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.

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.

In his fascinating book Spam: a Shadow History of the Internet, Finn Brunton offers an example on pg 23-24 of how the early ARPANET was local in a way that is no longer the case.

in September 1973, computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock used his ARPANET connection in Los Angeles to get back the electric razor he’d left at a conference in Brighton. He knew his friend Larry Roberts would probably be online (logged in at a terminal in Brighton to a mainframe in Cambridge) and could retrieve it and hand it off to someone going to Los Angeles. He reached across the transcontinental, trans-Atlantic network as though leaning over a fence, shouting across the street.

I was struck by the thought that I retrieved a laptop charger in precisely the same way via Twitter. Is this platform making the Internet local again? By which I mean that network activity often forms largely around professional networks with a substantial degree of prior face-to-face interaction and the facilitation of further face-to-face interaction through digitally mediated contact?

Uber is planning to raise up to $1 billion in new investment, only months after having raised the same amount. As Natasha Lomas observes, this raises an important question:

Why does a ride-hailing business that likes to claim it’s not a transportation company need such a massive money mountain behind it? It’s pretty clear Uber subsidizes the cost of rides as part of its market expansion acceleration strategy — as a way to undercut traditional taxi opposition and put pressure on local ride-hailing competition.

It’s also been spending big on trying to crack specific international markets, such as the Chinese market, where it faces some fast growing (and well funded) local competition — raising around $1.2 billion last month to fuel its growth there, and another $1 billion in July focused on India.

The company has also signaled its ambitions go beyond getting people from A to B, with merchant delivery programs, such as food delivery (Uber Eats) and a same-day courier service (Uber Rush), being piloted and soft launched in various cities.

It’s also engaged in driverless car tech research — envisaging an evolution of its platform, down the road, where Ubers are driven by robots rather than self-employed human ‘partners’. The meatsacks will just be sitting in the back.

She plausibly suggests that Uber’s ultimate goal is to become an ‘on demand logistics platform’. The overlap with Amazon’s long term ambitions here seems particularly interesting. But what is most pressing to me is the question of when, if at all, the rhetoric of the ‘sharing economy’ will be abandoned. 

There are strong prima facie grounds on which to argue that it functions as a discursive slight of hand, distracting attention from the terrifying scale of Uber’s ambitions. It would be an interesting exercise to try and evaluate this through a content analysis: how does Uber position itself in public, particularly in response to criticism? How, if at all, has this changed over time?