(The following is the opening section of a paper I presented this summer at the Canadian Political Science Association conference. The full paper can be found in the University of Alberta’s Education and Research Archive.]
Much of the analysis of platforms, data, and surveillance are predicated on a methodological individualism which sees platform users as individuals carrying out activities which merely happen to take place on digital platforms. In some cases, these activities are simply pre-digital tasks carried over into the digital realm, in other cases they constitute relations between users which are only mediated by the platform. In this paper, I want to make two claims: first, that such individualism obscures the aggregate nature not only of the user-base but of the ways in which data is collected, analyzed, and employed for commercial or control purposes; and second, that the activities carried out on digital platforms have been entirely restructured according to the logic of networked machines themselves.
Two major interpretations of the social effects of new technologies are Nick Srnicek’s “platform capitalism” and Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism”. Srnicek and Zuboff each argue that what we are witnessing is a new phase of capitalism defined, on the one hand by the prevalence of digital platforms, on the other hand by the deployment of such platforms for surveillance purposes. Srnicek claims that platform capitalism is “a new way of accumulating capital” (Srnicek 2017, 36) predicated on a “massive new raw material to appropriate: data” (88). However, while Srnicek rightly connects the novelty of platform capitalism to long-term socio-economic trends and developments, Zuboff sees “surveillance capitalism” not only as new, but as unprecedented. Surveillance capitalism, she writes, is “a new actor in history, both original and sui generis. It is of its own kind and unlike anything else.” (Zuboff 2018, 14).
Both Srnicek and Zuboff, however, agree that it is the individual which is the target of both platform and surveillance capitalism. Srnicek sees platforms as mediating between users, with user activity seen as independent of the platform itself, self-directed non-technological acts engaged in by autonomous individuals. Platforms, in this view, are situated between users who are carrying out their own activities and are simply “the ground on which their activities occur” (44). For example, Uber is a platform that connects drivers and riders, but is not seen as structuring that relationship; Facebook is a platform that underpins social interactions between users, but the social interactions are unchanged from the pre-digital days. The ability to track, analyze, and monetize social interactions becomes almost an afterthought. Similarly, Zuboff sees the behaviour of users on social media platforms as independent of the ability to track that usage. The advances in information technology that began in the 1990s have led, in Zuboff’s view, to a situation “in which every casual search, like, and click was claimed as an asset to be tracked, parsed, and monetized by some company… eventually, companies began to explain these violations as the necessary quid pro quo for ‘free’ internet services” (52). By characterizing tracking of activity and exploitation of user-data as “violations” Zuboff posits activities on social media platforms as independent and autonomous behaviour which only becomes the target of capitalist exploitation after the fact. For Zuboff, society is composed of sovereign individuals with rights who act autonomously - sovereignty and rights which are challenged by a parasitic surveillance capitalism:
The new harms we face entail challenges to the sanctity of the individual, and chief among these challenges I count the elemental rights that bear on individual sovereignty, including the right to the future tense and the right to security. Each of these rights invokes claims to individual agency and personal autonomy as essential prerequisites to freedom of will and to the very concept of democratic order. (54)
The ontological claim that rights-holding individuals form the basis of society has a long lineage in liberal political theory and classical political economy. Indeed, Marx directly challenged the methodological individualism of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy 1847 (Marx 1963) and that of Smith and Ricardo in the “Introduction” written ten years later (Marx 1973). Robert Urqhart explains the persistence of methodological individualism by arguing that it supports the capitalist economic regime: “The enactment of the idea of the atomic individual facilitates the development of the economic order, and to a degree turns the mistake into reality” (Urqhart 2013, 813). Marxist theory, on the other hand prefers to rely on an ontology of “methodological collectivism” (Weldes 1989, 355) which, as we will see below, informs Antonio Negri’s conception of the multitude, and offers a different perspective on platform and surveillance capitalism.
