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On July 27, 2018, I appeared as a guest on the IPPR podcast with Mat Lawrence on the role of digital platforms in the modern economy. The episode was released on September 12. Below you can find the audio (embedded from SoundCloud) as well as an abridged transcript (skipping some of the intro and filler, and summarising Mat’s sections - sorry Mat).

I’m very new to politics - I started out as a software developer and I started programming when I was about 12 years old. and I thought I would be a software developer my whole life. I got an internship at Google a few years ago as a software engineering intern, I got a full-time offer, and my plan at the time was just to go work at a big company like Google as a software engineer.

I never really considered the political implications of that, and that’s something I’m only starting to realise now. But back then, when I was in university looking at the jobs that were on offer as someone who had a computer science degree, it felt like there were so many opportunities and so much money being a software engineer for these tech companies. And at the time I was just like, wow, this is great; I’ll take advantage of the fact that my skills are very lucrative, without considering why that might be the case. [Certainly not] considering the perspective of capital and labor and how does technology function within capitalism .

It’s only in the last year or so that I started understanding the political economy angle, and what it means when you have this industry - the tech industry - that’s generating so much wealth and accumulating it in a way that ensures that innovation is directed in a way that is not conducive to what society values as a whole.

You’re seeing the siphoning of wealth away from other industries and away from labour, more importantly. it’s concentrating within Silicon Valley in a way that is really damaging the livelihood of people who are not in Silicon Valley, and even those who are in the geographic region but who are not able to capture any of that wealth.

If you look at a company like Google, Microsoft, Facebook - these companies pay their software engineers and other people who are close to the point of production a huge amount of money. The people who are cleaning the offices, or serving food to these full-time employees, are barely getting by. They’re not able to afford the rising rents in the area.

So my story is one of someone who was naive and saw the tech industry and Silicon Valley as this wonderful thing that I could take advantage of, without considering what it meant for the world as a whole.

And it’s only in the last couple of years when I realized that maybe this state of affairs is not sustainable. Maybe there’s something wrong with it, and I personally need to figure out what the reasons for that are, and what I can do to try to counter it.

On Tech Workers Coalition

The Tech Workers Coalition is a pretty new organization. It’s very decentralised; it’s not a non-profit or a union or anything, but the point is to try to raise class consciousness within the tech industry. Because Silicon Valley-type tech companies don’t have any sort of union structure that software engineers are used to. So it’s completely foreign to a lot of people working inside these roles - the idea that they would either want or need a trade union.

Because the industry functions with a very different atmosphere. This idea of meritocracy;this focus on the individual over the collective; and that you, as a software developer, just need to work on your own skills and then you’ll get promoted. You’ll get the rewards that you deserve as long as you’re very good.

Obviously there’s so many ways that ideology doesn’t really make sense, and it doesn’t hold up in practice or even in theory. But because of that, it’s been really hard for any sort of union movement to make inroads within the industry. And it’s only in the last couple of years and really the last few months that we’ve seen any major action on this front.

A couple of months ago Google, announced that it wouldn’t be renewing its contract with the Pentagon to provide basically artificial intelligence for surveillance drones. And part of the reason was because a lot of people working at Google realised that could be used for drone strikes - it could be used for things that they were not comfortable with, ethically. Not everyone working at Google as a software engineer is American, after all, and this is something that would have just been for the US military.

So there was an open letter published, bunch of Google engineers resigned, and as a result, Google bowed down to pressure. And this is something that’s completely unprecedented for the industry in a lot of ways - we haven’t really seen any sort of collective work or organising on a large scale.

And this is just the beginning. What this movement is trying to do is challenge this very top-down model of managing companies.

The way things work now, is you’ll have executives decide. Mark Zuckerberg will decide what happens to Facebook; Larry and Sergey will decide what happens to Google [an oversimplification, obviously]. And they’re mostly driven by shareholder concerns. I mean, they have individual concerns of course, but at the same time they’re going to have to temper what they want individually with what they think shareholders want.

