🇬🇧 Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-Based Economy

In September 2016, I attended an excellent academic conference, The Platform Society, arranged by the great people at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. My paper, presented there, was later re-worked into this article.

The concept of platforms has emerged in recent years as one of the most important concepts of the digital economy. In brief, my article concludes that digital platforms enact different types of governance, by recourse to three levels of observation: micro, meso, and macro.

  • In the minute, discrete interactions between platforms and users, micro-level forms of technocratic control are enabled.
  • On the level of platform interoperability (the meso level), a range of generative outcomes are supported.
  • In global aggregate, a macro-level mode of geopolitical domination is enabled.

Over at Oxford University’s Policy and Internet blog, you can read an interview with me about the article.

What’s the background to this article?

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.

Platforms enable a great number of new, seemingly rational and efficacious ways of organising society; but they are also based on an element of control, since users’ latitude is circumscribed by the computer code, and users are in many ways forced to adapt their behaviour to the interactions allowed for and prescribed by the platform owners.

A few platform-based corporations (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) have gained massive global influence, since not only users but also a long list of other societal actors have become dependent on the services provided by these global companies, including many smaller, upcoming platform companies.

How does my concept of “platform logic” become useful?

If one chooses to look at the discrete, often highly technical inter-platform affordances and connections, one will see generativity and scope for innovation. This is what is often focused on in the business press, and similar outlets, despite the fact that many economists would argue that our present era of digital development is less innovative than past ones.

If one chooses, instead, to look at the emerging transnational, geopolitical formations under platform capitalism, one will make an entirely different set of observations. Theorists like Nick Srnicek and Frank Pasquale have argued that platform capitalism begets historically unprecedented forms of economic domination.

Lastly, if one chooses to observe the very minutiae of platform interaction — the ways in which individuals and organisations adapt to the technical imperatives that the platforms as infrastructures implement, one will see that there is a strong form of technocracy involved. Researchers like Robyn Caplan and danah boyd have recently shown how this takes place in institutions, as different organisations adapt their ways of doing things so that they become more compatible with the existing platforms, and in order to emulate the alleged efficacy and agility of tech companies. I, myself, have argued that the epistemological convictions that are at the root of behavioural data-gathering companies such as Facebook, and the technical prescription exerted by the resulting infrastructures, might be much more rigid than many would think, steering also the operatives inside the platform corporations to an extent that we should not underestimate.

The interplay between these different mechanics (each one observable by using the attendant optic) can be neatly summarized by my concept of “platform logic.”

I argue that platform logic is both conforming to and distinct from pre-existing capitalist structural logics (Taylorism perhaps being the one closest at hand, something that was recently seized upon by Evgeny Morozov in his long review of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism). Due to the digital nature of platforms, many tendencies already latent in capitalism (monopolism, colonialism, generativity) are exacerbated, while some altogether new tendencies can also be observed.

Platform power can be summarised as ‘the power to link facially separate markets and/or to constrain participation in markets by using technical protocols’ (Cohen 2016: 374). Data is generated, almost automatically, the very moment the infrastructure is used, enabling surveillance and various designs that utilize such data. This has primarily been discussed in relation to the distribution of ads and editorial content in the media sector, but has huge importance also for other industries. Further, digital platforms directly benefit from so-called network effects that make the platform exponentially more valuable as more people use it.

We already know that digital systems have the quality of being possible to scale, virtually endlessly. We also know that code is control, in the sense that events aboard platforms can be governed in absolute, binary ways; users and possibilities can be turned on or off. However, this hard logic of infrastructural control stands in tension with the softer, more generative potentials that are often observed as inherent to digitization; programmability, interoperability and so on. In other words, platforms are charged with a ‘paradoxical tension between the logic of generative and democratic innovations and the logic of infrastructural control’ (Eaton et al. 2015: 218). My concept of “platform logic” refers to this quite specific and, at times, paradoxical interplay that platform power results in.

Andersson Schwarz, J. (2017). Platform Logic: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Platform-Based Economy. Policy & Internet, 9(4): 374–394. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.159

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