Category Archives: Politics

platforms make markets

Rob Horning again, on the hustle economy the gig economy the ubiquity of platforms as obligatory labour intermediaries:

The “hustle” platform seems like a mere means of distribution for the “creators” or “entrepreneurs” who own the means of production (their own bodies). But in fact the “hustle economy” scenario is not so different from working in a factory. The creators have labor power, which they effectively sell to the platforms, which control the means of producing the “things” that matter here: reaching potential customers at scale, sustaining a means of limiting access to goods, maintaining the business infrastructure that facilitates exchange, aggregating the supply of “creators” to create a sort of network effect that subordinates the value of individual creators to that of the entire catalog that a platform owns. Maybe the simpler way of saying that is platforms make markets. That is their product. They serve neoliberalism’s tendency to marketize any aspect of existence that has hitherto resisted it in the name of bringing the market’s “discipline” to wayward aspects of sociability.  In submitting to a platform, whatever “existing skills” a creator has are reformatted, warped to fit the scheme devised to exploit them for profit. I think Marx calls that “formal subsumption,” when a capitalist organization of production appropriates pre-existing skills and reshapes them so as to primarily valorize capital. Then, when the existence of Patreon, etc., is taken for granted, the new skills that can be acquired take the shape demanded or anticipated by those platforms, on their terms and to their benefit and for their continued survival (“real subsumption”). The platforms begin to produce the sorts of creators they need to profit.

It’s not at all different to working in a factory—in fact, it’s basically piecework, but piecework done for factories that have given up any pretense of producing a specific product or type of product to the end of capital accumulation; they’ll flog whatever the pieceworkers are able to produce. Or rather, they’ll provide a system whereby the pieceworker can flog that thing—and flog themselves—and cream off whatever the market will bear.

Work itself, when organized through platforms, is no longer “skilled,” but just abstract spare capacity that capital can take or leave when it needs it, dipping into the pool of reserve labor on its own terms. Patreon et al. bring that model to forms of work that otherwise seem resistant — the kinds of things contingent on one’s reputation or personal brand. “Anyone with noncommoditized skills can do this,” venture capitalist Li Jin tells Dewey — anyone can sell themselves on/to a platform. It’s no accident that VC types champion these models with deceptive rhetoric about inclusion and empowerment; the models are designed to line their pockets while impoverishing the world, and they work better when every possible person is exploited. That’s the beauty of scale.

Oooh, look: it’s our friend scale again! Which is, I think, the fundamental feature of platforms as a business model… and that’s related to the natural-monopoly tendency of infrastructures of distribution.

In short, all platforms are labor platforms. They turn “life” into “work” wherever possible, for “creators” and consumers alike, tracking and redistributing user behavior on the platforms’ terms. Commodification makes inroads in more and more aspects of everyday life and comes to dictate more and more of social relations. Why make friends when you can have followers? Why speak from outside a company’s paywall? The platforms are not offering a way to survive in a crisis; they are exploiting a crisis to introduce a regime that makes immiseration a permanent condition. The tides rise but never recede.

To return to a point I keep drifting away from (because easily distracted), the platform model is not the inevitable outcome of the natural-monopoly tendency in distributive systems—or at least it doesn’t have to be. (Capitalism’s incentive structures make it effectively inevitable, as Horning is pointing out above: “platforms make markets”.) However, the protocol model could achieve the same opportunities for the pieceworker, but without the proprietary capture and rake-off associated with a successfully scaled monopoly platform; the platform model in this case would look like a suite of open-source tools for website building and online payments, a fairly-priced postal service, and a search function that wasn’t massively biased in favour of platforms already within the search engine operator’s own value chains (for both uses of the term “value”). Protocols also make markets—but they make markets with freedoms-from as well as freedoms-to.

With the hopefully assumed caveat that it’s far from being a silver-bullet solution to this or any other socioeconomic challenge, we could really do with remembering what the rail barons were, and why so many states eventually decided to nationalise those early systems of distribution (which, you may recall, also included telegraphy, the forerunner of the communications infrastructures which we still erroneously refer to as “the internet”).

