Sometime ago I came across a meme which seemed to be, on the surface, a profoundly enigmatic realisation, attributable to Tom Goodwin from TechCrunch. The quote itself runs “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.” While in the beginning one might be stymied by Goodwin’s formulation of the problem, the article, which is basically a kind of evangelical ode to the monetisable wonders of digital capitalism, does get one thing right.
Today’s companies might no longer own the “full stack” (R&D, manufacturing, marketing, supply chain, selling – in short, the orthodox Marxist idea of means of production) they are in complete ownership and possession of the “interface” with the customer. And as Goodwin says, with a fair amount of excitement, “the interface layer is where all the value and profit is.”
But what does it mean for companies to own not what were traditionally thought of as the means of production, but an “interface”? The future of global capitalism, confronted with the inexorable decline of the production sector, seems to be moving towards the fetishisation of Big Data. Data might seem immaterial in itself, but it is today the driving force powering all forms of material production in a sluggish global economy.
A leftist view of how to accelerate capitalism
Nick Srnicek’s new book, Platform Capitalism, is an attempt to address this vaunted emergence of a new form of global capitalism founded not on the capacity to produce material goods but on the ability to extract and control of vast amounts of data. He calls this new business model “platform capitalism”, as it is based on a “platform” which is optimised to monopolise, record and use data.
Srnicek himself is one of the more provocative young thinkers who can vaguely be slotted among the Left at the moment, flitting as he does between Francois Laruelle’s nonphilosophy, Speculative Realism, and Accelerationism. Much of his thought seems to inspired by the enigmatic British philosopher, Nick Land, who could be said to have started the Accelerationism movement in the 1990s, basically arguing that “the point of an analysis of capitalism, or of nihilism, is to do more of it. The process is not to be critiqued. The process is the critique, feeding back into itself, as it escalates. The only way forward is through, which means further in.” Accelerationism holds that the only way through capitalism is through capitalism, and not via what would be an ineffectual critique of it.
Land himself started off as an ultra-left radical in the 1990s, but today he is one of the major theorists for the neo-reactionary movement called the Dark Enlightenment, which theoretically underpins the political movement called the Alt-Right. “The auto-destruction of capitalism is what capitalism is,” says Land, and Srnicek’s 2013 Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics can be seen as a refashioning of the former’s unabashed neo-reactionary orientation through a leftist lens. Srnicek argues in this manifesto, contrary to Land’s views, that capitalism is too slow for the progress generated by the new technological developments of the last fifty years – that, rather than accelerating, it is slowing down and holding back the technological promise of progress, dreamt of until the advent of the neoliberal order, a promise to go beyond “the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms”. Platform Capitalism is thus an extension of Srnicek’s commitment to a left-wing Accelerationism; a book that seeks to understand in order to transform the data-based digital economies which are stymying the progressive promises of technology.
What platform capitalism really is
Srnicek begins his book with a short economic history of global capitalism from the end of the Second World War in 1945. The first chapter, aptly titled “The Long Downturn” argues that “Phenomena that appear to be radical novelties may, in historical light, reveal themselves to be simple continuities…the response to the 1970s downturn; the boom and bust of the 1990s; and the response to the 2008 crisis…has set the stage for the new digital economy and has determined the ways in which it has developed.” As a condensed history of a relatively long period, Srnicek’s account is extremely helpful in understanding the shift from the “unwieldy industrial behemoths” of the 1960s to lean and mean digital tech companies like Apple and Amazon. The monetary policies of central banks, faced with the crisis of 2008, led to corporate cash hoarding and tax evasion, which made available large amounts of money looking for investment.
In the next two chapters, Srnicek advances his theory of platform capitalism with examples from real life platforms like Google, Airbnb, Amazon and others. His argument is an interesting one: that these firms no longer produce goods in the traditional sense, but are concerned only with data, which is the new raw material to be extracted. But Srnicek is wary “of thinking that data collection and analysis are frictionless or automated processes. Most data must be cleaned and organised into standardised formats in order to be usable.”
The platform model of capitalism is premised on the platform, which acts as an interface between two or more groups. The firm might not own the goods sold on it (Amazon, for instance) but it owns the platform itself, and, as Srnicek says, this positions it between users, as the ground on which all their activities can take place. Digital platforms can be highly successful due to what Srnicek calls network effects. This is exemplified by WhatsApp and Facebook, which are the default messaging and social media apps, respectively, precisely because of the immense number of people who are already on it. “Users beget more users, which leads to platforms having a natural tendency towards monopolisation” writes Srnicek, and this is a phenomenon that we can see playing out almost every day. Platforms can also rely on pre-existing infrastructure, for example Uber or Airbnb, and this means that they can grow to be very big very quickly.
How many kinds of platforms are there?
The remainder of this chapter constructs five categories within which most platforms can be slotted, on their relation to data as well as their processes for creation of value and accumulation of capital. This categorisation, which differentiates advertising, cloud, industrial, product, and lean platforms from one another, also draws the connection between each to its non-platform predecessors.
Advertising platforms are those like Google and Facebook, which collect vast amounts of user data for targeted advertising. Since their services are provided free, they attract a large user base which produces immense amounts of data that can be sold to advertisers.
Cloud platforms involve the sale of IT resources as if they were utilities. Companies like Amazon provide digital infrastructure to new businesses and charge a fee for it, while also accessing data from those businesses. Industrial platforms like Siemens and General Electric (GE) position themselves as not just providing software but also the hardware (servers and storage) needed to operate a completely connected “smart” factory.
Product platforms like Zipcar (and Zoomcar in India) rent out their products to the consumer, but they differ from earlier models as they also collect data on the use of these products for better optimisation of profit.
Lean platforms are those like Uber and Airbnb, which are asset-less companies. But they do own the platform itself and “operate through a hyper-outsourced model, whereby workers are outsourced, fixed capital is outsourced, maintenance costs are outsourced, and training is outsourced. All that remains is a bare extractive minimum – control over the platform that enables a monopoly rent to be gained.”
In the final chapter Srnicek examines the tendencies, challenges and futures for platform capitalism. Many of the companies in this category, like Uber and Ola, are dedicated to a “growth before profit” strategy, while others are unconcerned with growth as they already have a monopoly, like Google and Facebook. Such companies have to deal with the decline of advertising revenue growth and their commitment to providing free services, which somehow results in their becoming gatekeepers of the Internet (as Facebook sought to be in India with its Free Basics programme).
In the last few pages of the book, Srnicek offers an alternative to the hegemony of platform capitalism by advocating the public ownership of these platforms, which involves utilising the data collected to “distribute resources, enable democratic participation, and generate further technological development”. His advice: “Perhaps today we must collectivise the platforms.” However his plea, coming as it does at the very end of the book, seems both half-hearted and inconsistent with his earlier Accelerationist agenda. It is not made clear how public ownership of platforms will increase the sluggish productivity of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and advance the promises of technology.
Platform Capitalism does provide an overview of how global capital is dependent on the control and extraction of data. It is a short book, just about over one hundred pages in length, and can serve to pithily delineate the data based economy. The only problem with Srnicek’s exposition is that he is unable to do what he set out to do in manifesto and earlier books, which was to offer an alternative to the ineffectual ritualistic protests of the Left.
The trouble with Srnicek’s book is summarised by Nick Land himself this: “Left-Accelerationism appears to have deconstructed itself back into traditional socialist politics, and the Accelerationist torch has passed to a new generation of brilliant young thinkers advancing an ‘Unconditional Accelerationism’ (neither R/Acc., or L/Acc., but U/Acc.).” Srnicek’s attempt to blunt the brutal force of Unconditional Accelerationism in his conclusion can either be seen as ineffectual or half-hearted. While his efforts to develop a theory of platform capitalism are commendable, his alternative is not as progressive as he would like it to be. Something interesting is happening today, and Srnicek’s book does manage to throw a lot of light on these processes. But perhaps we can sum up the problem with his alternative quite appositely with a Landian quote: “Still something is happening, and it is – at least in part – something else”.
Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek, Polity Press.