange listed with a combined value of £1.3 billion”, owning their own IP and incubated with support within the university. Much of the capital for initial investments has come from the Gulf and Asia (pg 1822). The University of Cambridge Enterprise offers seed capital, consultancy and IP advice to university spin offs (pg 1823). These operate alongside what Cooke describes as “‘associational’ agencies that support cluster-platform growth” (pg 1827). He cites the example of the CleanTech boom in Cambridge, with “one hundred cleantech firms of which 25% had in 2016 been ranked in the U.K.’s top 50 cleantech firms” (pg 1826), illustrating how incubation activities support nascent areas of specialisation which feed into the broader platform-cluster. I’m particularly interested in the micro-sociology of the events such agencies run, such as the example given on pg 1831:

To support the sharing of specialist knowledge and further development of the sector, the Regional High Value Design Group held an October 2016 networking seminar event at Cambridge’s Granta Science Park about the crossover between aerospace, automotive engineering and healthcare. Forward Composites (materials science) reported on operations in the aerospace, defence, automotive and motor sport sectors. Crossover presentations from advanced combustion engine designer Cosworth Group of Cambridge, now a leader in the transfer of motorsport electronics technologies into adjacent markets were made. Other presentations linked AEC SELEX, part of the Italian company Finmeccanica Leonardo, one of the world’s largest defence and homeland security technology companies and the largest Italian investor in the U.K., to identify areas where SELEX’s expertise can be used to keep people alive in a different setting, in the healthcare sector.

Platform clusters fuel “a host of innovative applications that sound like hype but are actually being innovated in cascades of technical change that seem highly likely to have prodigious social and economic impact” (pg 1829/1830) with past populist backlashes suggesting the “the implications for famine, unemployment, migration and war could be truly apocalyptic” (pg 1830). It is tied up in the emergence of a ‘thin globalization’ which sees vast areas shaped from a few “command posts” (pg 1816). This has to be understood against a background of rising global turmoil, described on pg 1831-1832:

Today, geopolitically, the world is in turbulence, with threatening climate change, wars in the Middle East, mass migration from war zones into Europe and the U.S. caused partly by starvation and economic inequality as well as desertification and poor water resources related to climate change. There are many more problems connected to ageing populations and disease that put pressure on health and social care.

Cooke suggests that platform-clusters herald the end of big corporate r&d conducted in a linear way, instead giving rise to decentralised approaches suitable to complex problems.

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.

These notes are for the fifth and final week of the CPGJ platform capitalism intensive reading group. One of the themes running through the readings over the five weeks has been the political valence of platforms and its relationship to our analysis of them. My own instinct is that valorising platforms in an a priori way impedes our analysis of them but that an a political framing of platform capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. Rather than being an outright contradiction, I believe this leaves a small space for analysis which I hoped the readings for this week would help open up. The essay by Helen Margetts takes issue with the gloomy interpretations of recent developments with social media, contrasting to the now antiquated sense of excitement with which they were once greeted. As she put it in a lecture in Cambridge I helped organise in November, “social media have had a bad press recently”:

They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Her point is not to reassert tech-utopianism but simply to stress that “we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy”. After ten years in which the internet has challenged our previous assumptions about democracy, it is imperative that we do not rush to judgement in lieu of understanding how social media have “injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events”. There is barely a feature of political life that has been untouched by these changes, posing profound questions for our conceptual, empirical and normative understanding of democracy. But as much as these platforms generate transactional data which could in principle help us to understand these changes, in reality “Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research”.

Her essay responds to this epistemic void by laying out a concise thought systematic account of what we _do_ know about social media and its relationship to politics. The positive part of this account rests on the value of what she terms “tiny acts” such as “Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign” which have no equivalent prior to social media and extend “below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle”. These tiny acts bring new people into politics but the same characteristics which enable political activity to take place outside of organised groups render the ensuing actions unstable and unpredictable. The resulting pattern is akin to that of earthquakes, argues Margetts, with many trivial eruptions and a few enormous ones. These patterns of engagement challenge two democratic features (political identity and institutions) and render politics more unpredictable than ever before. Drawing an analogy with the stages of grief, Margetts identifies Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance as stages of response to the profound change which has been brought about in democratic politics. This includes the interesting contradiction that ‘clicktavism’ is disdained while social media is also claimed to have massive pathological effects upon organised politics. Which is it? The final stage of acceptance entails the recognition that social media are here to stay and the ensuing difficult work of institutionalising them:

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that. So it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.

