For some years now, I’ve been a degenerate addict of social media. Hardly an hour goes by on an average day without checking my Twitter and Facebook feeds repeatedly. And as soon as some idea strikes me, I must confess that my first impulse is to formulate it right away in Twitter’s 140-character maximum – an arbitrary limitation that seems to have become hard-wired in my brain by now.
I indulge in this habit despite my own constant misgivings about the exploitative basic architecture of commercial social media, and my ambivalence about the self-reinforcing echo chamber and filter bubble syndromes that are suddenly under much wider debate following the many critical reports on viral fake news, alt-right Twitter bots, and all the other ways in which neo-fascists recently seem to have weaponized Web 2.0’s algorithm culture.
But this week, two things happened: first, I noticed that my longstanding ambivalence about my own hyper-engagement with social media seemed to be exacting a higher toll post-election. I noticed that I was finding little comfort in my usual social interactions, and that my suddenly-intensified addiction to news and opinions seemed to make my growing anxiety about the future more unescapable. And second, I was lucky enough to find an advance copy of Nick Srnicek’s eagerly anticipated new book Platform Capitalism in my office pigeonhole – a book that is being published just as we desperately need solid critical work on platforms like Facebook and Google.
Srnicek established himself in the world of critical theory with the Accelerationist Manifesto that he co-authored with Alex Williams, followed more recently by their best-selling book Inventing the Future – which I enjoyed immensely, and which is among the most practical and most readable theoretical interventions dedicated to imagining what a postcapitalist society might look like.
Compared with these earlier texts, the succinct, well-researched, and –again– compulsively readable Platform Capitalism is a lot less “manifesto-ish.” The book primarily offers a perspective on commercial digital platforms like Facebook, Uber, Google, and the Internet of Things that approaches them in the first place as actors within a specific phase of capitalism. As Srnicek puts it in his introduction:
The platform has emerged as a new business model, capable of extracting and controlling immense amounts of data, and with this shift we have seen the rise of large monopolistic firms. … The aim here is to set these platforms in the context of a larger economic history, understand them as means to generate profit, and outline some of the tendencies they produce as a result. (6)
A brisk but essential opening chapter therefore establishes the author’s historical-materialist perspective, as Srnicek effectively outlines how the 1970s crisis of industrial overproduction, the 1990s dot-com bubble, and the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis all played important roles in the rise of the digital platform as an economic phenomenon within post-industrial capitalism.
The book then touches on much-discussed concepts like immaterial labor, the sharing economy, the complex role of Big Data, privacy, advertising, and non-commercial alternatives to commercial behemoths like Google and Facebook. Looking at the various options and giving a quick but thorough survey of the current state of affairs, Srnicek is justifiably pessimistic – not only about the future of lean platforms like Uber, whose business strategy already seems to have overextended itself, but also and more fundamentally about the future of the internet as a free and democratic space.
Nevertheless, the book’s primary goal is not the presentation of a radical Marxian critique of digital platforms as a political economy. Above all else, it offers a plainly worded and startlingly convincing description of their histories, characteristics, and tendencies within our own capitalist system. Only by understanding these platforms as economic actors in global capitalism’s complex system can we hope to change our world for the better. So in spite of the unsurprisingly bleak analysis, the book’s conclusion elegantly articulates this hope for a real change in our digital lives:
Rather than just regulating corporate platforms, efforts could be made to create public platforms – platforms owned and controlled by the people. (And, importantly, independent of the surveillance state apparatus.) This would mean investing the state’s vast resources into the technology necessary to support these platforms and offering them as public utilities. More radically, we can push for postcapitalist platforms that make use of the data collected by these platforms in order to distribute resources, enable democratic participation, and generate further technological development. Perhaps today we must collectivize the platforms.
As remote and unlikely as this future might sound in the “post-truth” era of Facebook’s self-obsessed filter bubbles, it is all the more urgent to understand clearly not only why these digital platforms are currently part of the problem, but what kinds of affordances and opportunities they do ultimately offer for collaborative and democratic action.
For myself, reading this outstanding short book while simultaneously caught up in self-perpetuating feedback loop of intensified sharing, commenting, and retweeting as post-election online hysteria hit fever pitch, I finally decided to let go for now and step out of platform capitalism’s echo chambers – going cold turkey at least until I can re-accustom myself to having a thought without automatically feeling an impulse to post it on Twitter alongside some cleverly chosen animated GIF.
For what both this book and the always-already disastrous election of Donald Trump demonstrate above all is that our constant engagement with any kind of content on commercial digital platforms continues to drive a thoroughly rotten and undesirable system we’re only just beginning to understand. So even if alternatives still appear remote and all but impossible to realize, we also clearly can’t afford to continue playing by the rules of platform capitalism.