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The world to come: A digital dystopia

One of the few certainties of our time is that digital platforms will continue to thrive. The only question is quite how far their logic will penetrate our lives.

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All crises of capitalism have winners as well as losers. The crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s set the scene for the surging financial sector that followed, while also shifting the balance of power towards more flexible, brand-focused firms. The great injustice of the crash of 2008 was that, thanks to the exceptional interventions of states, the crisis ultimately benefited the same sectors of the economy that had caused it: finance and real estate.

There are few certainties surrounding the present crisis. The Bank of England estimates that it will be Britain’s worst recession in almost 300 years, although that may be too optimistic. But one thing we can say for sure is that digital platforms – Amazon, Google and Zoom, for example – will continue to thrive. The only question is quite how far their logic will penetrate our lives.

The increase in the platforms’ economic standing is startling. By mid-April 2020, the wealth of the head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, had increased by $24bn from its pre-crisis level, while in the same month, Zoom’s market capitalisation had outstripped that of the entire US airline industry.

By late April, as stock markets rebounded, one-fifth of the S&P 500’s value was in five giant tech firms: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet (which owns Google). The last time this happened was in 2000, during the dotcom bubble. Meanwhile, Netflix was worth more than ExxonMobil.

In the 1990s, the growth of firms such as Cisco, Dell and Microsoft, and then the emergence of the dotcoms, was heralded as evidence of a weightless “new economy”, a sign that capitalism now extracted value from knowledge and creativity. In the excitable reaches of the so-called Californian ideology, this was presented as evidence that geography and fixed capital no longer mattered, and the economy was now operating in an entirely virtual and global space.

These illusions were shattered in the early 2000s, first by the bursting of the dotcom bubble and then by the rise of what the writer and academic Shoshana Zuboff named “surveillance capitalism” – firms that extract value not from human ingenuity, but from tracking human behaviour. With the launch of the iPhone and other “smart” interfaces, that behaviour didn’t even need to occur via a keyboard, but could include movements and purchases. “Offline” and “online” collapsed into one another.

Platforms are services that connect their users to one another for a range of reasons, be they commercial (such as Uber), social (such as Facebook), or entertainment (such as YouTube). While commercial platforms can make money by charging a fee on transactions, a defining trait of the new platform giants is that they also accumulate huge quantities of behavioural data on their users, which they exploit for profit in various ways, including tailored advertising.

It doesn’t take an economist to see why the current health crisis offers an opportunity to platforms of this nature. We’ve become reliant on them for sustaining relationships, work and retail. Many small and mid-size businesses have established their own delivery options and apps since March, but this is a bid for survival rather than dominance. Amazon’s heft just keeps on growing. Where might this lead?

One of the biggest questions hanging over this crisis is how (or whether) many face-to-face services will be resurrected in the future. Hospitality and entertainment are foremost among these, with restaurants and theatres under terrible pressure. Higher education also faces uncertainty. A dystopian thought is that all of these could be replaced by online platforms: eating, viewing and learning could continue to take place in the home via screens and deliveries.

But the appetite for conviviality and public space will not disappear, even if vendors are devastated in the meantime. The alternative, then, is that public culture and space becomes revitalised on the basis of a kind of platform logic, in which the administrative and financial side of businesses is run by monopoly data crunchers (such as Uber and Amazon), while the front end – the customer-facing side of the operation – looks similar to how urban life looked in the past.

Platforms such as Deliveroo and eBay already operate in this way – they connect customers with small businesses. But the other precedent is how trendy new retail and mixed-use developments operate. Slickly managed music festivals often feature dozens of different craft food and drinks sellers, which all operate on a single payment platform that also serves as a means of scraping data. The digitisation of everyday life has produced conflicting trends, generating huge monopolies at the “back end”, but a kind of hipster petit bourgeois at the “front end”.

There is no evidence that Bezos or anyone else is plotting this kind of future for the post-Covid high street or university. But it is possible to imagine Amazon moving into some version of urban redevelopment, perhaps even dressed up as a form of philanthropy. Facebook, meanwhile, has already made one aborted attempt at establishing a new currency, and the idea is unlikely to disappear for good. The theatre, bar or campus of the future could feel much like those of the past – only where the payment system, accounts, finance, advertising and tracking of suppliers and customers are all delivered by a company in California. Governments seeking a new trade-off between biosecurity and liberal individualism would be eager clients in the market for the resulting data.

This science fiction may end up being wide of the mark. But to get a hint of the world to come, it is useful to understand who has most to gain from the devastation of the present, and how. What they do with that new power is, of course, up to them.

Read the rest of the "world to come" series here

William Davies is professor of political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London and the author of This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid