My notes on Mirowski, P. (2018). The future (s) of open science. Social studies of science48(2), 171-203.

In this provocative paper, Philip he takes issue with the “taken-for-granted premise that modern science is in crying need of top-to-bottom restructuring and reform” which underpins much of the open science movement, as well as its tendency to obscure the key question of the sense in which it was ever closed and who is now intent on opening it up (pg 172)? Doing so runs contrary to a popular teleology in which a fixed scientific method is now being forced open by the inherent promise of digital technology. If we instead treat science historically, with distinct periods defined by specific orientations, it becomes possible to see that “the open science movement is an artefact of the current neoliberal regime of science, one that reconfigures both the institutions and the nature of knowledge so as to better conform to market imperatives” (pg 172).

Doing so cuts through the semantic ambiguity of openness, allowing distinct phenomena (open access, open data, citizen science, different formats for publication etc) to coalesce in a quasi-unified way, making it possible for advocates to slide between these various expressions of an open science which is rarely, if ever, precisely defined as an integrated project. He argues that this new regime combines an ethos of radical collaboration with the infrastructure of platform capitalism. Its moral force rests upon a whole range of inditement of modern science:

  1. Distrust of science is rampant in the general population: he takes issue in an interesting way with the assumption that more contact with scientists and more exposure to the practice of science will reverse this trend. Could it not do the opposite by personalising science through the mechanism of blogging and social media, making it even harder to convince the sceptical that its a disinterested pursuit? The precise form this scepticism takes varies (Mirowski’s example of educated neoliberals who believe scientists needs to feel market discipline before they can be trusted was particularly striking) but it’s a broad trend which can’t be wished away as a product of a reversible ignorance. This section reminded me a lot of the arguments Will Davies makes in Nervous States about the evisceration of representation as intermediaries are no longer trusted to act impersonally.
  2. Science suffers a democracy deficit: he suggests this fails to recognise how ‘science’ and ‘democracy’ have both been transformed since figures like Dewey first made this argument in the early 20th century. The freedom of scientists, won in relation to a military-industrial complex in which they were embedded, came at the cost of the freedom of the public to influence science. The former apparatus has given way to a market complex such that “science has been recast as a primarily commercial endeavor distributed widely across many different corporate entities and organizations, and not confined to disciplinary or academic boundaries” (pg 176). What it is taken to mean to democratise science has changed radically in this context, reducing it to a ‘scripted participation’ (citizen social science) in the research process as part of an extended marketplace of ideas, as opposed to meaningful participation in the governance of science. In fact I wonder if populist attacks on ‘wasteful research’ and ‘mickey mouse subjects’ should be interpreted as a (pathological) attempt to democratise science? He is scathing about equating “a greater quantity of people enrolled in minor (and unremunerated) support roles with a higher degree of democratic participation, when, in fact, they primarily serve as the passive reserve army of labor in the marketplace of ideas” (pg 177).
  3. The slowdown in scientific productivity: the promise suggested in open science to counteract a fall in actionable scientific outcomes (if I’ve glossed that correctly?) is belied by the form which openness takes within the regime of knowledge production found within commercial scientific research. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that the organisational apparatus of contemporary science can’t support the openness advocated (e.g. intellectual property restrictions get in the way, the proletarianised condition of bench scientists within commercial organisations) and the “stunted and shriveled” openness it can support doesn’t seem to work anyway. Though I’m not sure I’ve interpreted this section correctly.
  4. The explosion of retractions and the falling rate of falsification: many epistemic problems are ascribed by advocates of openness to the perverse incentives of the existing journal system. These problems can be seen most dramatically in the huge growth of retractions by journals of work which had passed the peer view process, with Retraction Watch currently identifying 600-700 retractions per year. A parallel problem is the basis against publishing falsifications in favour of positive additions to the knowledge system. The hope has been that the shift to a different business model might solve both problems.

If I understand correctly, his point is that a focus upon the deficiencies of science imputes to scientific practice what has its origins elsewhere. He offers a powerful inditement of the role of neoliberalism in producing the pathologies of contemporary science, listed on pg 188. But it’s unclear to me why this is either/or because the criticisms which open science advocates raise could be the outgrowths of neoliberalism’s influence? The point can be overstressed because in some cases there’s an active misdiagnosis correctly identified in his appraisal of these critiques but these are not universal and he seemingly misses the possibility of both/and:

The ailments and crises of modern science described in this paper were largely brought about by neoliberal initiatives in the first place. First off, it was neoliberal think tanks that first stoked the fires of science distrust amongst the populace that have led to the current predicament, a fact brought to our attention by Oreskes and Conway (2011), among others. It was neoliberals who provided the justification for the strengthening of intellectual property; it was neoliberals who drove a wedge between state funding of research and state provision of findings of universities for the public good; it was neoliberal administrators who began to fragment the university into ‘cash cows’ and loss leader disciplines; it was neoliberal corporate officers who sought to wrest clinical trials away from academic health centers and towards contract research organizations to better control the disclosure or nondisclosure of the data generated. In some universities, students now have to sign nondisclosure agreements if they want initiation into the mysteries of faculty startups. It is no longer a matter of what you know; rather, success these days is your ability to position yourself with regard to the gatekeepers of what is known. Knowledge is everywhere hedged round with walls, legal prohibitions, and high market barriers breached only by those blessed with riches required to be enrolled into the elect circles of modern science. Further, belief in the Market as the ultimate arbiter of truth has served to loosen the fetters of more conscious vetting of knowledge through promulgation of negative results and the need to reprise research protocols.

But he’s certainly correct that these overstatements legitimise platform initiatives which aim to reengineer science from the bottom up. The apparent diversity of these space is likely to decline over time, as a few platforms come to dominate. This opens up the worrying possibility that “Google or some similar corporate entity or some state-supported public/private partnership will come along with its deep pockets, and integrate each segment into one grand proprietary Science 2.0 platform” (pg 190). This platformization is likely to have unintended consequences, such a rendering science an individualised pursuit (he cites Orcid ID as an example of this – unfairly?) and setting up data repositories to fail if they are insufficiently succesful in attracting the data donors on whom their ultimate viability will depend.

He correctly identifies these platforms as facilitating a form of managerless control but I have an issue with the claim that “one automatically learns to internalize these seemingly objective market-like valuations, and to abjure (say) a tenacious belief in a set of ideas, or a particular research program” (pg 191). How automatic is the process really? If he means it as a short hand to say that it tends to happen to most users over time then I withdraw my objection. But if it happens in different ways and different degrees, we need to open up the blackbox of automaticity in order to see what causal mechanisms are operating within it.

He closes the paper by concretely laying out his case about why the platformization of science is a neoliberal process. Firstly, it breaks up the research process into distinct segments which permit of rationalisation. Secondly, the focus upon radical collaboration gradually subsumed the author into collaboration, in apparent contradiction of his earlier point about the individualisation of science. Thirdly, the openness for the user goes hand in hand with an opaque surveillance for the platform provider with monetisation assumed to follow further down the line. The most interesting part of this paper is how description of the ambition towards building a unified platform portfolio (mega platform?) for research and how this fits into the longer term strategy of publishers. There’s a lot to think about here and I suspect this is a paper I will come back to multiple times.

This ECPR panel looks superb. Saving here to follow up later:

please find attached, the call for papers for a panel at the ECPR General
Conference in Wrocław (4 – 7 September).

Title of the panel:***The Relationship Between Digital Platforms and**
**Government Agencies in Surveillance: Oversight of or by Platforms?*

If you are interested in participating please submit an abstract (500
words maximum) no later then *15 February* via the ECPR Website (ecpr.eu).