We have been using the terminology of ‘platforms’ through this reading group but have we paid enough attention to the implications of this? A number of the readings we have used make a strong case about the analytical value of the term, identifying it as a mode of organisation with ramifications for capitalism as a whole. But what should we make of the readiness with which companies adopt the terminology to describe their own services. Should this make us suspicious? This is the argument Tarleton Gillespie makes in the politics of platforms. This is a term which, as Gillespie puts it, is “increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self- characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press, and commentators”. Understood as a discursive strategy, it is a crucial part of how these firms “establish a long-term position in a fluctuating economic and cultural terrain”. Gillespie insists we must unpack these strategic considerations, in order to analyse how firms seek “to position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense”. To put it crudely: it is part of the self-branding of platforms and this should surely give us pause for thought. Nonetheless, analysing this self-positioning can help us make sense of the how these firms understanding themselves, what they see as their interests and how they intend to develop their businesses over the coming years.

Platform is a structural metaphor akin to ‘network,’ ‘broadcast,’ or ‘channel’ which “depends on a semantic richness that, though it may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker, gives the term discursive resonance”. Gillespie identifies four senses in which the term platform is used, expressed through fifteen entries in the dictionary: computational (providing an infrastructure), architectural (surfaces upon which people can stand), figurative (a foundation upon which we can build) and political (a body of commitments upon which a party and/or individual seeks election). These sense intermingle, such that “being raised, level, and accessible are ideological features as much as physical ones” conveying certain qualities in the system or entity which is designated as a platform. The computational meaning of platform precedes the current preoccupation with social media. This tracks a shift in the meaning, such that the quality of being a platform is identified “not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell”. Reflecting on the case of YouTube, Gillespie explains how the increasingly dominant sense of platform uses the discursive force of the trope to politicisation the facilitation of user generated content:

This more conceptual use of ‘platform’ leans on all of the term’s connotations: computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content (UGC), amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking, and robust online commentary.

This positions YouTube as “unlike the mainstream broadcasters, film studios, and publishers” and rejecting the “role of gatekeeper, not even curators: they would be mere facilitators, supporters, hosts”. In spite of the prominence of their advertising model, much of the user-generated content cannot be paired with ads because concern of being paired with the wrong content is so widespread while YouTube itself is concerned about accidentally profiting from copyright infringement. YouTube have therefore sought commercial partnerships from the outset, dominating the platform in spite of being a minority of the content to be found on it. This entails a delicate balancing act and the terminology of the platform can help unify what might otherwise be competing accounts of YouTube and its role:

The business of being a cultural intermediary is a complex and fragile one, oriented as it is to at least three constituencies: end users, advertisers, and professional content producers. This is where the discursive work is most vital. Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them.

In the case of YouTube, it allows them to “make a bid to be the new television, convincing media producers to provide their valuable content and advertisers to buy valuable consumer attention, on the back of user-generated content and all its democratic, egalitarian connotations, offered to them as television’s antidote“. 
These discursive strategies have a legal as well as marketing component. As Gillespie observe, “what we call such things, what precedents we see as most analogous, and how we characterize its technical workings drives how we set conditions for it”. Firms seek “a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their business, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for, and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest” with self-characterisation being a potent means through which this can be pursued. He deftly illustrates how the terminology of the platform can be used to avoid responsibility by defining themselves as technical companies rather than publishers. This has crucial significance within US law because under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as “long as you are a neutral distributor of information and are not aware of specific violations, you are not liable for the violations of users”. He draws an important comparison to the regulatory environment which the telephone companies used to be subject to:

For instance, before their deregulation the telephone companies were bound by two obligations: first, they must act as a ‘common carrier,’ agreeing to provide service to the entire public without discrimination. Second, they can avoid liability for the information activities of their users, to the extent that they serve as ‘conduit,’ rather than as producers of content themselves. Both metaphors, common carrier and conduit, make a similar (but not identical) semantic claim as does platform. Both suggest that the role of distributing information is a neutral one, where the function is merely the passage of any and all content without discrimination.

The business model of YouTube doesn’t leave them with the traditional interests of publishers but it does leave them with interests in what they publish. They unavoidably make choices which shape the production, circulation and reception of material accessible through the service and these choices have implications beyond the scope of the service itself. The terminology of platform obfuscates in the face of this responsibility and this is why we must recognises the strategic conduct underpinning it:

A term like ‘platform’ does not drop from the sky, or emerge in some organic, unfettered way from the public discussion. It is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside of particular discourses. These are efforts not only to sell, convince, persuade, protect, triumph, or condemn, but to make claims about what these technologies are and are not, and what should and should not be expected of them. In other words, they represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.

