Envisaging a world where platform tech serves the common good: Platform Socialism by James Muldoon, review

Rapid technological progress has been one of the hallmarks of the 21st century and, it has come to increasingly dominate more and more of our economic landscape, our political discussion and any vision of the future. The companies that dominate how we buy commodities, watch entertainment and indeed employ many of us in some cases have a huge and diverse array of powers that dwarf those of the nation-states, let alone their workers and consumers. 

Indeed, the recent “metaverse” announcements by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos’ venture into space travel with Blue Origin highlight this will only continue to become a more salient point over the next few decades as these companies expand into more and more realms of daily life.

These corporations are now described very accurately as platforms, not just providing one service but a vast number of them, and often forming markets in of themselves for smaller private actors. The chances of avoiding an Amazon service or a Meta-owned social media network during a day are now remarkably slim. Whilst prior private monopolies such as the oil cartels in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century have dominated vast swathes of the economy, it is nothing compared to the impact of Amazon or Meta have on workers, consumers and other businesses across the world. 

For many, this understandably appears impossible to resolve effectively, to the point where some even want us to formally acknowledge Amazon, Meta and others as being closer to nation-states than regular businesses

Indeed, this uncertainty has plagued not just leftist circles but liberal and conservative thinkers as well. Books such as Rob Larson’s Bit Tyrants, a polemic critique of the power of Big Tech, went into substantial detail discussing the complexities of replacing the modern tech corporation with more democratic and need-based alternatives.

Discussed were problems such as struggles in coordinating an international response to Big Tech’s power and how to maintain the scale that makes these utilities so important to modern life whilst democratising them. Larson expressed a hope that it will only become easier to organise in favour of democratic alternatives due to the presence of the internet in such a plurality of social contexts.

This hope radiates through James Muldoon’s Platform Socialism, and along with it sketches an impressive outline of how a future society can conceivably be less exploitative, more democratic and yet still able to maintain the astonishing scale of modern technology.

In contrast to the mainstream panic that has set in around Big Tech’s dominance, Platform Socialism takes in ideas from both the past and the present that point towards a different relationship between tech and those who use and work to maintain it. In comparison to a world increasingly dominated by the diktats of tech billionaires, Platform Socialism’s vision of participatory democracy, transparency and worker ownership is essential.

The first four chapters of Platform Socialism are primarily a critique and analysis of the current settlement regarding tech platforms. Whilst this topic has been discussed by other books, such as the aforementioned Bit Tyrants or Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Muldoon takes a slightly different approach.

Muldoon sets about proving the shortcomings to the glorious, utopian visions of tech companies and creates a policy prescription to combat these flaws. For instance, where Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky depicts the short-term rental platform as a ‘global community’ rather than a business, Platform Socialism describes how the appeal to community is, in fact, a very calculated public relations campaign. It also highlights how such rhetoric disguises the platform’s role in intensifying the power of large private real estate and justifies a sophisticated system of lobbying against attempts to regulate Airbnb by local and municipal governments.

The opening four chapters also discuss the scale of the platform economy and how such a complex system has become interwoven into the wider economy through new forms of worker and consumer exploitation. This exploitation is not just hidden away in the warehouses of Amazon and the flexible yet precarious gig economy but is also increasingly abstract, such as with the huge importance placed on user data for many of these platforms.

Platform Socialism views the collection and commodification of user data as simply a more acceptable form of exploitation and one that still requires accountability and democratisation.

The rest of the book is an attempt to find more just alternatives without the problems of the current settlement. One quality of Platform Socialism that shines through is its pluralism, both in the sources of its policies and the philosophical concepts that underpin them. Muldoon links together an array of leftist thinkers and movements, from the libertarian socialist theorist G.D.H. Cole to the Italian Autonomists, to illustrate how the failings of Big Tech are only a new version of broader contradictions in capitalism.

The policy prescriptions are arguably drawn from an even wider range of sources. They range from the hardly radical yet effective e-Estonia program to more ambitious ideas such as a democratically owned and regulated search engine as well as ranging from the local to the supernational, with Muldoon championing the efforts of Wings Coop, a worker-owned courier service in London, and the decentralised Mastodon social media network. 

However, key to Platform Socialism’s agenda is the creation of an entity that Muldoon calls the ‘Global Data Services Organisation’ (GDSO). A democratically accountable institution, working alongside the United Nations to advocate for a more just settlement for digital services and administer the aforementioned publicly owned search engine and a global sovereign wealth fund, in the model of Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global. This fund would draw funding from digital platforms and be utilised for a number of purposes including increasing digital access in the developing world.

Whilst the GDSO has solid foundations but would require a transformation of supranational institutions into more powerful and, critically, more accountable entities. In a period where effective resistance to corporate power cannot be fragmented, Platform Socialism is impressively resistant to this tendency providing a bold internationalist solution.

Similarly impressive is how Platform Socialism creates an incredibly coherent vision of a feasible future society in which technology is integrated into so many elements of our life, retaining the practicalities Big Tech undoubtedly brings without the wealth-sapping and undemocratic private ownership model or the brutal exploitation of the workforce and consumer alike.

The mention of the e-Estonia program, for instance, is linked to an attempt to utilise platform technologies not just to provide efficient, high-quality services of different kinds but to have this efficiency and ease with technology run through every aspect of life, from the mundane to the much-lauded but, often not fully realised rights of a democratic society.

Rather than, as many Western governments have become accustomed to doing, walling social programs behind rigid bureaucracy and bitter phone calls with well-meaning people following orders from above, the e-Estonia puts vital documentation for social programs, voting and banking entirely online, easily accessible to all.

In addition, the discussion of local democracy as envisioned by G.D.H. Cole is as much a call for worker control in a similar sense to the worker cooperative movement, as it is the extension of democratic norms and values to every sphere, including, arguably most intriguingly, the typically elite spheres of arts and higher education. Rather than solely taking a functional view of participatory democracy as an end to private-sector exploitation, Platform Socialism is happy to delve into the more bohemian and elite-dominated areas of social life.

For the domination that big tech and the platform economy exerts over our economic and social lives, there is a remarkably scant response from many politicians.
Whilst everyone can broadly acknowledge there is a problem, there is a sense of resignation to a small cast of billionaires which has allowed them not just to extract profit whilst their workers suffer but model the world to their preferences. Platform Socialism serves not just as resistance to a world of corporate metaverses, precarious urban employment and a private stranglehold over essential liberties, but as an expression of a better world. Simultaneously learning from the past and envisaging the future, Platform Socialism is an impressive blueprint for a society in which platform tech is used for the common good.

If you want to purchase Platform Socialism you can do so here.

To read another article on reforming platform technology, check out Mutual Interest’s article on how the cooperative sector can transform the ownership of data.

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