The epistemic privilege of platforms

By Mark Carrigan

What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.

#CIES2018: “Welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West” – On education in the age of platform capitalism

By Julia Erdelmann

Very early on the second full day of the CIES conference 2018, Susan L. Robertson (University of Cambridge), Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster University), and Eva Hartman (University of Cambridge) invite us to critically engage in the nascent discussion about ‘the jungle’ of digital platforms working around, with, and through us. Discussing familiar platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, or Monster, the panellists equip us with a guide to negotiate various way in which to think about ‘platform capitalism’ as a new form of market making in education. Specifically, this session is focusing on the political economy of these platforms in the terms of a new firm; the implications of the dissociation of (academic) knowledge and its management from production; and the effects of platform capitalism on social mobility and stratification looking at the transition from education to the labour market.

Opening this enticing and stimulating debate, Susan provides us with an overview about the role education plays as a key element to kickstart a host of profound changes in the organisation of advanced capitalist and transnational economies, as key social structures have become organised by electronically processed information (algorithms). What is the platform, and what modes of governance are found in the platform economy we can observe in the digital spaces? To think about platforms in laymen terms provides us with a very accessible conceptualisation; that is, platforms are online-mediated digital infrastructures which enable geographically disperse users – or, in our case, economic agents – to interact with each other. The platform itself also operates as an intermediary, as well, as the platform owners often charge fees for their services.

Drawing on Nick Srnicek’s pivotal work ‘Platform Capitalism’, we find out that there is a considerable discrepancy between the promises made by the advocates and providers of the platform and the underlying market mechanisms Susan has analysed: Whereas terms like “sharing, gig economy and the fourth industrial revolution are tossed around, with enticing images of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility bandied about” (p. 1), a closer look at the political economy uncovers a form of algorithmic governance, working on pop-cultural concepts, such as ‘clicks’, ‘likes’, ‘endorsements’, which is tied to creating new markets and anchored in established capitalist relations. Susan provides us with a differentiated typology of how to understand these platforms, the contemporary academy, and the different knowledge production purposes, encompassing different kinds of relations, worlds, and values made possible. A paper covering Susan’s investigations in more detail is online on the CPGJ web page. A pivotal aspect of this paper relates to knowledge production in the academy, dominated by Elsevier along with Springer, Taylor and Francis, Sage, and Wiley Blackwell (the big 5), who own 50% of the academic publishing market. This example not only demonstrates platform capitalism’s tendency to create monopolies, but calls to attention the labour behind the creation of these new market forms. Although platforms change the scale and scope of knowledge production, they remain experimental and unstable and ultimately have to ‘be made’. Just like established markets, this entails risk calculation, cost analysis, strategy building, and expertise.

To illustrate this point, Janja next walks us through academic digital platforms in more detail and investigates how they are affecting the research process and the social relations among academics. By uncovering the workings of popular academic platforms, such as Google Scholar Citations, Academia.edu, and ResearchGate, we find out that platforms have opened up to incorporate all parts of the conventional research process, from identifying research opportunities, forming collaborations, sharing drafts, discussing ideas, to disseminating results. More than merely providing a digital space, however, these platforms have developed numerical signifiers, which are attached to researchers engaging in these infrastructures. Through providing numerical feedback, platforms urge researchers to participate in a form of competition going beyond fostering academic knowledge production. Setting out new metrics, such as the RGscore, academics are now urged to stay engaged with the platforms, succeeding only if they make continuous use of them. Thereby, these platforms not only aim at generating big data, but also to increase their market value catalysing the so-called ‘network effect’: the more numerous the users the more valuable the platform. Janja maps out three processes she identifies to render the research process ‘platform-ready’: quantification and individualisation; enhancing competition; and re-structuring academic social relations. Ultimately, platform capitalism forms new academic social relations, resulting in a restructuring of social relations outside the platform.

Finally, Eva picks up on this topic of platforms and social mobility to deepen the discussion of how platform capitalism bears the potential of reforming social relations. Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital theory, Eva explores the possibility of platforms to generate as yet unknown information and make it available to employers seeking to fill open positions sustainably with the proper candidate. According to labour market studies, the transition process between formal education and employment acts as a bottleneck for recruitment: We learn that a major challenge to identifying adequate candidates from the position of the employers is the absence of relevant information about the candidate’s social and cultural capital; that is, their ‘soft skills’, communication and linguistic skills, as well as weaknesses. Acting as ‘match-makers’, job boards like Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder and social networks like LinkedIn and facebook uncover and marketise this ‘hidden’ data, using new evaluative infrastructure with interactive devices such as reviews, ratings, and rankings. These infrastructures bear potentials, as they open up local and regional market spaces to transnational competition and provide candidates with the opportunity to include relevant information to their profile, however, the validation of these profiles remain as problematic as the impact which these infrastructures have in enabling a range of new actors to get a say in the evaluation of the worth of qualifications. Does it really enable a window to re-arrange social stratification according to abilities or does it foster a form of capitalist reproduction according to experienced or otherwise passively assumed social and cultural capital?

Enabled by discussant Tore Sorensen, a dialogue between the panellists and the audience highlighted the problematic of state relations with these newly emerging economic agents and prompts suggestions for further research. How do these platforms play ‘cat and mouse’ with the state and bypass regulation, hence creating a ‘wild west’-kind of market sphere? How do academic platforms foster the establishment of what Fourcade (2017) has termed the ‘ordinal society’, highlighting the individual’s relative position? In which ways can investigating platforms beyond the logics anchored in the political West and linguistic limits of the English language contribute to a variegated and contoured taxonomy of this emerging market sphere? And, how applicable are consequences of the meddling of platforms in the labour market to informal economies?

Taken together, the presenters put the case for a new research programme on platforms in education and what the rise of the platform economy means for knowledge production, circulation, management and consumption.

Our one month Platform Capitalism intensive reading group

In recent discussions of capitalist transformation, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are many criticisms which can be raised of the platform metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how social, economic, political, cultural and technological factors are collectively contributing to systemic transformation

This intensive five week reading group explores platform capitalism, the growing focus on the platform and its implications for sociological and educational research. Each session will be an informal discussion of two papers, chapters, essays or talks:

The meetings will take place from 4pm to 6pm in a room to be confirmed in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. This is a fifteen minutes walk from Cambridge train station and we welcome all attendees. We would appreciate if you could e-mail your intention to attend to mac228@cam.ac.uk so we can update you with the confirmed room booking and further details.