If we do this, it becomes easier to recognise the similarities between platform businesses and traditional media, as well as the interest they have in obscuring this commonality. Gillespie’s argument is that the discourse of ‘platform’ actively works against us in trying to analyse their position and how they represent their actions.

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.

December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

We invite papers which address the full range of questions posed by these considerations, including topics such as:

  • The ontology of platforms
  • The epistemology of platforms
  • Methodological challenges in studying platforms
  • The transformation of the social sciences
  • The politics and political economy of platforms
  • Platforms as evaluative infrastructures
  • Platform education and the platform university 

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

We welcome abstracts of 500 words or less by July 31st 2018, sent to Please include a brief biographical note, as well as three key words to categorise your submission. We also plan to publish a select set of papers as a special issue or edited book and are in conversation with journal editors and publishers. We hope to have limited travel and accommodation funding available for unfunded PhD students and post-docs but cannot confirm this at present.

In this week’s CPGJ platform capitalism reading group, we turn towards education for the first time with a paper by José van Dijck and Thomas Poell looking at the influence of social media platforms on education, particularly within schools. Much of the literature has addressed social media as tools, with varying interpretations offered about how these might harm or hinder teaching and learning. The ubiquity of social media is often cited as a reason to try and integrate their use into the curriculum, with some arguing they could play a crucial role in helping with particular tasks such as information retrieval. Others frame social media as a disruptive force within the classroom, undermining existing routines and creating problems for teachers. Optimists and pessimists are united in their “social media-as-tools approach: social media are considered as technical tools that may either enhance or disrupt learning experiences”. In contrast, van Dijck and Poell insist on framing these as platforms, which are “driven by a complex interplay between technical architectures, business models, and mass user activity” and “introduce new mechanisms in social life”.

This helps broaden the focus of our analysis, away from “student behaviour and teaching practices” towards “the organization of schools and universities and, one might argue, (public) education as such”. Their analysis rests upon two distinct mechanisms: datafication and commodification. In doing so, they draw on work which has explored social mediain terms of a transformation of the landscape within which young people become civic actors, creating a range of possibilities for how education might change. The development of this perspective by van Dijck and Poell involves seeing social media as “more than mere technical facilitators: they are simultaneously technological, economic, and socio-cultural frameworks for managing online social traffic”. The main focus of their paper is upon how ratification and commodification reshape the organisation of education at primary and secondary levels.

  • Datafication is “the tendency to quantify all aspects of social interaction and turn them into code”. This incorporates two aspects: quantification and digitisation. The affordances of digital technology facilitate quantification to an extent that would not otherwise be possible. This can have descriptive and predicative dimensions to it: tracking developments in real time but also producing predictions which feed back into practice. In a sector like education, “emerging digital policy instruments transfer the assessment of didactic and pedagogical values from teachers and classrooms to (commercial) online platforms deploying real-time and predictive analytics techniques”. But datafication will have a similar tendency in others sectors because it circumvents the situational judgement of professionals by creating an analytic apparatus which operates in the background. There might be a degree of variability in how much leeway the professional continues to enjoy (consider for instance the way data can be used to enhance the performance of elites) but the broader trend is towards the diminution of agential prerogative.In the educational context, mechanisms of datafication includes data trackers and dashboards, facilitating personalisation of a sort similar to that found in content-streaming platforms like Netflix. As they write of AltSchool, it “favors technology over teachers; online personalized learning takes over classroom instruction; and the primacy of predictive analytics downgrades teachers’ professional judgment”. Digitalising a process, rendering it data and quantitative, imposes epistemic constraints on the ensuing knowledge, creating a bias towards the immediate and the atomistic. The specificity of educational is eviscerated by a generic architecture of likes and upvotes.
  • Commodification involves the “monetization of online social traffic through business models and governance structures” and is closely connected to datification. A limited number of business models all revolve around how data can be used to generate profit, incentivising continual expansion of datafication and economies of scale giving rise to fewer and larger data actors. It is hoped that was is datafied can be commodified.Data-driven commodification facilitates the unbundling of education. As the authors write, “[t]he conventional business model reflects the ideology of higher education as a curriculum-based, comprehensive experience that offers an education at a price that includes not only lectures or course content but certification, advising, tutoring, and testing”. The market for educational data, coupled with the near-zero marginal costs of digital communications, means that the curriculum can (technically) be delivered purely as content and there is a (financial) motivation for doing so. The potential implications of this educational data have barely been recognised, with the authors plausibly suggesting they might in future replace CVs in the eyes of employers.

