Saturday, May 19, 2018

"...On the Theory of Platform Capitalism"

Five books, five reviews, one place.
From the Los Angeles Review of Books, April 24:

Delete Your Account: On the Theory of Platform Capitalism
THE TERM “PLATFORM” is everywhere, but it’s not clear if it’s a metaphor or a thing, a new condition in the digital era or semantic camouflage for the banal evil of capitalism. Platforms are raised areas that facilitate — and leave open — exchange and social activity. As long as software platforms were contained behind personal computer screens and locked into physical infrastructures, the metaphor seemed innocuous. But now meatspace and cyberspace have fused. As a recent how-to for the new business era, Platform Revolution, puts it: “A platform is a business based on enabling value-creating interactions between external producers and consumers,” providing “an open, participative infrastructure for these interactions” and setting “governance conditions for them.” This model of privatized governance is spreading. Production and distribution, services and the social: all have been “disrupted” by the rules of the platform. Tom Goodwin observed in 2015 that “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles.” And the same could be said for Facebook (media), Alibaba (retail), and Airbnb (hotels). It’s true that none of these platforms owns the goods their services enable. But this now ubiquitous observation raises more questions than it answers.

Are these platforms skimming rent off capital and labor? Or do they represent a fundamental shift in economics, a new Industrial Revolution? The second view, espoused by the pop-management guru team Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, holds that that “cybernation” will automate mental labor in the same way the factory automated the work of the arm. Of course, the “unburdening” of the arm unleashed the horrors of 19th-century industrial labor, so we have reason in advance to suspect such boosterism. Cognitive capitalism, to use Yann Moulier Boutang’s term, might be less about allowing creativity to organize the economic cycle than about siphoning value from socio-cultural activity as such. Companies such as Alphabet, with a market cap in the neighborhood of three quarters of a trillion dollars, have claimed to be neutral arbiters and spaces of informational exchange. No one really believes that anymore, but we lack language to grasp the way these platforms collapse profit and the social, culture and capital. As the media scholar Tarleton Gillespie has argued, the term “platform” tendentiously fuses several meanings to the benefit of these businesses, combining the software platform with the figurative and political senses of the word associated with freedom. Yet criticizing the propaganda of such usage is a less urgent intellectual task than trying to understand what the platformed world we now inhabit looks like.

As we live more of our lives on platforms such as Facebook, even the line between mind and matter is up for grabs. Think about Elon Musk’s proposal to jack your brain into the social network directly, surpassing the necessity for typing. Mark Zuckerberg is a fan of this proposal, since whatever gets platformed — in this case, your mind — also becomes data owned by the platform-owners. Imagine that your mind’s every motion is given for “research purposes” to a prestigious academic, who passes it on to a big data company owned by a secretive billionaire affiliated with a far-right ideology. That’s not a William Gibson plot, but instead basically what happened in the 2016 US presidential election, when avant-garde (or maybe bullshit) psychometrics was used on tens of millions of users’ data by a shadowy company called Cambridge Analytica. Imagine Steve Bannon — who sat on that company’s board — inspecting what even you don’t know about your own mind. In response to this flap, the call to regulate has gotten louder than ever, even reaching the pages of The Wall Street Journal. But regulation isn’t enough. We need theory.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t regulate the big platforms, correct for algorithmic bias, and fight troll-farm manipulation. Scholars such as Safiya Umoja Noble, Frank Pasquale, and Kate Crawford have offered among the most sophisticated and compelling visions of what such regulations would look like. But what if we can’t return Pandora’s Platform to the Amazon warehouse we ordered it from? Coping with platform capitalism — a term coined by German theory blogger Sascha Lobo — means figuring out how we need to change our vocabulary and categories, and how we need to update our critical frameworks, for our new reality.
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, is not up to the task. Foer’s book is The West Wing of broadsides in the increasingly heated debate about tech, wistfully grafting dead values onto a new reality. It points out, with erudition and whip-smart turns of phrase, just how bad things are. Its title promises a lot more than it gives, since the book focuses heavily on Foer’s sour experience with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and the digital takeover of the New Republic, which led to Foer’s eventual unceremonious firing. The broadside is expert. Foer argues that “the ascendant monopolies of today aspire to encompass all of existence,” in an attempt to “overhaul the entire chain of cultural production, so that they can capture greater profit.” These attempts have led to a monopoly situation, but a monopoly over things like our ability to “contemplate.” Jeff Bezos inserts himself as gatekeeper into the journalistic community — most obviously through his purchase of the Washington Post — but disavows the role of gatekeeper itselfhas returned to a central role,, deferring editorial judgments to clicks.

This is certainly a necessary critique, but it’s skewed toward Foer’s experience in publishing, so much so that the model he wishes we could return to is simply the old-world publishing empire associated with what he calls the “Acela corridor elite.” The platform monopolies profess “the values of the sixties” and want to “radically remake the production of culture,” shifting from a “competitive marketplace of ideas” (governed by gatekeepers like Foer himself) toward a “conformism” that threatens to flatten cultural creativity to consensus. These behemoths pay pathetically little in taxes, a wrong that might be righted, he writes hopefully, by “The Big One,” a hack to end all hacks. This hope is hackneyed (sorry). The longer-term solution, he argues, is to embrace paper and long-form reading, to voluntarily adopt non-platformed cultural diets. He calls this the “organic mind,” on analogy to Michael Pollan’s recommendations that we simply eat “real food.” We might remember here, though, that Amazon owns Whole Foods. The voluntarist solution falls flat in the face of the sheer size of the networks in question. Competitors in small retail and small publishing can’t afford to opt out of Amazon. The call for a “Data Protection Authority” (something like the General Data Protection Regulation set to go into effect in the EU in May) comes late in the book and is too vague to be compelling. Foer establishes a kind of fictional space in which the values of yesteryear are the governing rules of critique. As he puts it, he was known at the New Republic as a “nostalgist.” And he is. His nostalgia makes his critique lose its bite, since its categories are already outdated. We might take a more general lesson: calls to regulation based on pre-digital critical frameworks make critique conservative. Lacking the conceptual tools to envision progress, liberals are the conversatives now.

Scott Galloway’s The Four, which compares Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google to the horsemen of the apocalypse, provides a great deal more information on how to “break them up.” Let’s be clear: this suggestion to splinter the largest platforms in history comes from a celebrity business professor. In taking over social and historical functions that should be isolated from enterprise, the platforms have immiserated too many, flattened growth, and spread unemployment. If you want to read Galloway, you’ll have to put up with a lot of pop psychology, shading into New Age doctrine. Google appeals to the brain, Apple to the genitals (mostly for men, though), and so on. But it’s pretty much worth it....