This is Mediaquake, our regular interview series with journalists, activists, and scholars, asking big questions about journalism, capitalism, and the future of both.
James Muldoon is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter and the author of Platform Socialism, which sets forth a vision for a democratic, publicly-owned platform economy.
We got together to discuss the state of resistance to Big Tech, the path to platform socialism, and the overlapping demands for systemic change in both tech and media. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kate Harloe: Your book leads the reader through the popular criticisms of Big Tech: concerns regarding privacy and data ownership, the anti-monopoly argument, and the surveillance capitalism argument. All of these have a fair amount of momentum, but your goal is to show why we need an even-bigger-picture critique.
James Muldoon: One proposal for dealing with the problems of the tech industry has been to create a new form of personal rights. The idea behind this, as articulated by people like Andrew Yang, is that you would own your personal data in the same way that you might own your phone, or your house.
This makes sense intuitively because the business model of Big Tech is to mine our data for consumer insights, and then generate billions by selling them. Where this proposal starts to fall short is, it would create an enormous pressure to sell your personality or lifestyle: it wouldn’t just be influencers, the people who choose to make a business out of that. It would be all of us. We would all be within this great imperative to financialize our everyday life, online.
The second issue is that inequality is baked into this model in advance. It’s not like everyone’s data is equally valuable; because companies are interested in how people with a lot of consumer power spend their money, the North American market is worth 10 times—literally 10 times—more than the Southeast Asian market in this context.
Also, data is only profitable within a certain framework, and within a certain business model. Your reading habits might be useful to Amazon, for example, but not to Uber.
But most importantly, this model never questions the fact that the corporations perceive themselves to have the right to collect your data in the first place. It actually presumes, and naturalizes, almost everything that Big Tech has built over the past 15, 20 years, and says, “OK, that’s all fine. You continue to do everything you’ve been doing. We would just like a few cents off the dollar.”
Harloe: Right. So that’s your response to the argument focused on personal rights to data. How about your view on the argument for breaking up Big Tech?
Muldoon: Big tech companies are clearly too big, too powerful, and a threat to democracy. People are trying to revive the antitrust agenda—returning to early 20th-century American legal notions of controlling enormous private companies and applying those frameworks to Big Tech. I think the intuition here is correct.
Facebook, for example, snapped up various competitors. If “breaking up Big Tech” means simply divesting Meta of some of its companies, that’s a small step in the right direction.
Another approach would place limits, or caps, on how large these companies are allowed to be, in terms of market capitalization, or total users, or some other metric; maybe we could create a super-tax on corporations that exceed a certain size.
But there are limits to what “breaking up” can mean for a social media company or a search engine because they’re international. It’s literally impossible, or at the very least, extremely impractical, to break up Facebook and to apply the same kind of logic that we did to the telecommunications infrastructure or the oil companies in the 20th century. It doesn’t make any sense at all to have Pacific Google or Australia Google. We don’t need ten Googles, in other words; we need one internet search engine, and it should be a public good that is publicly funded and accessible by all. The world’s knowledge should not be funneled through this advertising pipeline.
Even in the best-case scenario, the break-up agenda doesn’t truly address many of the things supporters are concerned about, like data harvesting or social media addiction. It might make the individual companies less powerful. But it wouldn’t change the underlying incentive structures for the businesses to behave in exactly the same way.
Harloe: What about the surveillance capitalism argument against Big Tech?
Muldoon: When Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, first came out in 2019, a lot of people on the left took it to be this searing critique of capitalism.
To its credit, Zuboff’s book provided a very accurate sociological description of an advertising platform, describing the capture of data from people’s daily activities and turning it into consumer insights. She does a great job of tracing the emergence of this business model at Google and shows how it spread to Facebook.
That seems obvious now, but at the time, a lot of people didn’t know how these companies made money and it was quite shocking to them.