Their analysis refuses to separate off education platforms from the wider ecosystem in which they emerge, dominated as it is by the major actors of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. While education platforms might not threat existing institutions in the manner of Uber and taxi firms, Dijck and Poell identify three features which might lead to systemic change:

  1. Principles of social media architecture have primacy over pedagogical principles on educational platforms. When young people are “growing up immersed in the compelling social interaction these platforms offer in terms of connecting, liking, rating and following each other” and free education services (e.g. Google Scholar, Google Docs, Gmail) offered by major players like Google already play a prominent role in young people’s educational lives. This ubiquity is liable to be reinforced by continued growth in use amongst young people and funding shortfalls leaving organisation’s looking to free services which enables costs to be cut. The result is that “corporate platforms such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft are able to position themselves strategically, at the gateways of educational infrastructures such as libraries, administrative and communication systems”.
  2. The capacity of education platforms to solve what are perceived as endemic problems of education is widely assumed yet little demonstrated. This reflects the broader influence of ‘solutionism’ (seeing technical fixes to social problems) and the narrative of sustained failures within the education system. These platforms are presented as emerging from off-stage to solve the problem, riding to the rescue of something their own emergence is intimately bound up in the creation of as part of the political economy of late capitalism.
  3. The growth of online educational globally might lead to a cultural shift in the understanding of education as a public good. They suggest we can identify “how education is increasingly defined as a technological challenge developed by tech companies and decreasingly as a service carried out by dedicated teachers and funded by taxes”. The scaleable and free logic of digital education seems enticing against a backdrop of austerity politics and a drive towards the retrenchment of the welfare state.

The second paper analysis the platform as evaluative infrastructure. They are evaluative in the sense of deploying a wide array of ranking mechanisms to establish orders of worth. They are infrastructure because they provide the background conditions which makes interaction possible. An infrastructure consists of “technical artefacts, institutional arrangements, cultural habits and social conventions” (“people, language, numbers, categories, cultures, practices, artefacts but also pipes and hard-wired circuits”) to produce material forms which facilitate exchange over time and space. Power within them operates through protocols (rules and standards governing behaviour within networks) rather than familiar hierarchical forms of influence. Evaluative infrastructure “consists of an ecology of devices that disclose values of actions, events and objects in heterarchically organized systems (such as platforms) through the maintenance of protocol”. Their mechanisms co-ordinate and condition interaction which takes place between distributed parties, with the platform being the means through the platform owner facilitates the interaction and seeks to profit from it. Evaluative infrastructures facilitate platform owners to operate distinctive types of platform organisation. The evaluative infrastructure is what makes platform capitalism possible.

An immense amount of activity takes place on them: “as of 2014 eBay had 165 million active users,3 Uber was hosting over 1 million rides per day, and Airbnb was facilitating 155 million guest stays annually, surpassing the Hilton Worldwide by 22 percent”. The evaluative infrastructure establishes shared orders of worth which makes this interaction meaningful, stabilising expectations and generating trust between parties who do not stand in a prior relation to each other or have much context in common. In doing so, they “relate and recombine people, ideas, and things” through “the invisible infrastructures that coordinate and control platform activities”. Their operation rests on a “an ecology of accounting devices in the form of rankings, lists, classifications, stars and other symbols (‘likes, ‘links’, tags, and other traces left through clicks) which relate buyers, sellers, and objects”. The value creation this gives rise to takes place horizontally across the platform, defying any traditional vertical attempts to organise it by the platform-owner, necessitating a new accounting regime on the part of the platform owners and new concepts for social scientists to analyse their operation. Part of the challenge stems from the capacity of these infrastructures to bring new worlds into being rather than capturing the traces of what is already there.