The natural-monopoly tendency of distribution networks can be a problem, but it’s also the source of their usefulness—their utility, you might say. Nationalisation, or some other form of common ownership, gives you the horizontality of the platform without the verticality of the associated value extraction chain; open protocols provide a level playing field that still permits for innovation at the producer level with regard to products and services, and for middle-men operators who have genuine value to add to the process.

But: you have to regulate the system in such a way that the middle-men can’t make themselves into an obligatory passage point—which is to say, you have to keep the infrastructure layer free from commercial interference, at minimum. Well-designed and constantly revised standards and regulations at that level can, in theory, make sure that the interface layer doesn’t ossify into a platform model.

(For an example of this sort of set-up, think of the road network, at least in the UK. It’s not without its flaws, certainly; nor has it avoided becoming a site of ideological economic interference. But in terms of being a transportation protocol which is effectively open to all users, provided they stay within the standards and regulations, it’s so exemplary as to be almost invisible. Admittedly, the neoliberal era has seen the assembly of de facto platform business models upon the road network, but that was achieved more through stock-market malarkey than actual competition. Effective and reliable distribution requires detailed knowledge of the last mile as well as the system as a whole; a national-scale firm can’t really do that, unless making a good job of the last mile is an imperative of its reason for existing. And because the last mile is the expensive bit, as well as the difficult bit, no national-scale distribution firm oriented toward shareholder returns will ever do it well, because it’s the easiest place to shave off your overheads. Effective and reliable networks of distribution, when seen as entire systems, are almost inevitably loss-making; if there is any point at all to the existence of the state, then providing that fundamental infrastructure for economic and informational exchange, and underwriting those losses as the unavoidable cost of having an economy, is surely it. I might even go so far as to say that the state is its infrastructure; all the other stuff is just platforms and protocols running on that network.)

We learned all this once before, in the era of the rail barons, but we allowed ourselves to forget it—because, as a friend put it earlier today, history never actually ended, per Fukuyama, but everyone nonetheless stopped paying it any heed. But it feels like we’re starting to remember it again, collectively, and to find ways of narrating this systemic causality that might help build the grass-roots political will for busting up the platform barons of the Valley, and the ideological scaffolding that they stand upon. The struggle will be long, and victory is far from assured—but nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?

theatre of expertise / expertise of theatre

This one’s been doing the rounds in infrastructure-wonk circles, and deservedly so. I’m usually distrustful of any organisation that includes the term “governance innovation” in its moniker; CIGI is a Canadian thinktank founded by the guy who helmed RIM, none of which serves to fundamentally allay that instinctive suspicion, but this is nonetheless a serious, nuanced and in-depth piece on the tech/policy interface, the likes of which is vanishingly rare in the era of the Hot Take. This is the nut of it:

First, the digitization of public institutions changes the balance of government power, by shifting a number of political issues out of public process and framing them instead as procurement processes. Whereas questions around executive authority were historically defined in legislation, they’re often now defined in platform design — and disputes are raised through customer service. This shift extends executive power and substitutes expert review for public buy-in and legitimacy, in ways that cumulatively result in a public that doesn’t understand or trust what the government does. Importantly, the transition from representative debate to procurement processes significantly changes the structures of engagement for public advocates and non-commercial interests.

The second structural problem results when nuanced conversations about the technical instrumentation of a publicly important governance issue are sensationalized. For example, focusing on COVID-19 contact-tracing apps instead of the large institutional efforts needed to contain infection frames the issues around the technology and not the equities or accountability required to serve public interest mandates. One of the reasons for this is that experts, like everyone else, are funded by someone — and tend to work within their own political, professional and economic perspectives, many of which don’t take responsibility for the moral or justice implications of their participation. Consultants tend to focus on technical solutions instead of political ones, and rarely challenge established limits in the way that the public does.

Said differently, technologies are a way to embed the problem of the political fragility of expertise into, well, nearly everything that we involve technology in. And public institutions’ failure to grapple with the resulting legitimacy issues is destabilizing important parts of our international infrastructure when we need it most.

I don’t agree with all of it, but my disagreements are productive, if that makes any sense: there’s a language here for legitimation via expert discourses (or the lack thereof) which is worth engaging with in more detail. Reading it alongside Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power would be interesting, if time permitted: one of the many things that marvellous book achieves is to explain the (surprisingly early) establishment of the technological expert as not just a political actor, but more particularly an actor in the more formalised theatre of statecraft, thus sowing the seeds of what McDonald is discussing in this piece.

