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  • Mark 8:30 pm on September 13, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , discussion, platforms, , , Zizi Papacharissi   

    The supersurfaces of social media 

    If I understand this notion from Zizi Papacharissi correctly*, it captures something important about social media. These platforms create an experience of expansiveness which doesn’t hook into the social world in a significant way. It’s a free-wheeling expansiveness, to use a term from Roy Bhaskar’s critique of Richard Rorty, a trick of perspective which affects a significance it can’t provide. From pg 137 of Affective Publics:

    The term supersurfaces is popular among architects, as a way of describing spatial possibilities enabled by the technique of folding, so as to show how flat surfaces can be transformed into volumes through cutting, weaving, twisting, winding, and further manipulating woven forms (Vyzoviti, 2001, 2003). I use the term to describe how the discursive spaces rendered by net-based platforms relate to the materiality of physical spaces (Papacharissi, 2010). They extend and pluralize spaces for conversation and mobilization organically, in ways that feel empowering and meaningful. At the same time, without direct connections to the systemic core of civic institutions, their ability to effect institutional change is compromised.

    *And I’m not sure I do because I don’t think this is a particular clear explanation.

     
  • Mark 8:40 am on August 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , platforms,   

    George Soros on the threat of techno-fascism 

    From this speech at Davos:

    The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

    But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, datarich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined. The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. The Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the American ones. They also enjoy the full support and protection of the Xi Jingping regime. The government of China is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders. US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast-growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world.

     
  • Mark 6:37 pm on May 10, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: class dojo, , , platforms,   

    Datafication and discipline in educaiton 

    My notes on Manolev, J., Sullivan, A., & Slee, R. (2019). The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(1), 36-51.
    To understand how digital technology is reshaping education, it’s necessary to analyse how datafication (“the conversion of social action into quantifiable data in a manner that enables the tracking of people in real-time”, 36) changes educational processes. This includes the role of power within them: “the ways in which power is implicated in decisions such as what constitutes and is selected as data, who controls it, who can alter it, how it is interpreted, and what purpose it will serve” (36). Class Dojo is the foremost platform driving this process within education, with implications for every facet of activity within a school. It provides a social platform which allows interaction and activity to take place in structured ways between all actors within the school.
    They analyse this with a Foucauldian approach of a sort rarely seen within educational technology research, concerned with the school as “a data-rich site of surveillance” (38) since its inception. It has always ordering and classification in order to bring about certain states of affairs in students, with contemporary platforms being a novel means through which to accomplish these longer term ambitions. New technologies are designed to “increase the effectiveness, efficiency and productivity of surveillance and data-related capabilities in schools” (38). This context helps explain the rapid growth of ClassDojo from 80 users in its first week into a worldwide sensation with a translation function for 35 languages which reflect its success in markets such as Vietnam, Turkey, China and India. More than three million teachers and 35 million children are claimed to be using the platform in 180 countries worldwide (39). They make the interesting observation that this growth appears to be “impervious to the typical bureaucratic gatekeeping processes of national education systems” (39). However despite its apparent novelty, “closer inspection reveals a technological layering over older ideas and practices” (47).
    It functionality rests on tracking student behaviour and allowing teachers to immediately respond to that behaviour. This came with reporting of records of behaviour at the individual or class level, all of which could be accessed in real time from any location. It incorporates behavioural reinforcement, with students rewarded with positive, neutral and negative ‘dojo points’ in order to encourage and discourage behaviours. Each student has an avatar and teachers are able to plan the behaviours which they wish to try and cultivate in students. The two feedback categories of “positive” and “needs work” clearly represent positive and negative reinforcement. These operate as numerical values which impact upon the students dojo points, accompanied by a positive noise or an abrasive one. Reports can be shared with parents over the platform, with registered parents able to receive weekly e-mail notifications inviting them to check their child’s report.
    In a context where discipline is a practical concern and politicised topic, the positive reinforcement of Class Dojo discipline has an obvious appeal. Despite concerns that external rewards undermine internal standards and self-control, they offer a quick and easy behavioural fix which has clearly proved alluring to teachers. It provides game like elements for students (points system, avatars, leader board, badges etc), technological solutions to institutional problems for policy makers and a sense of control for teachers. This incentives the continual expansion of surveillance in order to ensure more data. ClassDojo “requires teachers to monitor students constantly, catching students performing particular behaviours, generating, storing and analysing data through its software as this occurs” (43). The teacher becomes the conduit of datafication through assigning points to students for designated activities, feeding into the gamified elements of the system. It inclines the user towards “a standards-based approach to discipline, in which the standards take the form of numerical targets or benchmarks that have been affixed to a range of predetermined behaviours” (44). However this conversion into numerical rankings decontextualises behaviour and reduces its complexity. This renders action as a performance on which students can be continually judged and ranked, with the tracking of performance standing in for their underlying worth. The effect of this is to “force students to understand themselves through a process of calculation, constantly measuring themselves against narrow representations of ideal behaviours derived from dominant cultural understandings” (47).
     