Community plays a significant role in this, with the eBay founder once saying that “eBay’s success as a company de- pends upon the success of the community”. What I take them to be saying, in slightly different theoretical lingo to the one I’d used, concerns the capacity of platforms to generate relationality within groups. It produces thick relations through the mechanisms designed to counter the fact thin relations are the starting point. In doing so, the interests of the platform are effectively baked into the relational web, as much as it remains possible for its evaluative orientation to run counter to the problem in exceptional cases. Users can resist a platform but they do so in spite of their status as users. Recognising this will be crucial to understanding the lived experience of platform participation, generating thick descriptions of actions within and through infrastructures which “constantly link events, actions, behaviours, decisions (clicks), assessments and other traces left unintentionally and unconsciously (such as speed of typing, time of access, or browser used to access site) all of which are used to build a web of context around objects and subjects”. The power of platform owners operates under these conditions “through its infrastructural design, maintaining standards, imposing what counts and how to count, excluding users, and introducing rules” so as to structure the field of possibilities, rather than guiding actors within it.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What is at stake in whether we define social media as platforms or tools?
  2. What does it mean to say “All platforms are equally defined by a set of mechanisms”?
  3. Where are the agents behind evaluative infrastructures?

In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.

This understanding seems increasingly crucial to me because the alternative might otherwise be a diffuse paranoia. As knowledge of data brokerage and data politics expands throughout society, it generates a certainty that we are being manipulated but an unknowability about precisely who is doing the manipulation, how they are doing it and what the effects might be. Platform literacy helps ground this in a concrete understanding of specific processes and their implications for our agency.

Any recommendations for reading on this are much appreciated! Particularly those with a pedagogical focus. I’ll be working my way through the Digital Polarisation Intiative’s work and the Polarisation MOOC in the meantime.

December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

We invite papers which address the full range of questions posed by these considerations, including topics such as:

  • The ontology of platforms
  • The epistemology of platforms
  • Methodological challenges in studying platforms
  • The transformation of the social sciences
  • The politics and political economy of platforms
  • Platforms as evaluative infrastructures
  • Platform education and the platform university 

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

We welcome abstracts of 500 words or less by July 31st 2018, sent to Please include a brief biographical note, as well as three key words to categorise your submission. We also plan to publish a select set of papers as a special issue or edited book and are in conversation with journal editors and publishers. We hope to have limited travel and accommodation funding available for unfunded PhD students and post-docs but cannot confirm this at present.

Notes for week 1 of the CPGJ Platform Capitalism reading group. The notes below relate to Evgeny Morozov’s lecture below: 

The question of ‘who owns digital capitalism?’ was posed for the conference but it was one which Morozov felt uncomfortable with because it implied a separation between ‘digital capitalism’ and financialised capitalism. To illustrate the problem with this assumption, he cites Apple’s status as the largest trader of private corporate bonds in the world, currently with $180 billion of privately issued corporate bonds. They are not seen as a finance company but they have their own financial trading firm. In parallel to this, we can see public stock and private investments in technology firms coming primarily from financial institutions, particularly sovereign wealth funds. Some of the largest owners of tech firms are sovereign wealth funds of countries such as Norway, the country most exposed to the technology industry in the United States.

These firms are now central to capitalism. The total increase of stock value in the big five (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook) from January 1st 2017 to November 2017 has been $950 billion. That’s bigger than the GDP of Norway, Denmark and Sweden combined. In China, two big firms have added around $450 billion to their valuations over a similar timescale. Every single sovereign wealth fund on the planet is trying to get in on the act, both established companies through the stock markets and unlisted companies through private investment. Investment funds are now raising money from governments, with the intention of channeling this money into new ventures which are far from being listed on public markets. These investments sometimes involve national collaboration, such as the Russia-China investment fund, lending this activity a geopolitical significance. Morozov stresses the importance of understanding these flows of capital because of the corporate possibilities entailed by them. He cites the example of Uber’s valuation of $60 billion and the freedom which comes from being able to attract such huge investments without going to capital markets. For this reason, firms themselves are increasingly disinterested in going public any more, representing a significant transformation in the financial system. Underlying this trend is the lack of returns which are viable through investments in other domains, representing a mechanism through which we can begin to recover the political economy of digital capitalism which has been suppressed by epochal thinking and technological hype:

Morozov argues there are three deficiencies in how we understand digital capitalism at present:

