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27 October 2022

The power of the platform

The power that digital technologies wield over the world has to be confronted, but their democratic potential should never be forgotten.

By Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams

If anything defines the distinctive culture of our age it is the rise of digital platforms. The content of culture may not undergo the same kinds of radical formal upheavals that it once did. After all, who recently has revolutionised cinema to the same extent as Jean-Luc Godard? But the way we consume film has transformed, with more and more feature films released directly on to streaming platforms, for example. You are more than likely to be reading this article on a device that, a relatively short time ago, was a new invention. The smartphone only began its ascent to ubiquity with the release of the first iPhone in 2007. Digital platforms have become the medium through which we communicate and the context within which we produce and consume images, words and sounds. Digital technologies are the primary infrastructure of social, cultural, political and even economic life.

The power of platforms is not just a matter of their omnipresence or their power to shape our channels of communication. It is also a fact of hard economics. The current top ten global companies assessed by market capitalisation include one (Alphabet) whose business is nothing but data and advertising; one that sells actual stuff, but whose entire business model is platform-based (Amazon); and one (Apple) that is best known for manufacturing hardware, but owes its global position to the early success of the iTunes platform. Every organisation in the top 100 global companies – including retailers, hedge funds, property developers and banks – has integrated platform technologies into their business practices in ways that have had transformative effects. It is this more than anything else that makes ours the era of platforms, as the radical economist Robin Murray once called it. What gives these companies a unique role in contemporary global society is the sense that they, more than any other institutions, determine the tenor and tempo of life. It is the tech platform that is carving out the channels through which future developments will flow, or be held back, etching out the space for possible human action throughout the planet. 

When commentators talk about “platform capitalism“, they are generally referring to the activities of the Big Tech corporations, with their tendency to monopolise particular sectors so as to aggregate the greatest possible quantity of data and users, and to leverage network effects to dominate a functional “space”. But the concept of “platform” has much wider applicability than what these specific examples of digital giants use.

What is a platform? A platform is any system that acts as an infrastructure upon which other systems depend. Platforms feature a mutually reinforcing relationship between influence and dependence. Platforms are influenced by the behaviour of those entities – individuals, corporations and so on – that depend in some way upon them. But they also work in the other direction: the more entities that depend on a platform, the more embedded and entrenched that platform will become, and the more its established structures will tend to shape the behaviour and expectations of participants.

This is the core of the “network effects” that digital platforms rely upon to push their user bases beyond the so-called tipping point. Once Facebook had sufficient users, for example, and a sufficiently monopolistic position as the central social media platform for many groups and individuals, it became an institution and technology that ever-larger numbers of those users came to depend upon for many forms of communication and everyday social organisation: from arranging dinner parties to building political campaigns. At the same time, the platform’s usefulness to its users became increasingly dependent upon its monopoly status: who wants to have to post the same messages or make the same plans on several different platforms, or risk that one crucial person missing your post because they were on a different one? 

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In examining the history of public attitudes towards the internet and its social effects, there is a striking pattern of waves of optimism and pessimism. The first half of the 1990s was awash with breathless commentary on the wonders that the “information superhighway” would make possible. The culture and politics of Silicon Valley were already characterised by a peculiar mixture of countercultural libertarianism, hippy idealism, technocratic elitism and savage neoliberal competitiveness, best exemplified by the early tone of Wired magazine. There was considerable optimism – from media theorists like Douglas Rushkoff, and from think tanks such as the London-based Demos – about the possibility of the internet enabling a new and open culture of democratic participation. Political leaders like Al Gore were entirely uncritical in their advocacy for this emerging sector. In fact, effective regulation of the online economy wasn’t really happening anywhere before the 21st century, and arguably still doesn’t at a federal level in the United States, the birthplace and home of the internet industry. 

The bursting of the “dotcom bubble” at the end of the 1990s coincided with a first wave of critical scholarship and journalism that exposed the vacuity, individualism and sheer greed that had come to dominate Silicon Valley. This was followed by a new wave of hopefulness in the early 2000s, as theorists and software developers decided that the problem with the internet as it existed was that it was really just a broadcast model: people made websites and other people looked at them. What was needed from “web 2.0” was peer-to-peer communication, user interaction, media that was genuinely social in form.

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What few foresaw was the rise of social media, not as liberated spaces of egalitarian digital community, but of vast technological monopolies in which every interaction between users was harvested for re-sellable data. The pivot of companies like Google and Facebook towards a revenue model based on advertising technology coincided with the rise of “persuasive computing” as a specialist science in the hallowed halls of Stanford and MIT. What persuasive computing means is mostly studying the neurology of gambling addiction so that you can build apps and touch-screen interfaces that offer the same level of compulsive dopamine-triggering that slot machines do. It is Facebook that became most associated with the cynical manipulation of its users, but as analysts such as Richard Seymour, Shoshana Zuboff, Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias have shown, a culture of paranoid individualism, competitive manipulative influence grifting, and relentless corporate surveillance is endemic across the platform economy.