But it’s not a critique of Big Tech, or of Silicon Valley. It’s a detailed description of a business model. Zuboff fails to describe the underlying logic of capitalism that drives these companies. Instead it paints Google and Facebook as some kind of rogue mutation of capitalism—a Frankenstein version of capitalism gone wrong, the implication being that there is a healthier, gentler capitalism to which we could return.
Apple, for example, comes out looking very good in Zuboff’s book. She has criticisms, but she says that Apple could potentially operate in a virtuous cycle because it produces these really useful, popular consumer products in the form of iPhones, MacBooks, and things like that, and then gets feedback from consumers, improves the products, and everyone loves it and pays a lot of money. She has this idealized conception of a tech company: one that doesn’t have an advertising model, but is simply producing great technology products and giving the consumer what they want, when they want it. That’s what her ideal form of capitalism would look like.
The surveillance imperative—the idea that you want to collect more and more information—isn’t like some add-on to capitalism. This is what capitalism has always been about. It’s about using various business models to commodify human beings, human interactions, and aspects of daily life, and to find ways to profit from that.
Surveillance capitalism is just capitalism with new toys.
Harloe: Could you talk about what platform socialism is, and what it proposes? I’m really interested in your location of the city—not the nation-state—as the place for building new forms of democratic control of digital platforms.
Muldoon: Right now, Big Tech Silicon Valley companies are the ones trying to create transformative visions for what the internet and society will be like in ten or 20 years. When you think about what is on the horizon, you might think of ideas like the Metaverse, VR, Web3, or some kind of cryptocurrency-based organization. It’s not immediately clear what a progressive vision of the next ten or 20 years looks like.
Progressives are so consumed with resisting Big Tech, and saying no to its next vision, that we can’t focus on what might replace it.
In the book, I try to advance that goal by imagining alternative ways of owning and operating digital platforms. Most of this involves users of the platforms—and society as a whole—having a greater ownership and governance stake.
In the case of geographically-based platforms like food delivery services, ride hail apps, or even short-term rental platforms, these possibilities are easier to imagine. All of these services operate within your neighborhood and within your city. So the bread-and-butter vision of platform socialism starts with location-based apps, and imagining how they would be reorganized within the limits of a city.
Harloe: This gets back to my interest in your focus on cities—and the benefits and complications of training our focus there.
Muldoon: It’s long been known that democracy works best at the level of a city. The great experiments in national democracy in America, Europe, Asia, Africa—that’s an 18th century invention. Democracy operates imperfectly at that level, perhaps necessarily so.
At the level of a city, here’s one possibility for reorganizing something like Uber: you have an app that gives you all the options that are available in a city, what train you need to catch, and then what bus. It might nudge you away from single-occupancy cars, and towards more environmentally friendly options.
If it were done democratically, users would own the platform and have a say in how it operates—by voting for a board or on specific proposals, for example. They would need to have a realistic say; it has to be small enough for their voices to count, to matter.
Harloe: You gave a lot of thought to the balance that this movement will need to strike between decentralized resistance, while at the same time acknowledging that there is an international scale to what we’re up against, and we need to be operating on that level, too. You wrote in depth about how a federation of associations might work in practice, for example, among other specific ideas.
How do you grapple with that tension, and find the right balance? One of the things I found myself wondering about is the disparities that exist between cities: not all cities have the same amount of resources to put towards this kind of thing.
Muldoon: There is a danger in these utopian proposals for the construction of alternatives. You end up risking creating these tiny little utopian islands, while all the problems are still there—all of the exploitation. They’ve just extracted themselves a little bit from how it works.
Certainly we shouldn’t think that it’s possible to create these alternatives outside of the struggle against the Big Tech companies. Even if you did have a few platforms in the economy that were owned by creators, if everyone’s still just watching YouTube, the fundamental problem persists. And likewise, if we have a DuckDuckGo—this tiny Google alternative that 1 percent of the internet is using—that’s not good enough.
The power of Big Tech has to be challenged and eroded at the same time as we build alternatives to take its place.