  1. We are quick to imagine digital capitalism as something recent, unique, exceptional and driven primarily by technological change. In contrast, Morozov argues that the capacity of platform organisations to scale to a global level, extracting value from all corners of the world, without significant capital investment has to be traced back to two previous crises of capitalism: the crisis of profitability in the 1970s and the financial crisis of 2007/8. Previous crises have invited a solution  (financialisation: a move from an economy based on manufacturing and production) which has led to accumulating problems of its own, leading to the present predicament following from 2007/8. Asset-based welfare or asset Keynesianism has sought to compensate for welfare retrenchment and stagnant wages by inflating private assets. It’s in this context that something like AirBnb can operate as a lifeline to generate stable income for many in Southern Europe. Digital technology has introduced savings in consumer expenses (facilitating the enjoyment of services without paying their full costs, because vast influxes of capital represent a near-term subsidy by institutional investors) while also offering people ways to seek to make a living, often leveraging assets like homes and cars. Our entire digital infrastructure is underwritten by firms which use advertising to underwrite the delivery of free services which would otherwise be costed. How would things look if we could add these costs into our national accounting?
  2. We have a very hard time periodising the history of digital capitalism. We tend to think of it as driven by trends that are permanent, driven by factors such as advertising which are then projected forward into our expectations of how the corporation will make money in future. However this model is a vulnerable one, susceptible to disruptions through ad blockers, national regulation or global stagnation. Given the centrality of advertising based services to digital capitalism in its current form, we can expect such a transition in business models. Morozov makes as plausible case that this will pivot on the deployment of the data created for advertising to the development of artificial intelligence which can be offered to there other sectors of the economy. The competitive advantage these companies have in artificial intelligence is pretty much unassailable on a number of levels, as well as their obvious capacity to hoover up artificial intelligence researchers and startups. This has geopolitical implications.There are far higher profit margins on these services than there are on advertising. We can see a precursor to this movement in IBM’s transition into providing consultancy services. The consequences of this for the public sphere are enormous.
  3. We need a much more ambitious approach to political and policy interventions. How do we address the ownership of the data collected for purposes of advertising? How do we address who owns artificial intelligence services that have been built with this data? This involves moving beyond simply thinking about privacy concerns, important though they are. Likewise banning firms, which misses the structural dependence which has been inculcated on platforms like AirBnb. We need to move beyond city level regulation. What is it that we can do if we move beyond this? Given the centrality to data to the future model of tech firms, getting the regulatory regime right for data becomes more crucial than ever. Might this involve collective rights to data? Municipal ownership of data?

Questions for discussion:

  • Should we talk about digital capitalism or platform capitalism? Does it matter?
  • When did platform capitalism start? How do we contextualise it in terms of a longer history of capitalism?
  • Is advertising the primary business model of platform capitalism? What other business models are there? Under what conditions might they be superseded and what might replace them?
  • What might a political agenda for regulating platform capitalism look like? How might this vary regionally and why? What are the geopolitical implications of this?

In recent discussions of capitalist transformation, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are many criticisms which can be raised of the platform metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how social, economic, political, cultural and technological factors are collectively contributing to systemic transformation.

This intensive five week reading group explores platform capitalism, the growing focus on the platform and its implications for sociological and educational research. Each session will be an informal discussion of two papers, chapters, essays or talks:

The meetings will take place from 4pm to 6pm in DMB 2S5 in The Donald McIntyre Building in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. This is a fifteen minutes walk from Cambridge train station and we welcome all attendees. We would appreciate if you could e-mail your intention to attend to so we can update you with further details.

In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

  1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
  2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

In my copy of The Vocation Lectures, edited by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, the editors helpfully annotate Weber’s description of the occupational realities of the German academic. From pg 2:

German students used to have a Studienbuch, a notebook in which they registered the coruses they were taking in their field. They then had to pay a fixed fee for each course. For staff on a full salary – that is, professors – these tuition fees were a welcome extra. For the unsalaried Privatdozent, these fees were the sole source of income. Science as a Vocation, pg 2. 

Is this where the Uberfication of the University could lead? I find it easy to imagine a Digital Studienbuch, the killer app of educational disrupters, dispersed throughout the university system. Universities would still exist to manage the ‘student experience’, control the academics and provide infrastructure. Perhaps there would still be paid professors to replenish the knowledge system and train the Privatdozent. But the university wouldn’t be the platform, instead it would be a whole series of arenas (with declining influence as the system became embedded), facilitating extraction from a relationship between teacher and taught on the part of a distant technology company.

Weber’s description of the academic career in Germany, “generally based on plutocratic premises”, seems eerily familiar from a contemporary vantage point:

For it is extremely risky for a young scholar without private means to expose himself to the conditions of an academic career. He must be able to survive at least for a number of years without knowing whether he has any prospects of obtaining ta position that will enable him to support himself.  Science as a Vocation, pg 2. 

In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz draws out an important parallel between the platform capitalism of YouTube and the near universally praised Wikipedia:

Unsurprisingly, YouTube hires countless consultants to better understand how to trigger the participation of the crowd. They wonder how they can get unpaid producers to create value. But equally, on the not-for-profit site, Wikipedia is asking how they can draw in more female editors, for instance.

