Platforms Own You, Now What?
Americans are ditching ownership for subscriptions. Are we making a huge mistake?
By Amanda Scherker and Jeanette Moreland
Do you ever feel like Facebook just doesn’t know enough about your love life? You’re in luck — the social media mega-giant has launched a new nationwide dating platform that can match you with other Facebook users you might want to kiss once and ghost forever. You can even designate your hottest Facebook friend as a “Secret Crush,” with full confidence that this information will be totally safe, secure, and not used to serve you online ads for tall, handsome sailors named Tommy. (That sound you hear is Mark Zuckerberg, cackling into his hoodie.)
Facebook’s expansion is hardly an aberration. If you’re like most people, you’re probably knee-deep in the platform-industrial complex. That also means spending a pretty penny on your many subscription services to platforms ranging from Netflix to Amazon Prime to Hulu to CBS All Access to Apple Music. In fact, according to one study, the average American spends a chill $237.33 per month on subscription services. That’s nearly $1,900 per year, which is enough to buy tickets to see IT Chapter Two 100 times in theaters, if you’re a sadist and so inclined.
And yet, there always seem to be more subscriptions tempting you. NBC is here to ruin your life by stealing The Office from Netflix, while CBS charges $5.99 per month for the luxury of watching Star Trek: Discovery. So, what does it mean that our lives — from our media consumption, to our transportation, to the food we eat, to the people we date — are increasingly dictated by platforms, and should it make us feel slightly uncomfortable, like a scratchy digital sweater? And what is a “platform” anyway?
Specifically, “platform” means any website or app that integrates two different sides of a market. Airbnb pairs homeowners with vacationers. Lyft pairs people who need a ride with drivers. Etsy pairs knitters of quirky hats with cold-headed people. Craigslist pairs plucky freelancers with bosses who pay in Bitcoin. And so on. Platforms can most clearly be traced back to eBay and Amazon, which both began connecting vendors and customers in 1995.
To contextualize the way Amazon took over the world, we need to flash back a few thousand years to life pre-Prime two-day delivery (if you can imagine it), and take a very brisk walk through the history of capitalism. For most of history, there was no fully-formed free market, and survival was based on regional economies. The way political economist Karl Polanyi explains it in his book The Great Transformation, there used to be three types of economies. The first was the system of reciprocity, in which tribes exchanged bread and potatoes as gifts. Then, there was householding, in which families produced all the bread and potatoes they need to survive. Lastly, there was redistribution, in which a (probably jerk) lord dictated how a community’s resources were used, usually keeping the best bread and potatoes and cows for himself. This last system was called feudalism, and it kind of sucked.
Now, in all three of these systems, people came in direct contact with the tools and raw materials they needed to survive. It wasn’t a system based on productivity — you only needed enough potato salad to feed your family and maybe your buddy, Steve. Farm life, for life.
Then capitalism became a thing, and suddenly people were segmented into individual industries, separated from the foods and goods they needed to, you know, live. It was the division of labor. Everything became about manufacturing, and the market expanded to start selling fun consumer goods, like fancy watches and teddy bears. As more and more markets popped up, there started being competition, and charging high prices meant you couldn’t survive. In order to compete, you had to lower production costs, mainly by increasing productivity, usually by improving technology. And so the machines, and then the robots, took over the factory. But other industries couldn’t rely on robots (yet), so people could still find work in grocery stores and beauty salons and so on.
Enter: the internet economy. Now, your grocery store had to compete with food delivery services, and your taxi driver had to compete with Uber. These platforms are a pretty sweet racket to run because you need basically zero employees. (Instagram literally had 13 workers when it was sold for one billion dollars.) Why don’t you need employees? Because individual consumers are doing all the work for you! They’re posting the photos that are generating millions of views; they’re selling, packaging, and shipping family heirlooms across the country.
What could go wrong?
We no longer own anything. Instead everything, from our transportation to our favorite TV show, is becoming a service that is leased to us by a few companies that function like monopolies. For Nick Srnicek, the author of Platform Capitalism, this creates a mutually enforcing system where a select group own and operate the hugely influential platforms that essentially run our lives, while simultaneously making life without them impossible. And when these services fight — like Netflix and NBC warring over The Office — consumers are the ones who lose out, because they don’t actually own their favorite media, they just lease it by the month.
If that’s not enough, these companies are profiting hugely off of you, just for being you. All the data you surrender every time you pick a new Netflix film to watch or update your Facebook status with your geographic location. Think of each individual piece of your data as a microdonation to the Platform Overlords. As Srincek puts it, “Platforms became an efficient way to monopolize, extract, analyze, and use the increasingly large amounts of data that were being recorded.” Some of this data is used to provide an objectively better experience for you on said platform. (Though possibly creeping you out in the process, as when Spotify guesses a little too right about your secret desire to listen to Boyz II Men.) But a lot of it is sold to advertisers and data firms, thus making these megacorporations mega-wealthy.
And increasingly, this data is being concentrated in the hands of a select few Platform Overlords. According to Srnicek, this should give us at least a slight belly ache. He explains, “Far from being mere owners of information, these companies are becoming owners of the infrastructures of society.”
To return to Polanyi, this sounds a lot like the “distribution” model of economy, doling out resources as they see fit. Without ownership of, say, a car, we leave it to a company like Uber to dictate the terms of how we get from A to B, and we get surge pricing. John Deere, who only “licenses” the software that their tractors run on, has functionally destroyed the ability of farmers to repair their own vehicles. Many have warned that Silicon Valley is ushering in an era of neo-feudalism.
A company that has monopoly over information, like Google, is comparable to a company having a monopoly over our roads or hospitals or postal service. In fact, the most obvious comparison for our current Internet ecosystem is the way telephone companies developed in the early 20th century. As these companies grew into monopolies, the government stepped in, not to break up the monopolies, but to treat them as public utilities. Understandably, many experts now argue that the internet should receive similar treatment.
So what happens now? Should you delete your Facebook, cancel your Spotify, and spend your days listening to your dad’s cassette collection as you sit huddled in a corner, whimpering over the state of the neo-feudal economy? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we have anything optimistic to tell you. As these platforms continually expand into new markets, they’ll render themselves ever more essential to wider swaths of the global economy. In the process, they’ll attain more users and extract exponentially more data, which they then can use to entice more investors, and grow even more. It’s Facebook’s world, baby, and we’re just living in it.
So, what are you waiting for? Go make that dating profile. You should get back out there.