This whole movement is a way to try to bring out power from below, to challenge that. [For workers] to have a say in how things are run, in a more democratic way. Like a co-op model, but not exactly. The industry right now - it really does not like the idea of anyone challenging this very authoritarian, founder-driven way of running things.

Tech Workers Coalition is only a crack in the edifice of that. It’s unclear what’s going to happen in the long term. But the point is to say that there are workers who make these companies run, and there is no way these companies would function without their workforce. And maybe it’s time that their workforce actually have to say in things, as a way to structurally hold people like Mark Zuckerberg to account.

On the limitations of the report

Mat on how tech workers have a huge amount of leverage in terms of nodal points of infrastructure of the global economy. Summarising the CEJ report on platforms: platforms seek to dominate, can scale rapidly, extract data and monetise insights from analysing it, etc. You can find a summary of the report by Mat in the _New Statesman: We need a Digital Commonwealth to counter surveillance capitalism. I also wrote a response to the report for New Socialist here._

I think the overall arc is great. The point you made at the end about how it really is fundamentally a question of politics - that is something I think the progressive left is only now starting to grapple with. Maybe these platforms - in some ways it felt like they came from nowhere, but in another sense it feels more like the left has just not really turned its attention to these platforms. Because a lot of people have been writing about them and studying them, working on them for a long time; it’s just there’s been little engagement between people who are actually working on them and understand how they work, and people who are developing policy that could respond to them.

I think that is a problem that this report does address. What I really liked about it was the way you talked about an enclosure of the commons. That is a really important way of thinking about it, because it it points to the fact that there is an alternative. That this this corporate-driven, essentially privatisation of the information age that we live in - this is not the only way that things could be. This is not the only way innovation could be spread forward. This is not the only way of having information be provided to people.

Right now, it’s hard for us to imagine a world where Google is not synonymous with the ability to search. But that’s not the only possibility, and I think what what’s important right now is to remind ourselves that there is a radically different future that we could be working towards.

On the specific points you mentioned - the focus on data, while it’s useful, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think data is most relevant when you look at the advertising companies (Google and Facebook). The fact that these companies, like you said, get most their revenue from advertising, does speak to the fact that this extraction and monetization of data is core to their business model.

But then there are other companies where data plays a smaller role. If you look at Amazon, for example, there’s definitely use of data in the form of recommendation. At the same time, that’s not the only reason people use Amazon. If you want to get something delivered, you don’t really care if Amazon knows your previous history - sometimes you just type in what you want and then you get it delivered. And what Amazon owns - that makes it really valuable - is brand recognition but, also this way of organizing this logistical supply chain.

Because they have the scale, they have the experience, they have the technical talent - they’re able to organise it so efficiently in a way that no one has ever done before. Partly because the technologies weren’t available.

I think that has enormous implications for what you can do about it, and also how you would regulate it. Because it’s not just about the data - it’s also about access to this logistical network.

The other thing about Amazon is that they get [much] of their revenues from AWS (Amazon Web Services) which is, in an even more fundamental sense, not about data. It’s about providing cloud computing to other companies.

I ran a startup, and we used AWS for basically everything. [The reason we used AWS is because] Amazon is in this position where because they have so much money, they can invest in getting people onto their platforms. Wee used AWS because Amazon offered us $100,000 for free, of credit, to use on their platform. So we ended up moving over all of our services onto their platform, we burned through the hundred thousand dollars, and then we were kind of locked in.

And because Amazon has so much money behind it, it’s able to do that. It’s able to invest in [customer acquisition by] getting people to use its platform. [It’s the same with other large cloud plaforms.] If you need cloud computing and you don’t have the money to invest in your own network, you’re going to use one of these big platforms.

That means that you have to deal with in a different way. Because it’s not just about data - it’s about actually owning this infrastructure. It’s about building services on top of the infrastructure that makes it convenient for developers to use.