*Abstract*
Revelations of surveillance practices like those of the National
Security Agency or Cambridge Analytica have shown that the digital age
is developing into an age of surveillance. What said revelations have
also shown is that digital platforms are significantly contributing to
this development. As intermediaries between communications and business
partners platforms enjoy a privileged position (Trottier 2011). Platform
increasingly use this position by surveilling and manipulating end users
for the sake of profit maximization (Fuchs 2011, Zuboff 2015). Platforms
with a business model of surveillance and manipulation, seem to have
become the most successful type of corporations of today. Already two of
the three most valuable corporations are operating as such platforms.
While platforms are emerging and expanding in ever more established as
well as new markets and thus gain influence on large parts of society,
the question arises how states are dealing with these new actors and
their capabilities. The panel is intended to provide answers to this
question by studying the spectrum of state-platform relations.
As empirical examples show, the relationship between digital platforms
and the states is multi-faced. On the one hand public institutions are
partnering with private platforms. The data from platforms is used for
example by intelligence agencies to combat terrorist groups, by police
departments to search for criminal suspects and by regulatory agencies
to counter hate speech or violations of copyrights.
On the other hand, the capabilities of platforms can also be turned
against the state. As the last US presidential elections showed
platforms can be utilized to influence the electorate or to compromise
political actors.
From the point of view of the platforms, the state represents on the one
hand an instance that may restricts their actions as it declares
specific types of business activity illegal. The new general data
protection regulation of the EU is one example.
At the same time, states are providing the legal basis for the
platforms’ activities. In order to promote e-commerce for example many
European states liberalized their privacy regulation in the beginning of
the new millennium.
These examples illustrate the diversity in platform-state relations. The
panel will acknowledge this diversity and will bring together works
considering various empirical cases as well as theoretical frameworks.
We welcome contributions focusing on different political systems as well
as different platforms like for example social media, retail, transport
or cloud computing platforms.
Exemplary questions that may be addressed are:

• Which major privacy, anti-trust or media regulations of platforms
where enacted on the national level recently? Which types of platforms
were addressed and which were not? In how far do these regulations
resemble a general trend? To which degree do they effect surveillance
practices?
• In which areas and by which means of surveillance are platforms
already enforcing public policies? Which kind of data is provided by
platforms for predictive policing? How are platforms identifying and
depublishing illegal content? When are platforms collaborating with
intelligence agencies?
• How can platforms be regulated efficiently? Which forms of regulations
between hierarchical regulation and self-regulation exist and how did
these forms emerge? In how far is oversight of platforms comparable to
oversight by platforms?
• Are policies of platform regulation defusing? If so, which states are
setting the standards?
• Which international institutions in the field of platform regulation
were created so far? Is an international regime of platform regulation
evolving?

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.

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 mac228@cam.ac.uk. 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 the last year, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously. In part, this preoccupation is analytical because following this thread has proven to be a useful way to move from my past focus on individual users of social media to a more expansive sociological account of platforms. The lifecycle of metrics from being a project of platform engineers, through to being a feature of platforms onto something which are meaningful and matter to users elucidates structure and agency as it pertains to platforms. As does the subsequent utilisation of these metrics, laden with meaning by users, in order to model these people and modulate the environment within which they act. By saying we shouldn’t take metrics too seriously, I’m drawing attention to the way they are used as a mechanism to mould the behaviour of users and the risk that uncritical embrace of them leaves us being enticed by platforms in a damaging way.

However beyond this concern, we shouldn’t lose sight of how easily they can be fudged and how unreliable they are. This is a concern which Jaron Lanier powerfully puts forward on pg 67 of his new book:

First, why believe the numbers? As discussed in the previous argument, much of the online world is fake. Fake readers, fake commenters, fake referrals. I note that news sites that are trying to woo advertisers directly often seem to show spectacularly greater numbers of readers for articles about products that might be advertised—like choosing your next gaming machine—than for articles about other topics. This doesn’t mean the site is fudging its numbers. Instead, a manager probably hired a consulting firm that used an algorithm to optimize the choice of metrics services to relate the kind of usage statistics the site could use to attract advertisers. In other words, the site’s owners didn’t consciously fudge, but they kinda-sorta know that their stats are part of a giant fudge cake.

It’s not so much that they are meaningless as that their meaning is often unstable. There are occasions in which it might be necessary to engage with them but we have to do this carefully. One of my projects in the next year will be to try and produce guidelines about this interpretation which reflect what we know about the sociology of platforms while nonetheless recognising that metricising our activity on social media can sometimes serve as strategic purpose.