Both involve an orientation to their users which sees them as objects of management, even if we might see the ends to which they are being managed in very different terms. This makes a lie of what Nick Couldry describes as the ‘myth of us’: the imaginary of platform capitalism which sees it as facilitating the free expression of natural sociability which older socio-technical systems had constrained

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.

There’s an excellent discussion in Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism of the immense cash reserves that technology companies have built up in recent years. As he notes, the headline figures don’t tell the whole story because these reserves don’t take into account the other debts and liabilities of these corporations. But the broader financial context is one in which, due to low corporate yields, it’s cheaper to take on new debt rather than bringing these cash reserves back on shore and having them be subject to corporation tax.

From loc 442

Recognising these points seems extremely important to understanding this corporate behaviour. Much of the ambition of the book is to see technology companies in terms of a broader post-crisis political economy and this is why the caveats on the headline figures of cash reserves are so crucial. These behaviours do not emerge sui generis from the technology sector but rather reflect corporations acting rationally within a more expansive context.

The public perception of the corporations in question, as well as the shiny and attention-grabbing investments they make with these cash reserves, create a tendency to evaluate them in their own terms. But these behaviours reflect economic mechanisms which are not unique to the technology sector. As Srnicek notes, “the use of corporate debt by these companies therefore needs to be set in the context of a tax avoidance strategy” (loc 442). These two conditions are crucial to these behaviour: (a) low corporate yields and the capacity to take on debt afforded by them (b) off-shoring of wealth and large scale avoidance of corporation tax. Both conditions are central to our post-crisis political economy rather than being sectoral phenomena.

Understanding this macro-economic context helps avoid the aforementioned trend of seeing the technology sector in sui generis terms. Yes, it’s new and shiny, but these are still corporations within a capitalist system, albeit one currently undergoing systemic change. To understand these changes, what Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism’ and what I tend to think of as ‘digital capitalism’, requires that we cut through the thickets of bullshit which are being promulgated about the ‘digital age’. He writes on loc 536:

Since the 2008 crisis, has there been a similar shift? The dominant narrative in the advanced capitalist countries has been one of change. In particular, there has been a renewed focus on the rise of technology: automation, the sharing economy, endless stories about the ‘Uber for X’, and, since around 2010, proclamations about the internet of things. These changes have received labels such as ‘paradigm shift’ from McKinsey1 and ‘fourth industrial revolution’ from the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and, in more ridiculous formulations, have been compared in importance to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. 2 We have witnessed a massive proliferation of new terms: the gig economy, the sharing economy, the on-demand economy, the next industrial revolution, the surveillance economy, the app economy, the attention economy, and so on. The task of this chapter is to examine these changes.

Understanding cash hoarding is central to moving beyond this breathless discursive explosion because it’s what facilitates many of the shiniest investments which appear to be at frontier of the ‘digital revolution’. It also facilitates the early acquisition of potential competitors, bringing them into the fold and often liberating them of their technology long before they might come to rival the platform giant. Cash hoarding protects from project uncertainty, facilitating open-ended investments in developments that lack a quantifiable market. But all the these factors which operate at the level of innovation need to be seen in terms of a political economy within which this corporate ‘autonomy’ becomes feasible and widespread.

It would be a mistake however to dismiss talk of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ as epiphenomenal. Firstly, real innovations are underway, albeit ones which are pervasively mischaracterised as the linear unfolding of technological mastery rather than an uneven and lop-sided progress driven by the weird dynamics of the tech sector, distorted by the aforementioned vortex created by the new platform overlords. Secondly, innovation talk has become all pervasive within organisations, performing an important culture role that can’t be adequately understood if we simply subsume it under the category of ‘ideology’:

A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of

Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).

The pervasive discourse of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ helps mystify fundamental changes in capitalism, propped up by even more pervasive ideas of open/closed, fast/slow and modern/traditional. But it also does important work at a meso-social level, not least of all within higher education:

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. in the British Medical Journal uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

We need to cut through this rhetoric, understanding its cumulative macro-cultural effects while also recognising the performative work it does across organisations and civil society. Doing so will inevitably be a complex exercise but it’s an important one. Doing this goes hand-in-hand with an account of digitalisation at the level of political economy rather than simply technology. This is what I take Srnicek to be doing on loc 568:

