Online platforms aren’t simply replacing stores by replicating their function. Instead they are making themselves gatekeepers capable of controlling and regulating commerce — just as Steam regulates the weapon skins market — playing a decisive role in which sellers continue to exist and which workers get to show up to work tomorrow. Culture is constrained and warped by this gatekeeping dynamic, which not only maintains the existing monoculture — in which a few popular titles dominate markets — but intensifies it.
This is not a matter of goods or marketplaces being digital, but how digitality proves conducive to monopolistic domination. In Monopoly Capital (1966), Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy define what they call “epoch-making” technologies: those which radically reshape space and time — that “shake up the entire pattern of the economy and hence create vast investment outlets in addition to the capital they directly absorb.” [...]
In the 21st century, networked computing and phones have superseded autos as the epoch-making technology. If the previous age of monopoly capitalism was defined by cars, suburban landscapes, and regular trips to the department store, then our new age is defined by ride-sharing apps, gentrified landscapes, Prime Day sales, and the fulfillment centers that make it possible. Online connectivity — virtual assistants like Alexa, PCs with internet browsers, smart TVs with streaming services, and phone apps — all reduced the space and time consumers had to traverse to engage in commerce, but at the same time it has centralized it.
The resulting new monopoly capitalism has produced a new kind of consumerism — if not a new way of life, at least a new intensity of it — that passes principally through the gates of Amazon, Paypal, Venmo, Salesforce, Steam, Shopify, the iOS App Store, and other platforms. Amazon, for instance, is now larger by valuation than virtually all other retailers combined. Together, these platforms plug us into a more “frictionless” system of commerce: In exchange for a modest increase of speed and convenience, they etch themselves into our collective consciousness as we etch ourselves into their databanks as consumer profiles. The platform [...] You half-expect the word platform to be capitalized, like some Platonic ideal.
As commerce has consolidated into digital platforms, digital commodity production — which best suit the platforms’ economic advantages — has ramped up: skins in Counter-Strike and Fortnite and Twitch.tv’s “Cheer chat” badges, along with conventional digital products like games and Adobe’s software suites. These are capable of near-instant delivery and are more amenable to platform-sustained content restrictions: DRM, paywalls, subscriber access, and other forms of intermediate fees. The consolidation of retailing into platforms has also triggered the development of dropshipping — when a entity sells products it doesn’t have in stock and has them shipped from a third party directly to the consumer. As Alexis Madrigal reported, there are Instagram brands that don’t buy or sell goods but exploit aspirational lifestyle imagery and the platform’s advertising algorithms to lure customers. They simulate manufacturing and professional branding but exist only as social media accounts. All this may seem to diversify economic participation — so many products! so many retailers! — but the profits still flow to the a single monolithic place.
i should probably read monopoly capital tbh
(tagged as open source tho it's really about centralisation)
Platforms facilitate different epistemological realities and incentivizes content creation to sustain them. In the end, platforms see content as no different from any other consumer good. This is because platforms are theorized not as communication technologies, but as marketplaces.
To understand the logic of how platforms are designed and why they have taken over, it helps to examine what economists and management theorists call “multisided” or “two-sided” market theory. Platforms are all versions of a multi-sided market, which gives them an economic advantage over conventional retailing. Mainly this is because platforms are monopolies that can produce consumers who don’t know the true costs of their participation.
Conventional retail is a one-sided market: a direct interaction between a buyer and seller of a commodity. In classic liberal economics, that means (putting it reductively) that both parties pursue their own self-interest in price negotiation, leading to an “equilibrium” price that can be seen as “just,” determined between two equals with corresponding incentives. Multisided markets are fundamentally different: They are mediated by a third party that owns the market, which profits by charging access and transaction fees. Credit-card processing is a classic example: On one side are businesses that sign contracts with companies like Mastercard, Visa, and American Express to ensure that customers can use these cards in their store. On the other side are credit card users, who are charged interest rates for the privilege to carry a balance. In the middle is the credit-card company, which owns the infrastructure and manages both customer bases, adjusting prices to try to maximize participation on both sides.
Multi-sided market theory explicitly discusses how platforms can use their position to engage in anti-competitive behavior. As Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Terole wrote in 2003, “The quest for ‘getting both sides on board’ makes no sense in a world in which only the total price for the end-user interaction, and not its decomposition, matters.” In other words, because most platforms put the weight of the “cost” on one side — for most tech companies, that means the advertisers’ side — consumers are generally unfamiliar with any of the costs of using platforms. This gives the platforms considerable leverage in their interactions with a enormously large pool of users that either misunderstand or do not care about how their labor (the data they produce that is sold to advertisers) or their commerce (the in-platform purchases they make) is commodified.
This results in monopolistic domination: when the large corporations in control reshape markets in their own image, ensuring winner-take-all dynamics. As noted above, this is most obvious in cultural industries like television, film, games, or apps where a few titles dominate and capture the majority of sales, leaving the rest to drown in obscurity. It’s no secret that a structural monoculture is sculpted out of this. The kind of stories we tell and hear overwhelmingly represent the voices of the already well-off white men who also happen to profit from them.
fuckkkk this is so good
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and cynical about the state of the digital economy right now. In return for what mainly amounts to small measures of consumer convenience, massive economic control has been ceded to platforms. But this consolidation has also changed the configuration of capital and the terrain of class struggle, as I discussed in a previous essay for Real Life.
It’s important not to turn this reconfiguration into a desire for what Gavin Mueller has describes as “digital Proudhonian” solutions, which overemphasize a critique of monopolies from the perspective of “creatives” and artists at the expense of class struggle in solidarity with the “noncreative” workers (think Uber drivers and warehouse workers) whose socialized, collective labor makes platform-based monopolies possible. If such solidarity is to challenge capital’s endless bloody appetite, we will have to understand how these platforms work and where they are most vulnerable. As platforms centralize commerce and labor, this makes them nodal points that, with the right organization, can be disrupted by militant labor action. The strike called by Spanish workers for a consumer and worker boycott of Amazon on Prime Day is just one example of the early rumblings of this.
Consumerism promises to fill a void created by the profound lack of democracy and political participation many feel in their day-to-day lives. Platforms are the means by which tech companies have sold us the empty calories of consumption cloaked in the rhetoric of freedom. So-called multisided markets promise an endless buffet of culture and commerce with no strings attached because they are designed to hide their real costs. But in prior periods of struggle, new forms of organization and resistance arose to meet it. Any realistic political project that could move us beyond this new age of monopoly consumerism that has taken hold will necessarily take platforms as its object and its opportunity.
[...] digital platforms internalize consumption as well, turning it into a form of subtly incentivized labor. Previous forms of labor organization depended on managerial overseers and workers who were rendered into “docile bodies” by, in Foucault’s account, social institutions like factories, prisons and hospitals. Platforms, by implementing code as control, introduce flexibility and mobility to the process, akin to the logistical and managerial innovations brought on by just-in-time production processes popularized by Toyota in the 1970s. Productivity is ensured not by the fear of punishment but by a series of techniques and technologies that allow workers to experience agency even as they are guided toward the expected productive activities. Gamification is central to this.
[...] platforms are technologies for the production of distribution itself, and if platform capitalism is about distribution, then it’s primarily about space. Platforms create a space in which specific forms of exchange can occur, and set the terms for those exchanges, all while extracting rents. This is true not only in the virtual realms of space-exploration games like EVE Online, where new territory and new forms of goods are created that exist only within the game. but of Uber as well, which overlays urban landscapes with its proprietary dynamic maps of supply and demand.
Rosa Luxemburg argued that colonialism was primarily about expanding markets and labor forces, and Lenin, building on the work of Rudolf Hilferding, made a similar case in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Because capitalist economies generate an excess of capital relative to internal investment opportunities, capitalists need to create new markets and absorb new laborers to exploit. Daniel Greene and I have made the case that this process persists not only in geographic space but also in the “spaces” of the internet. The same process of dispossession and enclosure that has characterized the expansion of capitalism happens online. Whereas peasants and serfs were dispossessed of land and forced to urbanize and take up wage labor, internet users are being dispossessed of their time and attention, which are being enclosed through surveillance, then quantified and monetized.
Platforms are the means for this enclosure, mediating activity for the purposes of controlling all forms of exchange around it. The sheer quantity of platforms that purport to be “Like Uber, but for X” shows how this process continues, with the goal of finding pieces of life that aren’t already commodified to bring them into the orbit of capital, taking things that were once free and selling them to us. Marxists call this “dispossession,” and platforms excel at it.
i like this a lot. cant believe i didnt read this before
Sarah talking about her fabled student loans again while I pulled the trigger on some new dresses for my new lifestyle.
wow. such a good portrayal of privilege, amazing
[...] Oona wanted to be an actress. The sad fact of this city: the thousands of actresses with their thousands of efficiency apartments and teeth-whitening strips, the energy generated by thousands of treadmill hours and breach runs, energy dissipating into nothingness. Maybe Oona wanted to be an actress for the same reasons Alice did: because other people told them they should be. It was one of the traditional possibilities for a pretty girl, everyone urging the pretty girl not to waste her prettiness, to put it to good use. As if prettiness was a natural resource, a responsibility you had to see all the way through.
fascinating. perhaps the only valid use of "prettiness", then, is to wield it as a weapon in order to attack the hierarchy itself
How to explain - if Alice wasn't taking a class, if she wasn't otherwise engaged, that meant her terrible job, her terrible apartment, suddenly carried more weight, maybe started to matter. The thought was too much to consider squarely.
on dead-end jobs and the extremely "capitalist realism" idea that we must always be hustling for a better life, as opposed to trying to make our jobs better right now
There was no one ahead of him, there was no one behind, but still: there was waiting. A condition so chronic, so Messianically anticipant, that its trappings didn't matter. [...]
there's something weirdly poetic about this in a very religious way that i can't quite unpack but still like
[...] the flights were almost always full, booked far in advance, bought out by the sovereign wealth funds of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, China, and Hong Kong, as well as by corporate partners, the latter tricky at first, many corporations at first resisted - they had stockholders they were accountable to, they couldn't be spending millions on luxury travel - but soon it became clear that certain favors were being granted, playing fields tipped, regulations loosened or disappeared, sabers rattled more or less virogously, so that in numerous ways, plausibly deniable and otherwise, those in the Zeppelins were accruing certain advantages [...]
too real (also very DFW)