I’m always wary of people we talk about AI as if it’s this autonomous thing. I think that is a bit of a problematic way of looking at it, and it makes it harder to grapple with. I don’t think you can separate AI from the purposes to which it’s being put. Instead of “we need to deal with AI”, [it should be] we need to deal with AI in the context of X. In the context of self-driving cars, making court decisions, whatever.

On Cybersyn

Mat on cybernetics as an imaginary of the left, especially from Cybersyn onwards. The mass data-ification of society enables an explosion of social intelligence that could deal with contemporary social and economic challenges. Could this generate more democratic outcomes?

I think the Cybersyn dream is a useful one to keep in mind.

The way I like to think of it is: our current economic and social relations are constraining the potential of the technologies that are available today. That’s most obvious if you think about the funding model within the tech industry right now, which is mostly venture capital-driven. It’s incentivising the creation of these really pointless tech companies who are developing things that a lot of other people are also developing. And they’re doing it not because they think the world actually needs this technology, but because they can raise some money, they can sell it to another company, then they can do whatever else they want to do.

It’s a profoundly wasteful way of spurring innovation. It’s important to remember that there are alternative ways of directing technology for the common good, and the funding model should be the fundamental thing. We should think about ways of incentivising entrepreneurship for the purpose of making something a public service, making something societally useful tool.

The Cybersyn aspect - I think it’s great for capturing the imagination. I think it is potentially a way of taking these ideas around efficiently distributing goods outside of the confines of the market, and saying that it doesn’t have to be the price mechanism. There may be ways of transcending the price mechanism and it could be a way of moving us towards this larger project for decommodification in general.

On open source software

Mat on zero marginal-cost production, and the very real ecological footprint that’s often neglected in this discourse. On the finance driving these companies as well as the legal infrastructures underpinning them, and what a socialist system centred around zero marginal cost production would look like.

There’s actually this movement that came from within the heart of the software development community - the hacker community, really - that I wish was known about more on the left. Because that movement spoke to a fundamentally different way of viewing the world.

It started as the free software movement. There were people who realised that because you have technology that can be replicated at zero marginal cost - because if you can write a software program, someone else can have the same software program, and it doesn’t take anything away from your copy - because you have that, then you open the door to challenging intellectual property rights in this really revolutionary way. That movement was about imagining a world where you don’t have corporations enclosing every single commons that they can, including the information commons.

That movement failed, in the sense that the only way it became mainstream was by morphing into this open source movement, which people are probably more familiar with because open source software underpins quite a bit of the internet. A lot of these big tech companies, they pile resources into developing open source.

What they’ve done is, they’ve taken this new way of viewing information and this way of seeing the radical potential of these zero marginal cost goods, and they convert it into something very corporate-friendly. Something that could be commodified.

And then what they did was they moved up the stack. So instead of [selling] software, they said oh, this software is a bit of a commodity - something that we can even get for free. What we’re gonna do is build services on top. And because intellectual property law hadn’t quite evolved to accommodate that, as a result, these companies were able to make quite a bit of money selling these services.

Look at what Google sells today - it’s a service. You go to a web page, you type something in, and it returns results. It’s not selling software the same way that software used to be sold. Even Microsoft, which was known for selling software, has kind of evolved - now it’s not just selling software, it’s selling pretty much everything any tech company can.

What we need to remember is that the existence of these multinational corporations commodifying every aspect of information is not inevitable. It’s not inevitable [as a result of] the technologies that are available - it’s something that is entwined with the economic system, and the political context that we live under. In a way, you can see it as the natural extension of neoliberalism applied to this new digital frontier.

If we wish to challenge that, it’ll involve taking the radical seed within the free software movement - this idea that information wants to be free, and that information could be free if you have the right intellectual property regime, the right corporate governance regime, and the right political movements that will bolster that.

