Vili Lehdonvirta’s Cloud Empires is a terrific guide. Because the title suggests (and the fashionably chatty subtitle spells out simply in case), the topic is the political energy of enormous/gatekeeper digital platforms and particularly how of their important rule-making capability they’re steadily taking up extra actions of the state – however doing so with out a public service motive (revenue as a substitute) and with out accountability: “The web was purported to free us from highly effective establishments. … Then they delivered one thing totally different – one thing that appears rather a lot like authorities once more, besides that this time we didn’t get to vote.”
The guide begins with the origins of the web and digital platforms, together with the early libertarian hopes. The primary part issues platforms as financial establishments. One focus is the operation of on-line labour markets, together with mTurk, but in addition utilizing oWork/Upworker as a case research; the platform develop into more and more internally regulated because it grew, amongst different issues setting a minimal wage – of $3 an hour, reflecting the globalisation of on-line labour. One other chapter issues privateness, and its full erosion as platforms more and more grappled with the necessity to implement social order on-line at huge scale.
The theme by way of this primary part is the transition from libertarian optimism concerning the absence of management to a non-territorial however nonetheless tightly regulated collection of platform domains, with platforms setting their very own guidelines inside their very own jurisdictions – with the one accountability being folks’s potential to go away. You may put it that Albert Hirschman’s ‘exit’ is the one possibility as neither voice not loyalty have any traction, and even that’s restricted by the facility of community results. Exit must be collective to be efficient.
The second part issues the political energy of the platforms. It begins with a splendidly astute chapter on crypto-currencies, making the purpose (it has all the time appeared clear to me however seemingly to not others) that these should not ‘trustless’ however merely relocate belief. And but many or most are inherently untrustworthy (to make use of Onora O’Neill’s framing). “The crypto elite who run these organisations are, if something, much less accountable to folks than standard monetary and regulatory elites.” The founders could also be fully honest and good, and so they might even appear to offer their communities voice, however in writing the take-it-or-leave-it code, they impose dictatorship. (And have clearly learn not one of the huge literature on incomplete contracts….) Different authors akin to Lawrence Lessig have drawn the comparability between code and legislation, however I discovered the social science perspective right here very useful.
One other chapter considers the best way the platforms have undermined the standard public establishments offering well being care and schooling. Neither platforms nor gig employees have an incentive to put money into coaching or a long-term relationship, and within the US not less than that casualised workforce has to depend on GoFundMe campaigns to cowl medical payments. “Web empires are undermining industrial society’s mechanisms of constructing and sustaining human capital.” What is going to the important social security internet appear to be within the platform economic system?
The concluding chapter pulls the threads collectively within the argument that platforms are usurping the standard nation state. “Silicon Valley technologists reinvented the economic system solely within the sense that by way of trial and error they rediscovered a lot of what states already knew. As an alternative of revolutionizing our social order, they reimplemented it with pc code.” Algorithms are forms. (And certainly, numerous conventional statecraft trusted know-how – together with classifying and accumulating information, monitoring behaviour). The guide argues that states merely gave up a few of their former territory of management by way of outsourcing, or ceasing to gather information in home. As well as, the digital platforms have benefits – they’re quick and environment friendly, and in (slim) methods present an excellent service.
So what to do about it? The guide makes the case for a web-based bourgeois revolution to develop collective motion energy that can make digital platforms accountable. I need to say that the prior chapters don’t give me any optimism that may present efficient. My prescription could be for democratic states to regain the misplaced territory by way of a mix of rule-making over on-line exercise and improved effectivity of conventional bureaucratic states. Although I’m not too optimistic about that both.
All of which makes the guide an important learn. I’ve some quibbles (for instance, I’d disagree that platforms are efficient central planners), however maybe I’m incorrect. The guide is firmly rooted in Vili’s personal work and the broader literature on digital platforms, spanning economics, sociology and political science, whereas being very readable with a number of examples and case research. A powerful suggest.