In the last year, I find myself obsessing ever more fequently about agency and platforms. Given I spent six years writing a PhD about human agency, it is inevitable that this would be the lens I bring to the analysis of platforms. But it also reflects a sustained weakness in how the role of agency in platforms is conceptualised, as well as the political implications which are seen to flow from this. It is one which we can make sense of using Margaret Archer’s notion of conflation, developed to make sense of how different theorists have sought to solve the problem of structure and agency.

I want to suggest we can find a fundamental ambiguity about platforms which plays out at both political and ontological levels. This ambiguity reflects a failure to make sense of how platforms exercise a causal influence over human beings and how human beings exercise a causal influence over platforms. Platform structuralism takes many forms but it fundamentally sees human behaviour as moulded by platforms, leveraging insights into the social, psychological and/or neuro constitution of human beings to condition their behaviour in predictable and explicable ways. It takes the platform as the horizon of human action, framing human beings as responding to the incentives and disincentives to be found within its architecture. It is often tied to a politics which sees platforms as generating pathological, even addictive, behaviours. It conflates downwards and takes agency as an epiphenomenon of (platform) structure.

Critiques informed by platform structuralism often seem to have put their finger on something important, while remaining overstated in a way that is hard to pin down specifically. My suggestion is this overstatement is a failure to come to terms with the fundamental relation between the platform and the user. How do platforms exercise a causal influence over their users? Their interventions are individualised in a statistical way, rather than a substantive one. These are instruments which are simultaneously precise yet blunt. While they might be cumulatively influential, particular instances are liable to be crude and ineffective, often passing unnoticed in the life of the user. For this reason we have to treat the causal powers of platforms over their users extremely careful. It is also something which varies immensely between platforms and the ontology of platforms designed for multi-sided markets is a more complex issue for another post.

Platform voluntarism is often a response to the overstatement of platform structuralism. Denying the capacity of platforms to mould their users, platforms are framed as simply providing incentives and disincentives, able to be ignored by users as readily as they are embraced. The platform is simply a stage upon which actors act, perhaps facilitating new categories of action but doing nothing to shape the characteristics of the agents themselves. It conflates upwards, treating platform (structure) as a straight forward expression of the aggregate intentions of their users. Both platform voluntarism and platform structuralism tend to reify platforms, cutting them off in different ways from both users and the wider social context in which they use. What gets lost is human agency and the ways in which these infrastructures shape and are shaped by human agents.

Another reason it is so crucial to retain agency as a category is because these platforms are designed in purposive ways. Unless we have an account of how they have the characteristics they do because people have sought to develop them in specific ways, we risk lapsing into a form of platform structuralism which we take platforms as an a priori horizon within which human beings act. They are simply given. We might inquire into the characteristics of platforms in other capacities, including as business models, but we won’t link this to our account of how platforms conditions the social action of users taking place within and through them. We will miss the immediate reactivity of platforms to their users, as well as the many human, rather than merely algorithmic, mechanisms at work. But more broadly, we will take the conditioning influences as a given rather than as something to be explained. In such a case, we treat user agency and engineering agency as unrelated to each other and fragment a phenomenon which we need to treat in a unified way.

If we want to draw out these connections, it becomes necessary to understand how engineers design platforms in ways encoding an understanding of users and seeking to influence their action. If we can provide thick descriptions of these projects, capturing the perspective of engineers as they go about their jobs, it becomes much easier to avoid the oscillation between platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. Central to this is the question of how platform engineers conceive of their users and how they act on these conceptions. What are the vocabularies through which they make sense of how their users act and how their actions can be influenced? Once we recover these considerations, it becomes harder to support the politics which often flows from platform structuralism. As Jaron Lanier writes on loc 282 of his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

There is no evil genius seated in a cubicle in a social media company performing calculations and deciding that making people feel bad is more “engaging” and therefore more profitable than making them feel good. Or at least, I’ve never met or heard of such a person. The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the “easy” emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.

