Tag Archives: Rob Horning

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?

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)