29 August 2017

Digital platforms are governing systems — so it’s time we examined them in more detail

Digital platforms strongly determine the structure of local interactions with users; essentially representing a totalitarian form of control. Image: Bruno Cordioli (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

Digital platforms are not just software-based media, they are governing systems that control, interact, and accumulate. As surfaces on which social action takes place, digital platforms mediate — and to a considerable extent, dictate — economic relationships and social action. By automating market exchanges they solidify relationships into material infrastructure, lend a degree of immutability and traceability to engagements, and render what previously would have been informal exchanges into much more formalized rules.

In his Policy & Internet article “Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-based Economy“, Jonas Andersson Schwarz argues that digital platforms enact a twofold logic of micro-level technocentric control and macro-level geopolitical domination, while supporting a range of generative outcomes between the two levels. Technology isn’t ‘neutral’, and what designers want may clash with what users want: so it’s important that we take a multi-perspective view of the role of digital platforms in contemporary society. For example, if we only consider the technical, we’ll notice modularity, compatibility, compliance, flexibility, mutual subsistence, and cross-subsidization. By contrast, if we consider ownership and organizational control, we’ll observe issues of consolidation, privatization, enclosure, financialization and protectionism.

When focusing on local interactions (e.g. with users), the digital nature of platforms is seen to strongly determine structure; essentially representing an absolute or totalitarian form of control. When we focus on geopolitical power arrangements in the “platform society”, patterns can be observed that are worryingly suggestive of market dominance, colonization, and consolidation. Concerns have been expressed that these (overwhelmingly US-biased) platform giants are not only enacting hegemony, but are on a road to “usurpation through tech — a worry that these companies could grow so large and become so deeply entrenched in world economies that they could effectively make their own laws”.

We caught up with Jonas to discuss his findings:

Ed.: You say that there are lots of different ways of considering “platforms”: what (briefly) are some of these different approaches, and why should they be linked up a bit? Certainly the conference your paper was presented at (“IPP2016: The Platform Society”) seemed to have struck an incredibly rich seam in this topic, and I think showed the value of approaching an issue like digital platforms from multiple disciplinary angles.

Jonas: In my article I’ve chosen to exclusively theorize *digital* platforms, which of course narrows down the meaning of the concept, to begin with. There are different interpretations as for what actually constitutes a digital platform. There has to be an element of proprietary control over the surface on which interaction takes place, for example. While being ubiquitous digital tools, free software and open protocols need not necessarily be considered as platforms, while proprietary operating systems should.

Within contemporary media studies there is considerable divergence as to whether one should define so-called over-the-top streaming services as platforms or not. Netflix, for example: In a strict technical sense, it’s not a platform for self-publishing and sharing in the way that YouTube is—but, in an economic sense, Netflix definitely enacts a multi-sided market, which is one of the key components of a what a platform does, economically speaking. Since platforms crystallize economic relationships into material infrastructure, conceptual conflation of this kind is unavoidable—different scholars tend to put different emphasis on different things.

Hence, when it comes to normative concerns, there are numerous approaches, ranging from largely apolitical computer science and design management studies, brandishing a largely optimistic view where blithe conceptions of innovation and generativity are emphasized, to critical approaches in political economy, where things like market dominance and consolidation are emphasized.

In my article, I try to relate to both of these schools of thought, by noting that they each are normative — albeit in vastly different ways — and by noting that not only do they each have somewhat different focus, they actually bring different research objects to the table: Usually, “efficacy” in purely technical interaction design is something altogether different than “efficacy” in matters of societal power relations, for example. While both notions can be said to be true, their respective validity might differ, depending on which matter of concern we are dealing with in each respective inquiry.

Ed.: You note in your article that platforms have a “twofold logic of micro-level technocentric control and macro-level geopolitical domination” .. which sounds quite a lot like what government does. Do you think “platform as government” is a useful way to think about this, i.e. are there any analogies?