Data are not immaterial, as any glance at the energy consumption of data centres will quickly prove (and the internet as a whole is responsible for about 9.2 per cent of the world’s electricity consumption). 6 We should also be wary of thinking that data collection and analysis are frictionless or automated processes. Most data must be cleaned and organised into standardised formats in order to be usable. Likewise, generating the proper algorithms can involve the manual entry of learning sets into a system. Altogether, this means that the collection of data today is dependent on a vast infrastructure to sense, record, and analyse. 7 What is recorded? Simply put, we should consider data to be the raw material that must be extracted, and the activities of users to be the natural source of this raw material. 8 Just like oil, data are a material to be extracted, refined, and used in a variety of ways. The more data one has, the more uses one can make of them. Data were a resource that had been available for some time and used to lesser degrees in previous business models (particularly in coordinating the global logistics of lean production). In the twenty-first century, however, the technology needed for turning simple activities into recorded data became increasingly cheap; and the move to digital-based communications made recording exceedingly simple. Massive new expanses of potential data were opened up, and new industries arose to extract these data and to use them so as to optimise production processes, give insight into consumer preferences, control workers, provide the foundation for new products and services (e.g. Google Maps, self-driving cars, Siri), and sell to advertisers.

But what I find odd about this is it how it adopts the trope of ‘data as new oil’ without critically examining its embedding in the aforementioned rhetoric of disruption and innovation. I’m not yet sure if this is a disagreement with Srnicek’s argument or simply a request for further analysis. But I’m thus far finding the book thought provoking and highly recommend it.

This struck me as an interesting case that reveals a broader truth about the sharing economy. A description of the very early merger of two companies offering city wide access to unused capacity in fitness classes, from Sweat Equity, by Jason Kelly, loc 1343:

“When you look at quality fitness inventory in each city, there aren’t thousands of studios,” Kapoor says. “You’re talking in the hundreds range, so the supply is limited. It’s difficult for more than one marketplace to win aggregating this type of supply. We asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to go head to head like Uber and Lyft? Maybe it makes sense to come together. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to help the industry for us to spend time and resources fighting each other versus focusing on our partners and consumers.’”

The evolution of one of the two companies is itself quite interesting, detailed on the same location in the book:

Founder Kadakia created the company, initially called Classtivity, as a one-time (one-month) sampler; the service was called the Passport, and it allowed the user to try out various workouts with the assumption that she’d settle on a favorite and join up. The Passport holder was entitled to skip around, depending on mood and availability of classes, and pick what to do that day. One New York magazine writer dubbed it “How to have an open relationship with exercise.” It was such a good idea that people wanted to do it for more than a month.

The author makes the interesting point that the transitory nature of the ensuing experience erodes the shared experiences which he argues are integral to understanding the fitness boom. From loc 1374:

One thing ClassPass lacks is a community. Sure, there are lots of ClassPassers running around, and users may collude by text and e-mail to grab a couple of free spots in the same cycling or barre class. But ClassPass removes a key element of what makes so many of its client boutiques so attractive in the first place—the ability to show up, on a regular basis, with your people.

One of the most interesting developments in the so-called sharing economy is the growing tendency for the largest of these companies to try and mobilise their users as lobbying and protest groups at the municipal level

But when Airbnb’s executives look out at the world, they don’t see a fragmented puzzle of local politics and planning codes. They see Moscow, where Russians are renting out rooms on Airbnb as a means of surviving the country’s current recession. They see Havana, where Cubans were listing their homes in droves They see, as Lehane said to a room full of reporters over breakfast the morning after the election, a global network of guests and hosts that, if politically organized by and in favor of the company, could be enormously powerful.

And so organizing and training them is exactly what Airbnb plans to do, using its victory in San Francisco to unite Airbnb’s most passionate users into a series of clubs in cities around the world. The goal is to have created 100 of them by 2016. When election season rolls around that year, legions of customer advocates will be ready and waiting to come out against any group or individual who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace Airbnb and what it stands for.

This would always be sinister in-and-of-itself. But what really worries me is the dependency and/or loyalty of these users and how that may play itself out politically as this trend develops. I just came across this remarkable devotional essay: Why I’m thankful for the sharing economy.

At the end of the day, the sharing economy is the most necessary thing I need to survive. Not a day goes by without my pulling out my phone and tapping a couple apps to make my life in this crazy world a little bit easier

How many people experience these companies as something essential for their day-to-day life? This strikes me as a really urgent empirical question, particularly given the aforementioned political questioned posed by the increasingly aggressive lobbying of these companies in municipalities throughout the world.