  • Mark 10:47 am on April 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: fact checking, factfulness, , , , , , platforms, ,   

    You can’t have your ‘facts’ back 

    My notes on Marres, N. (2018). Why We Can’t Have Our Facts Back. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 4, 423-443.

    “We want our facts back” is a semi-joking remarking Noortje Marres overheard an academic say which captures a wider response to what has been called ‘post-truth’. Many feel increasingly inclined to take a normative stance in support of ‘facts’ and feel nostalgic for “a time when experts still seemed to have unquestionable authority and felt secure in this authority, when government ministers didn’t say things like ‘people have had enough of experts,’ and the notion that evidence should play a central role in public debate and politics had widespread, even taken-for- granted, institutional support” (423-424). Appealing though it might be, Marres points out that this position ignores the fact that not only were partisans of evidence were a minority in public life in the 90s and 00s, it was also widely recognised that evidence-based debate was not in itself as solution to political problems and could even be problematic by putting politics at risk through an over reliance on experts. While recognising the growing indifference of public speech to factfulness and the lack of consequences attached to outright lies, Marres argues we need to look more deeply to the “changing architectures of the public sphere” (424). The many initiatives which seek to restore the place of factfulness within public life (disinformation awareness campaigns, knowledge literacy programme, fact-checking services) risk reinstating an outdated strategy for securing facts in public debate which is based on authority. It entails a divide between knowing and unknowing subjects, those with facts and those without, which runs contrary to any aspiration for a knowledge democracy. Achieving this will require institutional, media and technological arrangements which are very different to those from the much claimed golden age of factfulness.

    Social media has become a battleground for these debates, with fact checking initiatives using techniques ranging from ‘human moderation’ through to automated fact verification in order to apply journalistic procedures to online content. The platforms themselves have invested increasingly in moderation teams, as well as using automated tools to seek to demarcate problematic and unproblematic material. This has led inter alia to ‘dispute contented’ banners which can now be attached to certain pieces of content on Facebook, highlighting that a third party fact checking operation has cast doubt upon it. There have been questioned range about the working conditions of those undertaking this epistemic labour in click farms, but less scrutiny of the epistemology and methodologies underpinning them. The rely for their legitimacy on ideals of public knowledge and scientific citizenship but operate on a basis which is in tension with these, assuming that “quality is an attribute of information itself” (426). This runs contrary to what had become an increasingly dominant sense of information as *social*, defined by its circulation and connections. In contrast now what is at stake is seen to be the properties of content itself: “What is said to be in need of attention and intervention is the “veracity” of online statements and the potential duplicity of online sources” (427). For instance Factmata seeks to “cross-reference any claim circulating online onto a database of so-called verified statements, in order to validate or invalidate it” (427). So for instance a claim about immigration would immediately be linked to public data about the issue, allowing users to ‘become their own fact checkers’. In this it embodied logical positivism, seeking to decompose statements into units which could be matched against experience or other verifiable statements. Marres makes a particularly interesting point here about how logical positive and computer science shared a common inspiration in Frege’s logic and similar work, going some way to explaining the tendency for positivism to be reinstated by the turn to AI in systems like Factmata.