It will start with these regulations, like the new Digital Service Act and the Digital Market Act in Europe, that will prevent Big Tech companies from acting however they like. Powerful unions will have to emerge in the tech space, with a range of actors trying to constrain, and counteract, the power of these companies. I don’t think it’s an either/or—and we risk parochialism if we pretend these companies don’t exist.
As for the issue of inequalities, that’s a hugely important question. And it’s not just: some cities are rich and others are poor. Some countries are authoritarian, and semi-authoritarian. And some democracies actually aren’t that democratic, when you think about it…having just lived through a week of national propaganda in the U.K. after the Queen’s funeral…
Harloe: Right…we’ve all been living through that!
Muldoon: It really brings out the V for Vendetta vibes when something like that happens.
How can we talk about democratizing the digital economy, and economic structures in general, when democracy already operates so imperfectly at the level of the political state? If we can’t even do it there, how on earth are we going to democratize other aspects of our lives?
This is a really big issue, and it’s not easily dealt with. There’s no easy answer to what you do in countries like Russia or China in terms of ownership over digital platforms. Because if you don’t have a public sphere, or relatively free media—a lot of these things are very tricky to argue for, or to even envision how they might happen.
In terms of the inequalities within countries, though, such as the urban/rural divide, some of these issues could be dealt with through a federal structure similar to what Germany has. Basically, funding is unequally collected from different regions and then distributed according to—well, a complicated arrangement brokered in 1989, the idea being to even out inequalities based on unequal access to resources.
We could imagine something similar for geographically based platforms, with very prosperous regions having to give a little bit more so that others could have more access to the internet and other resources.
Harloe: When you were conceptualizing and writing this book, to what extent did the media industry come up? Do you see parallels between the media industry and the tech industry with respect to these issues?
Muldoon: The media industry is central to how many of these companies operate. And the influence social media has over elections, public debate, and opinion formation throughout the globe—a lot of the same criticisms apply equally to some of the dominant media companies. Social media is not exclusively to blame for the degradation and corruption of our debate. The influence that private companies have over public debate is a problem, no matter the type of corporation.
Going back to the late 19th century, these problems were introduced through the private newspaper monopolies. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas traced these problems when he talked about the structural transformation of the public sphere: the idea that we would have a free and open space in which to debate ideas is undermined by any private ownership of media organizations. Because then you have a gatekeeper who controls access to the public sphere, and the ability to elevate powerful voices and interests over the public interest.
Harloe: Is there a particular definition of capitalism that you like to reference in your work, or find to be useful?
Muldoon: I’m a scholar of Marxism, so my simple answer wouldn’t stray very far from Marx’s definition from the mid-19th century: capitalism is a system which separates workers from the means of production and essentially uses capital as a resource to self-valorize and to generate more capital through the exploitation of workers’ labor. Technical definitions are less useful for this type of project; you are thinking about structural incentives.
The defining conflict in the system is: how do you make more money? If someone is a director of a company, they’re obliged to maximize the profits of the shareholders. And that will always come above the interests of communities that they serve, the interests of workers, and the interests of the environment.
This is why for-profit business models are always going to be deeply problematic. The tech industry, which is so unconstrained by regulation, just demonstrates the original dysfunction particularly well. But that’s also because we’ve entered into a particularly unconstrained era of capitalism. Many of the most powerful tech companies emerged during a period of financialization and privatization of public assets. And the tech companies took part in that; they were a big part of the move towards privatizing infrastructure.
Harloe: A final question, and one that often comes up in these conversations. How do we generate the political will to bring some of these ideas into being?
Muldoon: That’s a very complicated question. In my work, I focus on the sphere of social imagination. So long as we don’t have a collective vision of what a better world would look like, it’s very hard for us to work towards it.
And this isn’t to say that the world of the imagination matters more than the material world. If anything, it’s the other way around. But in the world of tech, the left has really fallen behind in regards to vision. With rare exceptions, it’s the tech barons who have dominated the space where we envision a future world. I think we need to take that back, and start to generate new and better visions of a fairer, more egalitarian platform economy.
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