Jonas: Sure, especially if we understand how platforms enact governance in really quite rigid forms. Platforms literally transform market relations into infrastructure. Compared to informal or spontaneous social structures, where there’s a lot of elasticity and ambiguity — put simply, giving-and-taking — automated digital infrastructure operates by unambiguous implementations of computer code. As Lawrence Lessig and others have argued, the perhaps most dangerous aspect of this is when digital infrastructures implement highly centralized modes of governance, often literally only having one point of command-and-control. The platform owner flicks a switch, and then certain listings and settings are allowed or disallowed, and so on…

This should worry any liberal, since it is a mode of governance that is totalitarian by nature; it runs counter to any democratic, liberal notion of spontaneous, emergent civic action. Funnily, a lot of Silicon Valley ideology appears to be indebted to theorists like Friedrich von Hayek, who observed a calculative rationality emerging out of heterogeneous, spontaneous market activity — but at the same time, Hayek’s call to arms was in itself a reaction to central planning of the very kind that I think digital platforms, when designed in too rigid a way, risk erecting.

Ed.: Is there a sense (in hindsight) that these platforms are basically the logical outcome of the ruthless pursuit of market efficiency, i.e. enabled by digital technologies? But is there also a danger that they could lock out equitable development and innovation if they become too powerful (e.g. leading to worries about market concentration and anti-trust issues)? At one point you ask: “Why is society collectively acquiescing to this development?” .. why do you think that is?

Jonas: The governance aspect above rests on a kind of managerialist fantasy of perfect calculative rationality that is conferred upon the platform as an allegedly neutral agent or intermediary; scholars like Frank Pasquale have begun to unravel some of the rather dodgy ideology underpinning this informational idealism, or “dataism,” as José van Dijck calls it. However, it’s important to note how much of this risk for overly rigid structures comes down to sheer design implementation; I truly believe there is scope for more democratically adaptive, benign platforms, but that can only be achieved either through real incentives at the design stage (e.g. Wikipedia, and the ways in which its core business idea involves quality control by design), or through ex-post regulation, forcing platform owners to consider certain societally desirable consequences.

Ed.: A lot of this discussion seems to be based on control. Is there a general theory of “control” — i.e. are these companies creating systems of user management and control that follow similar conceptual / theoretical lines, or just doing “what seems right” to them in their own particular contexts?

Jonas: Down the stack, there is always a binary logic of control at play in any digital infrastructure. Still, on a higher level in the stack, as more complexity is added, we should expect to see more non-linear, adaptive functionality that can handle complexity and context. And where computational logic falls short, we should demand tolerable degrees of human moderation, more than there is now, to be sure. Regulators are going this way when it comes to things like Facebook and hate speech, and I think there is considerable consumer demand for it, as when disputes arise on Airbnb and similar markets.

Ed.: What do you think are the main worries with the way things are going with these mega-platforms, i.e. the things that policy-makers should hopefully be concentrating on, and looking out for?

Jonas: Policymakers are beginning to realize the unexpected synergies that big data gives rise to. As The Economist recently pointed out, once you control portable smartphones, you’ll have instant geopositioning data on a massive scale — you’ll want to own and control map services because you’ll then also have data on car traffic in real time, which means you’d be likely to have the transportation market cornered, self driving cars especially… If one takes an agnostic, heterodox view on companies like Alphabet, some of their far-flung projects actually begin to make sense, if synergy is taken into consideration. For automated systems, the more detailed the data becomes, the better the system will perform; vast pools of data get to act as protective moats.

One solution that The Economist suggests, and that has been championed for years by internet veteran Doc Searls, is to press for vastly increased transparency in terms of user data, so that individuals can improve their own sovereignty, control their relationships with platform companies, and thereby collectively demand that the companies in question disclose the value of this data — which would, by extent, improve signalling of the actual value of the company itself. If today’s platform companies are reluctant to do this, is that because it would perhaps reveal some of them to be less valuable than what they are held out to be?

Another potentially useful, proactive measure, that I describe in my article, is the establishment of vital competitors or supplements to the services that so many of us have gotten used to being provided for by platform giants. Instead of Facebook monopolizing identity management online, which sadly seems to have become the norm in some countries, look to the Scandinavian example of BankID, which is a platform service run by a regional bank consortium, offering a much safer and more nationally controllable identity management solution.

Alternative platform services like these could be built by private companies as well as state-funded ones; alongside privately owned consortia of this kind, it would be interesting to see innovation within the public service remit, exploring how that concept could be re-thought in an era of platform capitalism.

Read the full article: Jonas Andersson Schwarz (2017) Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-based Economy. Policy & Internet DOI: 10.1002/poi3.159.

Jonas Andersson Schwarz was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.