    Fact checking systems implement a methodology and perform a service, but they also carry a distinction: “that between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge” (428). These putatively technical procedures in fact draw normative boundaries, ones which its important we understand. She references Rorty’s account of demarcationism: defining validity or its absence as a binary attribute of atomistic statements i.e. can be they be traced back to observational statements or not? The normative dimension comes from the question of how to police this boundary between different types of statements. It also entails a sense of actors as being responsible for the epistemic quality of debate, by drawing attention to the character of their statements. In this world view, ‘good’ sources reliably produce valid statements, with ‘good’ users capable of discerning their presence. This is what Marres calls the politics of demarcation. This seeks ‘fake news’ as something which emerges from outside the technology: “it is the type of information sources that the Internet makes available, on one hand, and the users’ lack of skills capable of discerning the difference between valid and invalid statements, one the other, that are said to be responsible for the prevalence of dodgy content in this media environment” (428). Fact vs fiction pages were part of internet culture in the 1990s and demarcationist technologies predate the rise of ‘fake news’. But whereas the blame was once attributed to deviant online subcultures such as vaxers or flat-earthers, it’s now increasingly marked in social terms such as education levels. This dichotomy of responsible and irresponsible users roughly maps onto a broader “opposition between educated progressives and, on balance, less educated supporters of populist and nationalist causes” which is at the heart of contemporary debates about ‘fake news’ i.e. it has the potential in practice to position nascent ‘populists’ as the epistemic crisis, who need to beaten back by and suppressed through technological means in order to ensure the health of the public sphere. They might even reinforce the distinction in a way that furthers the political project of the latter, as can be seen in the far-right backlash against social media firms ‘deplatforming’ leading figures.

    Demarcationism can’t account for the role that digital media has played in undermining respect for knowledge in the first place, instead externalising it into the figure of deviant users and deviant content producers. The mechanism undermining this is simple, as algorithms for content selection are designed to ensure maximum circulation in order to build the widest possible audience. This account of this on 431 was excellent:

    “Online platforms, then, reward messages that spread instantly and widely with even more visibility, and, as tabloid newspapers invested in maximizing advertising revenue also found out in previous decades, sensational rather than factual content turns out to satisfy this criterion of maximal “share-ability” best. A commercial logic here gives rise to a circular content economy, one without referent: content that gets shared a lot is rewarded with more visibility, thereby increasing its share-ability.”

    Fact checking services address the bias of sources while veiling the role of this content economy in conditioning the behaviour of those sources. They render opaque the role played by “technologies of source selection that regulate content circulation online” (431). The network structure of online communities is another source of limitation, as groups spreading ‘fake news’ barely overlap with groups interested in debunking it. How do we make sense of these differences between knowledge communities without invoking the facile distinction of literate and illiterate? Fact checking and demarcation do not help us understand the problem with knowledge we face in digitalised societies, instead actually actively keeping us from this. This concern doesn’t mean we deny there is a “crisis of public evidence in today’s digital societies” but rather that we recognise it “goes well beyond da disregard for facts in digital media environments” (433). It’s crucial that we recognise how “the insertion of computational technologies into public infrastructures have resulted in deception and manipulation of the empirical record” (434) by undermining institutional architectures which ensured accountability across social life. The correspondence model of truth embedded in fact checking is inadequate to address the broader social challenges which these developments are posing for us. Its reliance on looking back, checking claims against a corpus of established facts, fails to grasp today’s “dynamic information environments, in which readings and behaviors are constantly adjusted as conditions change” (434). Marres argues for a dynamic conception of truth in debate to replace this retrospective one.

    The behaviourism around which platforms have been designed uses a concept of users as “influenceable subjects, not knowledge agents”. It has facilitated a social science which does without interpretation, but this does not mean it is a knowledge free environment. It is, as Marres puts it, “a research-centric apparatus, in that their design directly reflects the epistemic needs of the data scientists whose analytic operations are key to their commercial model: to target information to groups of friends, to track shares and likes in the aggregate” (435). It is built around the influencibility of users, with an empirical register which is predicated upon this. This is the final problem which Marres raises with demarcationist fact checking: “the normative opposition between knowledge (good) and non-knowledge (bad) that it imposes makes it difficult to see that epistemic ideals––like behaviorism––themselves have played a role in encouraging a disregard for knowledge on the Internet” (437). Not least of all in the fundamental assymetry at its heart. From 437:

    “social media present an environment in two halves, where, on the one side, we find users with “influence-able” and “target-able” opinions, tastes, and preferences, while, on the other side, we have authoritative data analysts who “know” the population’s fine- grained and ever-changeable preferences and tastes. Scientists––the proponents of knowledge–– haven’t been by-standers but active participants in the crafting of a media architecture designed to enable the influencing of users’ actions.”

    Demarcationism reflects this bifurcation, with the knowing subjects seeking to redesign the information environment to correct the unknowing subjects. The “veritable army of social data scientists who monitor, measure, and seek to intervene in this behavioral theatre” do so on the basis of facts, but outside of the public sphere and in a way which precludes engagement between experts and citizens.

