Policymakers, politicians, activists, businesspeople and even ordinary people are more and more sceptical of digital platforms like Facebook (or shall we say, Meta). This scepticism is not just about the murky decision-making power of algorithms. It’s also that there is increasing awareness about the operation of digital platforms as private entities. Entities that do not exist for our own individual benefit. Entities which, even if they have some value as mediums of publicity, or have some public utility, are not publicly-owned. Put simply, whatever they say about their mission, digital platforms - ranging from Facebook to Google to Amazon to Airbnb to Uber - are first and foremost about making money. Making money in a way that relies substantially on extracting data about us: what we do, when, where and how we do things, as well as our explicit signals about why. Very often, this extraction also enables an approximation of who we might be. It is true that data mining can divulge intimate personal details about us. But what is principally happening in such processes is the construction of user models, a profile which we match, often fairly precisely. A model of a situated user that can be targeted for advertising, or marketing, or triggered in various ways to remain faithful the platform. And when users are faithful to these platforms, they generate yet more data for extraction. These insights have inspired a revival of sorts amongst political economy and Marxist approaches to media, towards a new critique of digital or platform capitalism. But is this capitalism? Or is it, as suggested speculatively by McKenzie Wark, something worse.
Thinkers Discussed: Shoshana Zuboff (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power); Anne Helmond (The Platformization of the Web: Making Web Data Platform Ready); Tarleton Gillespie (The Politics of Platforms); Jose van Dijck (The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media); Jose van Dijck, Thomas Poell and Martijn de Wall (The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World); Nick Srnicek (Platform Capitalism); McKenzie Wark (Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?); Clive Barnett (The Consolations of ‘Neoliberalism’).