Nick Srnicek’s Model of Platform Capitalism

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Nick Dyer-Whiteford:

"Nick Srnicek’s (2015) model of a platform capitalism has been crucial for understanding the operations of Big Tech and the larger digital sector it dominates. Srnicek describes platform capitalism as a system in which the ownership of digital networks from which users launch a variety of online activities yield data that becomes key to diverse methods of profit extraction. To better understand the specificity of platform capital within the larger capitalist economy, we extend Srnicek’s work to propose that platform capitalism be understood as a manifestation of capital’s increasingly circulatory priorities of advertising (Google, Facebook), retail sales (Amazon), of production of the digital means of circulation (Apple, Microsoft), and of the integration of circulation back into production via control of increasingly crucial data-centres and cloud-computing infrastructures (Mosco 2017).

As Matt Cole (2017) describes, platforms, with their circulatory emphasis, offer users the multiple possible subject-positions—as workers, content-generating “free labour” (Terranova), commodity purchasers, data sources, advertising targets, infrastructure renters and self-employed entrepreneurs, and shareholders. Such multiplicity poses problems for classic Marxian accounts of surplus-value extraction, exploitation and labour power. Attempting to analyze platform operations through the lens of value-theory, as Cole attempts, does not so much restore the validity of traditional categories as reveal how far they are over-spilled by Big Tech’s far ranging mobilization of workers and users.

It is thus useful to pursue Joshua Herder’s (2019) proposition that Big Tech corporations are biopolitical companies with “the means and the intention to govern populations”. It is this internal expansion and diversification of control techniques, by which boundaries of the employer’s workplace power over employees expanded out over a wider range of liminal, “twilight zone” social relations that gives owners of Big Tech corporations the profile and charisma of sovereign authority, both realizing and exalting the despotic aspect of capitalist ownership described by liberal critics of corporate “private government”(Anderson 2017). This is the grain of truth embedded in the rambling reactionary manifestos of Silicon Valley’s “dark enlightenment” ideologues, with their celebrations of a monarchical CEOs (Land 2017). It is also what arouses fears of Big Tech swaying or usurping the authority a liberal order designated to government.

These new monarchs—Rob Larson (2018) neatly dubs them “bit tyrants”–have, however, faced rebellions, both within and beyond their immediate workplaces. Indeed, when a writer for The Economist, Adrian Wooldridge, first popularized the phrase “Big Tech”, he deployed it alongside another neologism, “Techlash”, to indicate what he anticipated as a rising wave of popular discontent with Silicon Valley oligopolists. “Big Tech” and “techlash” are terms that entered popular vocabulary simultaneously—a demonstration, perhaps, of Foucault’s enigmatic aphorism that “resistance comes first” (1997, 167)! Discussing this dissensus in the context of AI research, Dyer-Witheford, Kjosen and Steinhoff (2109) write of a “heptagon of struggles” involving gig worker strikes against precarity; Silicon Valley programmer revolts against sexism and military and police contracts; anti-surveillance movements; protests against algorithmic bias in policing, hiring and welfare; “smart city” disturbances; social media defections from toxic digital milieu; and anti-trust agitation against concentrations of ownership. Additions can be made to the polygonal diagram: for example, the mounting environmental concerns demonstrated by Amazon workers walkouts against Bezos in 2019. The scope and multifarious nature of these unrests, occurring within and without workplaces, interacting with one another, and involving many intersectional dynamics shows a nascent and insurgent biopolitics against Big Tech.

However, the “heptagon of struggles” diagram overestimates the political consistency of anti-big tech sentiment, glossing over bifurcations within the wave. There are right and left versions of such revolt. Anti-state surveillance sentiment, objections to toxic social media environments (though with toxicity interpreted from a conservative viewpoint) and antitrust sentiment (from a libertarian, free market perspective) can be all be articulated in a conservative, or indeed neofascist, mix. Techlash was itself conflicted. The very term in some ways misnames and falsifies the scope and depth of the problem—as if digital networks were devices which could be easily rejected and reacted against, rather than an integral, organic circulatory part of a global capitalism. The questions raised by techlash rapidly became whether, how far, and in what version, it could be articulated with the only force apparently capable of restraining and regulating Big Tech—Big Government."