There is no doubt that platform corporations are among the most significant economic, political, and cultural actors in contemporary life. Platforms are powerful because they position themselves both beneath and in-between users — that is, they are both the place in which and the means by which users interact online. This not only gives platform owners privileged access to data about users, but it also enables them to dictate the rules about how the many people who depend on platforms interact with one another. As a result, current discussions on platforms—both in popular media and in academia — tend to focus on how central platforms are to the textures of daily life, taking on an “infrastructural” quality as they synchronize and standardize actors across industries in ways that often pit collective values — such as democracy — against private gain. In our upcoming workshop Against Platform Determinism, we are inviting scholars, technologists, and activists to flip the script on platformization to ask how institutions, individuals, and infrastructures mediate and shape platform power.
…we are inviting scholars, technologists, and activists to flip the script on platformization to ask how institutions, individuals, and infrastructures mediate and shape platform power.
As powerful as platforms are, they are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Many accounts of platforms often rely on technologically determinant narratives of platformization, where platform companies “appear” in a given sector and reform it in their image with little to no resistance. This vision of platforms’ power is implicitly reinforced by existing scholarship on platforms, which tends to focus on “successful” instances of platformization — those in which platforms profoundly alter the sector in which they operate, such as ride-hailing — or the most influential platforms, especially Facebook and Google. In this way, even work that is critical of platforms may reinforce narratives about those companies’ near-mystical power, seen, for instance, in coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that suggests the company was very nearly capable of mind control. But just as social media did not cause the Arab Spring, platforms are (most likely) not at the root of the decline of democracy.
The phrase “against platform determinism” is intended to work as a counterframe, one that acknowledges but does not fetishize the power platforms possess.
The phrase “against platform determinism” is intended to work as a counterframe, one that acknowledges but does not fetishize the power platforms possess. In one sense, it is provocative to question how technological determinism, the idea that technology is a “dominant factor in social change,” has seeped into the ways we talk about platforms, and to turn our attention back to the social, political, and economic conditions from which they rose. But in another sense, “against platform determinism” serves as a warning to consider how platforms, given their centrality within our economies and cultural imagination, have overdetermined these same critiques, further entrenching the mystical view of platforms’ power. This can be seen, for instance, in how platforms advanced a “particular understanding of the human subject” (as C.W. Anderson recently noted), as measurable and manipulatable, which was inadvertently taken up by scholars across the field of political communication. But it can also be seen in how we talk about companies such as Palantir, concepts like “surveillance capitalism,” or tools like automated content moderation systems, which are marketed as technological “fixes” despite ample evidence that these services often serve as a curtain for work done by humans. And it can also be seen in how engineers talk about or reckon with their own power in ‘addicting’ consumers to technology, while undercutting the power and worth of the workers, organizations, and users that actually create the value for these companies.
More specifically, however, the phrase “against platform determinism” is intended to turn our attention to the range of possible interactions or relationships with platforms that mediate, structure, or resist platform power — interactions that are typically undervalued in existing literature on platforms yet have already been taking place in many communities. These forces can include platform users, industry actors, civil society organizations, and government, as well as how existing infrastructures (such as low-connectivity areas) can mediate the impact of technology on communities. This mediation can take many forms: from cooperation (or potential co-optation) through engagement with platform companies, to forms of refusal and resistance like boycotts and strikes, and other modes of solidarity. It may also include attempts at legal remedies by platform dependents, as in the ongoing litigation between Epic Games and Apple over Fortnite and App Store policies. Likewise, there are many examples of companies trying and failing to disrupt an existing market. All told, it is clear that platform imaginaries, like all sociotechnical imaginaries, do not necessarily materialize in full or without interruption.
We present this workshop as a collaborative space where a multiplicity of perspectives, including those from outside academe, are welcomed and supported as we attempt to, in the words of Sylvia Wynter, “collectively undertake a re-writing of knowledge as we know it.”
How do people, places, and institutions shape platformization?
In this workshop, we are asking participants and paper writers to engage with us in a reorientation. Rather than ask how platformization shapes people, places, and institutions, we pose this question’s inverse: How do people, places, and institutions shape platformization? This reminds us that platforms do not just mediate, but are themselves (also, always, already) mediated. This is not to dismiss or downplay the kinds of power that platforms have. Rather, our goal is to highlight work that re-balances the field—to situate and contextualize platforms, especially their power and limits to that power, and to turn our attention to the range of interactions, including the social, political, and economic factors, that can impact where this power is located and how it is negotiated. For the very real impacts of platforms, like all technological artifacts, exist somewhere in the wide space between necessary and impossible. It is past time to put them into place.