He suggests we must replace terms like “engagement” with terms like “addiction” and “behavior modification”. Only then can we properly confront the political ramifications of this technology because our description of the problems will no longer be sanitised by the now familiar discourse of Silicon Valley. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome the contrasting tendencies towards platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome conflationism in our approach to platforms.

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.

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 mac228@cam.ac.uk. 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.

What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.

Reluctantly cut from my digital sociology paper

Indeed, as Srnicek (2016) argues, this dynamics is integral to the nature of the platform itself, as a business model premised upon maximising opportunities for data extraction through situating itself as an intermediary between the interactions of existing actors. Each platform has an epistemic privilege in relation to the transactions taking place though it, the potential financial value of which encourages maximal data extraction from existing users and continued efforts to expand the user base. The more a platform grows, the more useful it is to its users and the greater the range and value of the data collected. The logic of platforms generates an ambition towards monopoly, which might manifest itself in a choice to pull out of areas where this seems impossible to achieve e.g. Uber in China (Stone 2017).

The explanatory challenge posed by platforms rests on the confluence of social, economic and technology factors within a rapidly changing environment, the intensification of which is being brought about in part by the platforms themselves. Srnicek’s (2016) work offers an account of how such an analysis could proceed, identifying the generic characteristics of platforms and the different forms they take. In the case of something like the ‘sharing economy’, we can see a clear business model: find a social interaction which already is or could be monetised, develop a digital platform which can be inserted as an intermediary within that interaction and rely on network develops to scale the new model in a way that will ultimately squeeze out any instances of the interaction which are unmediated or reliant on an older form of mediation. The precise character of these dynamics, as well as the changing situation of those caught up within them, is probably best pursued as a multi-disciplinary endeavour (Scholz 2016). But sociological thought offers powerful resources for making sense of the broader context within which this is taking place: how are the platforms scaling in this way? To what extent are they reliant upon declining social integration and to what extent are they contributing to it? How are social relations being transformed by increasingly large tracts of human activity being governed by the technical architecture and social imperative of large corporations based many thousands of mile away, whose local operations are concerned at most with recruiting new workers & safeguarding the platform against regulatory pushback? These questions are offered by way of example of the intellectual resources sociology offers for making sense of these changes.

 

There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

An excellent footnote in The Global Minotour. From loc 3865:

Once all your music, films, applications, addresses, etc. are on iTunes and readily accessible by any Apple product (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.), the opportunity cost of buying a Nokia or a Sony device is huge (even if these companies bring a better device to market) –you need to spend literally hours setting the new gadget up. Thus, iTunes gave Apple immense monopoly power, of the same type that Edison and Westinghouse were trying to create for themselves.

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

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

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

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

A really fascinating read on Harvard Business Review:

We found that through Uber’s app design and deployment, the company produces what many reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force. Drivers have the freedom to log in or log out of work at will, but once they’re online, their activities on the platform are heavily monitored. The platform redistributes management functions to semiautomated and algorithmic systems, as well as to consumers.

Algorithmic management, however, can create a deal of ambiguity around what is expected of workers — and who is really in charge. Uber’s neutral branding as an intermediary between supply (drivers) and demand (passengers) belies the important employment structures and hierarchies that emerge through its software platform.

https://hbr.org/2016/04/the-truth-about-how-ubers-app-manages-drivers

From Battle of the Titans, loc 113-127. This dynamic seems likely to intensify with time:

A lot of what we buy via Apple’s iTunes store—apps, music, movies, TV shows, books, etc.—doesn’t work easily on Android devices or at all, and vice versa. And both companies know that the more money each of us spends on apps and other media from one store, the less likely we are to switch to the other. They know we will ask, “Why rebuy all that content just to buy an Android phone instead of an iPhone?” Many companies have free apps that work on both platforms, but even having to redownload them, and re-set them up, is enough to keep many users from switching. In Silicon Valley parlance, it’s a platform war. Whether your example is Microsoft with Windows and Office, eBay with auctions, Apple with the iPod, Amazon with books, Google with search, or Facebook with social media, history suggests that the winner in fights like this gets more than 75 percent of the market share, while the loser struggles to stay in that business.