Mat asking if I’m referring to McKenzie Wark’s line that “information wants to be free but everywhere is in chains” from A Hacker Manifesto

Me: A Hacker Manifesto was great. He talks about the open source movement and he calls it a “gift economy”, and what he says about that is that the gift economy is proof that these corporations - that are profiting from commodifying data and other information - they’re parasites. They don’t need to exist. The current model that we live under, where these companies the ones are driving and controlling innovation - who profit from it - they exist because we allow them to. Because the economic system we live under encourages and incentivises their creation. It’s not something that is absolutely necessary, and that’s probably something we should push back against if we’re serious about challenging the accumulation of wealth.

Mat on the enclosure of common resources being analogous to the enclosure of land in the 19th century as of driver of accumulation. The contemporary form of enclosure and class struggle and power struggle within the economy today is platforms, but there isn’t the same sort of contestation (social, political struggles) that we’d seen in the 19th century - or at least not yet, not relative to the enclosure of the land. How do we surface that sort of struggle?

Mat also mentions Raj Patel & Jason Moore’s new book, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, which talks about capitalism expanding at the frontier - appropriates, exploits, exhausts itself and then it moves onto a new frontier. It’s interesting and not a coincidence that when our growth model (financialized growth model) hit the buffer as ten years ago, at the same point a new frontier of growth emerged: extracting data. Extracting value from our past relationships in this digital infrastructure, and that is the source of new dynamism in global capitalism.

On the enclosure of the digital commons

Mat also brings up tech billionaires’ desire to colonise space, and how that’s analogous to trying to exploit the new frontier in the digital realm.

Me: For sure. I think we have to view it as this process under capitalism that is trying to ensure that there’s a return to capital. Beverly J Silver talks about this as a technological fix - David Harvey talks about this as well - and the whole point of investing in technology is hoping that you can increase returns to capital in the long run.

In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a lot of investment in Silicon Valley. Specifically with Google and Facebook, it’s this investment in advertising, which implies this endless consumption - that people will keep consuming in this never-ending mindless cycle of consumption. Which, as you mentioned earlier, is not sustainable, given what’s happening to the planet.

With Silicon Valley, what we’re seeing is a manifestation of this incredible of fantasy: that the tech sector can sustain this unlimited amount of capital. That people can keep pouring money into the industry and then eventually they’ll see a return.

You can see this in the case of Uber, for example. It’s still running at a loss, but the hope is that eventually, if it becomes big enough, then you’ll be able to keep keep making returns to capital. But the problem with that [business model] is that it it assumes this static, unchanging political landscape, where by the time Uber has colonised the entire world, people will just be serfs. They’ll just assent.

And so technology is moving us towards this weird neo-feudalist stage. And there it feels like there’s an assumption on the part of people who are driving this forward that it’ll be sustainable, and that there will be no political reaction. Or maybe that they think that there will be some sort of uprising and that’s why some of them are carving out bunkers in New Zealand. But either way, it’s a very strange state of affairs - they have to know that things can’t continue the way they are, that the world that they’re moving us to towards is just not sustainable.

On the broader vision

Mat: concludes that another world could be possible, but how do we build it? Summarises the four policy proposals in the IPPR report, which centre around rethinking the ownership and control of data. Rethinking the remit of the CMA (putting limits on acquisitions); regulating the monopolistic services of the platform giants; creating a public service modelled on the BBC as a public alternative to privatised data; and municipalising data

Me: In general, the policy proposals put out in the report make sense in the current political climate. For me, what I would like to see - not necessarily from this report or from IPPR, but I think that the left needs a larger political vision that it can look to when it comes to this terrain (the topic of technology platforms).

While these concrete proposals can be useful in terms of getting us there, I’m worried that there is no guiding light on the horizon towards which we should aim. What we really want to aim for is the decommodification of the whole digital frontier. And that’s something that you can’t really get at with with creating a few institutions, but I think that’s something we have to keep in mind, and something we should aim for.

But that’s something that will require international coordination, and will require changing how intellectual property law works. It’s also something that will come up against corporate interests. And so to get there, you need this broad political shift that comes from challenging capital and challenging global capital. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not something that you can specify in a document with four different policy proposals.