    Fake news might be problematic in itself but it attaches itself to issues which matter to people, tracking controversies which define political life. Fact checking fails to address this connection for the reasons cited above, but Marres argues that ‘experimental facts’ might be better served for this purpose. This doesn’t entail a rejection of stable facts, well establish ed and stable conditions which play an important role in public debate. If I understand correctly, these “statements whose veracity is unstable and whose epistemic status changes over time” (438) because they reference a changing reality, can be interrogated in real time in order to facilitate debate about their character and implications, as opposed to being demarcated in relation to an established body of fact. But I found the example of the £350 million on the NHS claim slightly confusing. There’s so much in this paper to think about, I’m going to come back to it at a lot. I think the point is that ‘experimental facts’ in this sense are more common given the epistemic dynamism which characterised digitalised society. So in essence the argument is to find ways to stay with the difficulties these cause, rather than trying to shut them down in ways likely to be be epistemically short-sighted and politically counter-productive. This is a move from a politics of demarcation to a politics of selection: “while demarcation concentrates on the retrospective establishment of correspondence of public statements with presumably stable, pre-given atomistic statements, a politics of selection progressively establishes a referent for claims through an iterative process of locating and evaluating statement-networks in formation.” (441).

     
  • Mark 12:54 pm on February 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , platform science, , platforms, science 2.0   

    Open science and platform capitalism: a love story? 

    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.

     
  • Mark 9:18 am on February 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , platforms   

    The governance of platforms 

    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?

     
  • Mark 2:36 pm on January 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , platform urbanism, platforms   

    Cambridge as a platform city 

    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.

     
  • Mark 8:51 am on July 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , platforms,   

    Call for Papers: Capitalism, Social Science and the Platform University 

    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.

     
  • Mark 2:53 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , platforms, , , social media stats,   

    Why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously 

    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.

     
  • Mark 11:01 am on June 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , platforms, structuralism, , ,   

    Human agency beyond platform structuralism and platform voluntarism 

    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.

     
  • Mark 9:51 am on May 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , gillespie, margetts, , platforms, ,   

    The Political Ontology of 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.

     
    • landzek 4:51 pm on May 30, 2018 Permalink

      Platform as discursive strategy. I like that. It is interesting to me how in the general living of “freedom” it appears that we begin with this idea of neutral or neutrality across a category, and we find overtime that this neutrality gets exploited, and so demand regulation if we are going to maintain this neutrality. I mean that looks like a critique of freedom itself.

      Like a way that consciousness functions. Because I think that we have to admit that what say people that of been around a while, a.k.a. adults or older people, dread of the future for their children, the children themselves just grow up in that space as if it’s natural. It seems than that democracy itself is this kind of self regulating neutrality. That it isn’t so much that people become “not free“ through the regulation, but the regulated freedom just becomes freedom itself. What someone 100 years prior might say is authoritarianism for the people of that moment 100 years later they just call it freedom.

      So much to think about thank you for having your blog.

    • Mark 9:50 am on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      You’re welcome! Thanks for your thoughtful comments 🙂

  • Mark 7:09 pm on May 13, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , platforms   

    Call for Papers: Capitalism, Social Science and the Platform University 

    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.

     
  • Mark 9:09 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A/B testing, , epistemology, , platforms, , , user testing   

    The epistemic privilege of platforms 

    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.

     
  • Mark 1:27 pm on May 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , platforms, ,   

    The Sociology of Platforms 

    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.

     

     
  • Mark 10:58 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , platforms, , , , , ,   

    The duality of the platform: users and workers 

    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.

     
  • Mark 12:28 pm on September 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , platforms, , ,   

    Varoufakis on the monopoly power of platforms 

    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.

     
  • Mark 2:11 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: air bnb, , platforms, , , ,   

    How do Americans define the sharing economy? 

    Given how much time and energy has gone into constructing the notion of the ‘sharing economy’, these findings are fascinating. I would have assumed awareness of the term to be much higher and for established brands to dominate the explanations offered by respondents, something which was apparently not the case.

    FT_16.05.18_sharingEconomy_640px

     
  • Mark 5:52 pm on May 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , platforms, , ,   

    What happens in an internet minute? 

    CgadYInXIAE4zeT

    HT @simonlindgren

     
  • Mark 9:01 am on April 11, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , platforms, , ,   

    Digital Capitalism and the Platform Wars 

    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.

     
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