(Damn, I really need to re-read that book… though it seems I loaned it to someone and never got it back. Guess it’s time to hit the requisition system again…)

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…

option paralysis

A society that bestows sovereignty of choice on consumers faces two immediate problems. First, there is the business challenge of anticipating and influencing the exercise of that sovereignty. What do consumers want? Surveys and focus groups were among the tools developed in order to help mass producers tailor their products – and advertisements – to the desires of their target market. Opinion polling simply extended this method to the ‘sale’ of politicians and policies. The emergence of huge platforms, such as Facebook and Google, in the 21st century vastly expanded and fine-tuned this science of taste, but didn’t substantially alter its strategic objectives.

Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.

The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet […]

It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?

Offered (rather uncharacteristically) without comment.

the banality of the sacrificial truth

With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.

You know the world has been turned on its head (or on its feet, depending on how you saw the world before, I guess) when Žižek starts coming across as an optimist… though I guess you could counter that by saying that he’s consistently contrarian. Anyway, point being: I do not share his optimism regarding capitalism’s inability to survive the shift he’s describing here. It’s certainly possible that it might not survive it, but far from a fait accompli—to say otherwise is to fall into the same trap that Matt Colquhoun observes in folk who claim that “capitalist realism is over”, as if saying it were sufficient to replace the hard work of making it so. (Disclaimer: I’ve definitely done this myself. Magical thinking is very tempting in trying times.)

That said, Žižek’s observation of the pandemic’s exposure of the sacrificial truth of capitalism rings clear, at least to me, echoing as it does the bioethical implications of the pandemic that I discussed (or, more accurately, ranted about) months ago. But the neoliberal order’s response to (and incorporation of) that exposure was already then apparent, as manifest in the almost immediate establishment of global league tables of national death rates: the logic of market competition applied itself immediately, and we’re still arguing over who dun covid bestest, months later, despite it being far from over.

Furthermore, the same logic is starting to be applied to the sacrificial sectors: a competition to decide who gets the putative vaccine first, who gets to stay the safest for the longest time while we wait for it. Perhaps the Hunger Game vibes of this contest will eventually provoke some kind of pushback, as Žižek believes. But to return to Fisher, we’d do well to remember and respect capitalism’s ability to absorb, incorporate and commodify the fiercest attacks made upon it. The only counter to that paradigm is (a return to) a more communal, situated and grass-roots form of political organisation… and the medium-as-message constitution of the systems through which we are obliged to communicate and organise in lockdown and lockdown-adjacent circumstances are demonstrably and explicitly geared to exactly the opposite social dynamic. It is notable that the only political activity of any vitality at the moment is happening in the streets, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Is that an argument against lockdown measures? It’s not meant as one, but it might well be taken as such, I suppose. My point is that during lockdown, those privileged enough to be in lockdown experience the world outside only through multiple layers of mediation; the (very real) risk to older folk and the immune-compromised appears as part of the spectacle, but the (equally real) risk to the people embedded in the supply chains (in one’s own nation, but also far beyond it) which make living in lockdown possible appears far less frequently, if at all. The risk is indeed “directly spelled out”, as Žižek says—but to assume that this spelling-out of the universality of risk won’t result in people falling back on the old class and national divisions as a ready-made template for the (re)distribution of said risk seems optimistic in the worst possible passivity of that term. (OK, sure, the WHO has said everyone needs to pull together—but at this point it should be obvious that, for the most part, state apparatuses are taking only what they consider to be politically efficacious from the WHO’s pronouncements; an soft-pedalled argument for internationalism is unlikely to leave much of a mark, I’m assuming.)

After all, that (re)distribution of risk is always-already ongoing—and the metasystem’s effacement of consequences, now amplified still further by lockdown’s forcing us into a situation where our perception of the situation is so thoroughly and seamlessly mediated and curated by algorithms intended to flatter our pre-existing perspectives, makes it oh-so-easy to pretend that it isn’t. That which is appears is good; that which is good appears.