The point I want to emphasise is that even though when we look at these companies, we look at the fact that a company like Facebook can lose a $119 billion dollars in value and still be this huge, dominant company … you look at something like that and it’s easy to feel despair. It’s easy to think these companies are unassailable, they’re completely dominant, they’ll be dominant forever and there’s nothing we can do about it.

What the report does quite nicely is stress that that’s not true. Even though it’ll be difficult, there are things we can do. We have to act as if there are things we can do.

And in that light, it’s really helpful to look for these glimpses of light in the darkness that we live under right now. For me, one of those things is what we were talking about before with the Tech Workers Coalition, and the fact that people working in these companies are starting to see that the world that they’ve helped build - the world that their labour has gone towards building - is maybe not one that they want to live under.

They’ll look at the fact that the people serving them coffee are barely surviving on minimum wage, are getting evicted, are even becoming homeless. In San Francisco, there’s a huge homelessness problem right now and it’s in large part spurred by what’s happening with the tech companies and all the wealth that’s been accumulated there. I think some people are starting to realise that they have some responsibility for the mess that they’ve helped to make.

And if you take that - if you use that as this catalyst, and convert it into something larger, this larger process of radicalisation … realising that the people who built these products have an ability to change things. And not just change things slightly, and making these companies slightly more ethical; I don’t think that’s something that is worth pushing for. I don’t think we should just say, Oh we want a slightly kinder Silicon Valley; we want Mark Zuckerberg to donate a little more of his money to charity - that’s not the world I want to aim for.

I want to aim for a world where the fundamental structures that led to Silicon Valley being this unstoppable, unaccountable force in the first place - I want that to change. I want a world where technology is developed in a very different way. Where the people who develop it are more accountable, and there are more people involved in decision-making processes. Where the wealth accumulation that we think of as so intrinsically tied to entrepreneurship is not part of the process at all, and people build these technologies not for the purpose of getting rich - not for the purpose of seeing their face on the cover of Time magazine - but because they genuinely want to build useful products that will help society.

And that will help us for the challenges ahead. I mean, we’re sitting in the studio right now that is extremely hot in one of the hottest weeks on record. And I think we have to remember that the ecological challenges we’re facing need a lot of attention, and right now so many resources are being poured into problems that are not really worth society working on.

And it’s all because of the core economic principles that we live under, and that we’re governed by. And if we want to change that - if we want to get rid of the worst excesses of Silicon Valley, if if we don’t like the fact that someone like Elon Musk has so much money and is able to drive innovation - if we don’t like the state of affairs, we’re going to have to think about what economic principles led to this state of affairs. And how do we change them.

The report is definitely a step in that direction, but we have to remember that there’s a huge horizon beyond and that we need to figure out how to sketch out the next steps

On the techno-optimism

Mat on the “technology as salvation” framing as being useful, whereas we should instead focus on the economic institutions, and the politics that then shapes and drives and mediates those institutions. And if we do want to move from digital enclosure to a digital commonwealth, ultimately that requires this deep undergirding and reimagining about economic institutions, and that requires not just looking to technology as an artifact that can generate different futures, but actually coming up with the futures we want, and then bending our politics or economics or technological systems to those ends.

Me: Definitely, and I think we should recognise that this “technology as salvation” narrative is one that the tech companies themselves employ, and that a lot of people really do believe in. Because it does kind of make sense, but what they’re selling is this false dichotomy: this idea that the only way you can have innovation is if you let a private company do whatever it wants.

Uber definitely pushed that narrative when TfL tried to shut them down - they were saying, well we’re bringing in all these innovations, we’re making things much more efficient, and if you want this efficiency you’re gonna have to let us do whatever we want. You’re gonna have to let us operate outside the law even.

One of the things we can do to counter that narrative is to recognise that it’s not necessarily “the efficiencies and innovations brought forth by these tech companies” “versus going back to the way things were before”. There is a world where we have the same sort of efficiency gains - the same sort of innovation - but deployed for more productive uses. And uses that aren’t about increasing returns to capital while disempowering labour.