This more pessimistic turn in the most recent wave of commentary is entirely unsurprising. But, as scholars like Paulo Gerbaudo and Emiliano Treré continue to remind us, radical social and political movements clearly have found impressive uses for the new social media platforms. Jeremy Corbyn’s original campaign for the Labour leadership in 2015 owed more to its momentum on Facebook than to the size of its rallies, and the creative use of platform technologies were crucial to the surprise 2017 general election result. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have been able to become the most popular politician in the US if he’d had to rely on broadcast media to transmit his message. The power of platforms will belong to those who own them and who have the most material resources with which to pay for access to them. But their democratic potential was never a myth.

This presents radicals and progressives with a series of dilemmas. Silicon Valley represents arguably the most significant concentration of unaccountable wealth and power in the history of capitalism. It’s hard to imagine liberal democracy itself surviving without that power being at least contained, and preferably curtailed.

But two factors mitigate against the idea that the left can simply declare class war on the tech sector. On the one hand, it’s not entirely clear in what ways it should seek to curtail their power: should the huge tech monopolies be broken up, nationalised, or simply shut down? On the other hand, it’s not clear that the companies who sell our data to advertisers should be the ones we are most worried about right now: other corporations are still pumping carbon into the atmosphere, deforesting the Amazon, risking the destruction of all life on Planet Earth.

[See also: Whatever Mastodon is, it won’t replace Twitter]  

Liberal American commentators have largely settled on the idea that the key historic precedent for this situation is the “anti-trust” movement to limit and break the power of corporate monopolies in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which culminated in a series of regulatory reforms that enhanced the power of the federal government vis-à-vis that of industrial capitalists. Some version of such legislation is needed today, and there is little obvious social benefit to Alphabet owning YouTube or Facebook owning Instagram. But the case for breaking these individual platforms up is weaker, given that a large part of their social usefulness derives directly from their monopoly status. Socialist commentators such as Astra Taylor, Nick Srnicek, Wendy Liu and James Muldoon have called for these to be either taken into some form of public ownership or turned into independent “platform cooperatives”. As one of us has pointed out in another recent book, Twenty-First Century Socialism (2020), there is simply nothing inherent in the technology of platforms that would make it difficult to administer them without diverting most of their profits to shareholders, while the cultural and social harm done by institutions like Spotify – which exploits musicians – can be entirely attributed to their relentless pursuit of unlimited profits.

For any such project to become viable, however, enormous political changes would be required. Governments both in the US and across at least some of the EU would have to be simultaneously committed to do so, because it would require coordinated international legislation. At the same time, both users of platforms and workers in the tech industry would have to become sufficiently well-organised to exercise the leverage on these incredibly wealthy institutions that governments alone would not be able to. 

If such a huge, almost unprecedented, transnational coordination of democratic forces were to be deployed right now, we probably wouldn’t want its main target to be Alphabet. As long as carbon capitalism threatens organic life, it’s the fossil-fuel industry and its immediate allies that should be the primary object of such attention. Socialising the platforms is an important long-term goal for progressive politics, but the Green New Deal is a more urgent priority. 

But these issues are not unrelated. One of the most plausible scenarios for how humanity might survive the climate crisis is that we may see our democracies continue to wither and die, as a global class of professional technocrats emerges to administer the transition to a post-carbon economy on our behalf, and entirely for their own benefit. It’s easy to see how the professional political classes of today could grow and merge into a global super-elite, incorporating Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks, Westminster special advisers and Wall Street management consultants, but led by Silicon Valley tech gurus. If we want both to save the planet and retain collective control over our destinies, then this is one of the possible futures that we have to avoid. To do so, we will have to begin making determined efforts to limit the power of Big Tech, while also trying to identify those companies and institutions within Silicon Valley itself that may be willing – given enough pressure from unions, users and government – to become part of a democratic post-carbon settlement. 

At the same time, the democratic potential of platform technologies themselves should never be lost. The history of the past 20 years shows that online communication platforms have fantastic potential both for social good and for terrible harm. The question in the immediate future will be whether political leaders have the will to push them in one direction rather than the other. 

Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams are the authors of Hegemony Now: how Big Tech and Wall Street won the world (and how we win it back)

[See also: Will the internet’s third iteration free our virtual selves from Big Tech’s control?]

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