Platform Capitalism aims to undermine the self-aggrandising narratives of Silicon Valley, casting a critical eye onto the landscape of the leading capitalist firms. Here we find that – both in and out of the tech sector – firms have been adopting a new type of business model, premised upon bringing different groups together. Facebook and Google connect advertisers, businesses, and everyday users; Uber connects riders and drivers; and Amazon and Siemens are building and renting the platform infrastructures that underlie the contemporary economy. Essential to all of these platform businesses – and indicative of a wider shift in capitalism – is the centrality of data. It is data which is the basic resource that drives these firms, and it is data which gives them their advantage over competitors.
But their nature as intermediaries and the centrality of data both install new tendencies within capitalism. Their appetite for data – driven ever more by the demands of the emerging competition over low-level AI – means that these businesses are constantly expanding. The surge in mergers and acquisitions by companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon attests to the ways in which data extraction forms a novel set of structural imperatives for these companies. They cannot remain content with their core businesses; rather they must continually extend their data extraction apparatus into new areas.
As platforms, they are also reliant on network effects that lead to a winner-takes-all market and monopolistic tendencies. In Google, Facebook, and Amazon (not to mention their non-Western rivals in Alibaba and Tencent) we are witnessing the effects of this new business model. Each seeks to have absolute dominance over its core business area. And once they are ensconced in this position, they become virtually unimpeachable by competitors ranging from state-supported platforms to worker-owned platform cooperatives.
The challenge facing us today is to grapple with these intrinsic tendencies of the data-centric platform model, and to strategise ways to counter their power. An underestimation of their dominance serves only to enshrine their position, but as they become ever more central to the global economy, it becomes even more important to understand their functioning. Platform Capitalism aims to be an initial contribution to that project.
Nick Srnicek is a lecturer in international politics at City, University of London, and co-author of the influential Accelerate Manifesto. His new book Platform Capitalism was published in November.