In both Srnicek and Zuboff, the presumption of individualism allows them to see a strict separation between the natural activity of individuals on the one hand and the aims of platform and surveillance companies on the other. For Zuboff, “individuals are definitively cast as the means to others’ market ends” while “information and connection are ransomed for the lucrative behavioural data that fund immense growth and profits” (54). This separation ignores both the affective implications for users within digital networks and platforms, as well as the importance of aggregate user groups in the formation of Big Data sets and the mining of that data for surveillance, commercial, and control purposes.
While Srnicek admits that platforms are not merely “empty spaces for others to interact on” but “in fact embody a politics” (47), he sees platforms as not restructuring immaterial or unseen labour itself, but merely appropriating data as a by-product of user-activity. For example, “rather than exploiting free labour”, advertising platforms “appropriate data as a raw material” (56). While recognizing that platforms are not neutral spaces, Srnicek still insists that “platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact” (43). This understanding of platforms as enablers rather than structuring processes in their own right comes from Srnicek’s conception of labour and value in platform capitalism. Srnicek analyzes the various claims made regarding online behaviour as “free labour”, but in the end denies that platform capitalism profits off any kind of online labour, instead arguing that user data is a “raw material” that is simply harvested by platform capital (53-56). For Srnicek, user actions still mainly occupy a space outside of platforms, thus supporting the idea that platforms mediate already-existing behaviour but do not newly construct user actions and behaviours. Once user activity takes place on a platform, though, it is then ripe for harnessing by capital as value: “The activities of users and institutions, if they are recorded and transformed into data, become a raw material that can be refined and used in a variety of ways by platforms” (56). What Srnicek ignores, however, is the covert, behind-the-scenes, “backdoor” tracking of user activity analyzed by Zuboff. The platforms are ubiquitous and so it is hard to argue, as Srnicek would like, that there is any activity within a digital environment which is not structured by a platform and subject to surveillance.
The gradual restructuring of online activity from conscious online labour (open-source software development is a good example) to mystified, aggregated, “always-on” monitoring, analysis, and exploitation accords with the long term processes of subsumption developed by Marx and which form a core component of autonomist Marxist theories of capitalist development. Subsumption of labour under capital sees some activities to be outside the scope of surplus-valueextraction until they are “brought into the fold” of the labour process. In this sense, we can understand platform capitalism as a process of subsumption in which previously non-digital, offline activities like searching for information, booking a taxi, or interacting socially, were initially moved online without changing their nature (formal subsumption) and then gradually deconstructed and remade the more easily to exploit online labour and profit from its product (data). From using a phone book, booking a taxi was then done on a firm’s website or using a mobile app; the development of sophisticated ride-share systems completely restructured the taxi business, making both driver and rider users within an atomized networked social machine. Srnicek and Zuboff continue to see the digital realm as only formally subsumed, as a consequence of their methodological individualism and the separation between the individual and the network that follows from it.
However, once we recognize platform capitalism as the result of real subsumption, of the complete restructuring of online activity and its total recuperation by the process of value-creation, then surveillance and data-mining are no longer after-effects, but are the core business of the platforms themselves. One consequence of this is that users must be understood not merely as engaging in traditional, self-directed activities in a new place, but as completely integrated within a social machine whose purpose is to extract aggregate surplus-value from tiny isolated moments of labour which, under conditions of formal subsumption, were not considered productive or profitable. What follows from this is that it is not the individual actions which are of interest to contemporary capitalism, but activity in the aggregate, the movement of the multitude through the gates and circuits of digital capitalism.
Marx, Karl. 1963. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books
Srnicek, Nick. 2017. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Urqhart, Robert. 2013. “Taking the Modern for Nature: Methodological Individualism as an Interesting Mistake”, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 20(5): 812-844. https://doi.org/10.1080/09672567.2011.653880
Weldes, Jutta. 1989. “Marxism and Methodological Individualism: A Critique”, Theory and Society 18(3): 353-386.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs.