Commercial platforms cannot prioritise the ideals of a liberal public sphere, much less the principle of popular sovereignty, over the profit motive.
The information technology sector broadly defined is now at the leading edge of the capitalist system. Material production and distribution, enterprise and professional management, finance, insurance and real estate are all increasingly dependent on digital technology. In the second quarter of 2019 the top five firms in the world by market capitalisation were Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook. Their combined value of $4.7 trillion tracks the extent to which the broader economy of production and exchange currently relies on a relative handful of digital intermediaries.
Any attempt to reassert the primacy of democracy over private power must reckon with these leading firms and with the sector more generally. In what follows I set out the outlines of a socialist agenda for digital technology – a programme that begins with networked communications and shows how a ‘public option’ here opens up new possibilities for much more extensive popular oversight and direction of our economic, social and ecological systems. Technology will not save us from the overlapping and intensifying crises facing us. But it has an important contribution to make in a broader process of reform.
As well as this outline agenda, I set out some of the key structural features of the institution that will take primary responsibility for developing digital resources with which to articulate and inform a revived democracy. This institution, the British Digital Cooperative (BDC), will act as a space for egalitarian collaboration as well as rapid technical innovation. As such it is intended to bring some fragments of a better future into being in the here and now, where they are needed most.
The Digital Sector under Capitalism
It is not OK for every move, emotion, utterance, and desire to be catalogued, manipulated, and then used to surreptitiously herd us through the future tense for the sake of someone else’s profit.
Welcome to the Hotel Northern California
The preeminence of the technology sector is particularly obtrusive in what Paul Sweezy and Paul A. Baran called ‘the sales effort,’ the realisation of profits through market research and advertising.2 The internet is now by far the most important medium for commercial manipulation in the world.3 More than 40% of the world’s advertising by value takes place online and a handful of large players have a commanding position.4 Between them Google and Facebook are expected to make $171.1 billion in advertising revenues in 2019, 51% of the total digital spend.5 By providing free and low-cost services on proprietary sites (‘platforms’), Google and its competitors and collaborators gain access to vast amounts of information about vast numbers of individuals. They analyse this data and use it to inform efforts to modify our mental states and our behaviours. Clients then pay to reach ever more precisely described, and intimately understood, sub-groups within the platforms’ gigantic user base.
The companies are always looking for new ways to extract more, and more detailed, data from their users, and for new ways to generate insights from it. The need for more data helps explain why they are moving into fields as diverse as crypto-currency and urban development.6 The need to make more sophisticated use of it helps explain their lavish investments in artificial intelligence. It is in their interests to promote engagement and interaction, to elicit the disclosures that are their raw material. As a result almost all aspects of human sociability, of the life of the species, are now shadowed by digital architectures. These architectures promise, and indeed often deliver, user benefits. But these benefits are secondary to the business model, best understood as a combination of surveillance and manipulation.7
The platforms mainly cater to the needs of corporate advertisers but they also count political propagandists and election strategists among their clients. At the same time they are now leading providers of news and current affairs and important producers and distributors of entertainment. A distinct new media regime is supplanting broadcast-plus-print as the means by which the social order becomes visible and intelligible.8 So far the leading players in this new regime have avoided the formal regulation and legal responsibilities that apply to broadcasters and print publishers. But elected representatives and the remnants of the pre-internet media sector in the US and the UK are agitating to secure a privileged position in any future media landscape. The current debate about ‘fake news’ and foreign subversion is part of a process, already far advanced, of ensuring that the digital media serve the same, essentially conservative, function as the outlets they are displacing.9
None of the dominant players in the current economic order have any desire to see the emancipatory potential of digital media realised. Needless to say, those tasked with defending the status quo already take a keen interest in the platforms. US–UK State intelligence agencies now have direct access to the data generated by Facebook, Google et al. Indeed, their infiltration of, and substantial integration with, the digital communications architecture in many ways recall earlier efforts to bring both newspapers and broadcasters into their orbit.10
Our activities online are subject to unseen and unacknowledged supervision by employees and automated processes. While we can interact with others, we do not fully understand, and certainly do not control, the terrain on which we do so. And even when we can share our responses to events with particular communities of knowledge, we have no independent means to reach others outside them. Commercial platforms cannot prioritise the ideals of a liberal public sphere, much less the principle of popular sovereignty, over the profit motive. The need to prolong and deepen our engagement with the platforms must come first, even if it means that isolated and vulnerable individuals are exposed to misleading, hateful or distressing content.
Human sociability more generally relies on digital mediation to a far greater extent than it did a generation ago and, again, this digital mediation is for the most part shaped by commercial logics. The platforms are becoming sites of addiction and compulsive use and there is little scope to develop ‘public service’ interventions, let alone more radical forms of democratic control.
The fusion of the sales effort with news and entertainment content is by no means new. And attempts to enlist the dynamics of social life to the task of persuasion are a constant theme in modern propaganda. In the 1950s the American sociologist C. Wright Mills noted the desire of powerful groups to gather knowledge to inform efforts at covert control:
To change opinion and activity, they say to one another, we must pay close attention to the full context and lives of the people to be managed. Along with mass persuasion, we must somehow use personal influence; we must reach people in their life context and through other people, their daily associates, those whom they trust: we must get at them by some kind of ‘personal persuasion’. We must not show our hand directly; rather than merely advise or command, we must manipulate.11
Nevertheless the extent to which the platforms separately and together constitute habitats, the elements of which can be arranged and rearranged at the whim of their owners, must make us pause. If it is true that media influence is qualified, and to some extent counteracted by the social contexts in which individuals are shaped and reshaped, then the platforms’ ability to exercise unseen control over these processes of socialisation suggests that they possess new capacities for manipulation.12 Friends and family can be made to serve as vehicles for paid-for content on an unprecedented scale; our wider social networks can be made up of deceptive and malicious actors; our ideas of what constitutes ‘common sense’ can be algorithmically steered towards hair-raising extremes.13 The picture is further complicated by the activities of well funded and highly motivated groups who use the dynamics of social interaction to radicalise others.
There is no shortage of reporting on the power and reach of the advertising platforms, the pathologies associated with social media use, and the malign possibilities created by the capture and analysis of behavioural data at scale. Although the picture is distorted by vested interests it is obvious that we cannot leave the preeminent means of public communication and social coordination in the hands of a few private corporations and their partners in the secret state.
The Limits of Liberal Reform
Many of the responses to the emerging reconfiguration of global information flows leave this partnership between private and secret interests more or less unscathed. Taxing Google and other companies to fund public service journalism depends on their continued, massive profitability, and so would further entrench them as foundational institutions in the emerging, digitally mediated social order.14 The idea of a ‘data dividend’ – payments to individuals for their information – also presupposes that personal, intimate and politically sensitive data will continue to be collected in vast quantities by the leading companies and then monetised.15 Unionisation of the tech sector, while desirable in itself, will not be enough to change the relationship between the leading firms and the rest of society.16
Attempts to apply the principles of American Progressivism to the digital sector run into similar problems. Elizabeth Warren’s proposals to regulate the digital giants have some merit but a world where, for example, Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook are owned by separate corporations is still a world where massive corporations generate vast profits through surveillance-and-manipulation. While making the digital sector more competitive in certain respects, Warren would leave society’s most important communicative resources in private hands.17
The imposition of data portability and interoperability in functions like instant messaging would deliver real benefits to consumers. But even in a ‘redecentralised’ system we will remain consumers rather than citizens: we will still choose between competing firms in a marketplace when deciding how we will conduct our lives online. In such circumstances network effects will still favour scale, and free services funded by data harvesting and advertising will still tend to win out over paid-for options.
Scale isn’t something that should trouble us in itself. The mystifications that flourish in the mainstream of the current, state-corporate media system can only be challenged and dispelled if the online spaces most of us use are subject effective democratic oversight and control. And the collection and analysis of data from very large platforms will be an extremely important aid to the work of democratic planning. In other words, both political and economic emancipation depend on building a public network architecture that rivals the size and sophistication of the private platforms. Capitalism can survive challenges from the margins. Indeed it draws both legitimation and profit from them. Its most sophisticated partisans have always understood this. Our task is to bring revolutionary imagination and post-capitalist practice into the broad daylight of the everyday.
The Need for a Socialist Response
We need to develop a distinctively socialist response to the emerging digital organisation of communications. Working from a presumption in favour of commonly owned and managed resources and democratic governance, we can begin to outline a digital sector that provides the infrastructure for a much broader process of democratisation.
Our ultimate aim is to establish democratic deliberation as the central method for allocating material resources and social goods. This requires that we reduce the importance of markets, and market-mimicking or market-anticipating institutions, and that we greatly enhance the powers of the citizen body. Large-scale, state-level planning decisions can then be made intelligible to the public and, as planning becomes more detailed, individuals and self-self-organised groups can take the lead in decision-making until the glamour of the commodity working on isolated individuals is replaced by a conversation between demystified citizens. Instead of a few all-knowing centres surrounded by manipulable masses, each of us secures the means necessary for clear-eyed decision-making about our needs and wants, and about the balance to be struck between them. In other words, the assembly displaces the marketplace – both in the digital sector and in the broader political economy. This will only be possible in an information environment characterised by equality-in-speech and rules-based participation in public business.18
If we do not adopt a decisively democratic and socialist approach to digital technology we will be drawn into an exhausting struggle for what will only ever be minor adjustments to the status quo. In this struggle the companies will marshal vast lobbying resources while we will be denied the only possible countervailing power – the charisma of a transformative agenda. In the next section I trace the outlines of this agenda.