This blog post builds on our recently published Call for Abstracts and reflects on why we think it is important to study the unfolding COVID-19 crisis through the lens of platformisation. We invite early career researchers and PhD researchers to collectively interrogate platforms’ responses to the crisis in an online workshop to be held on 26-27 November 2020. It further serves as an introduction to a three-part blog series, where we reflect on platformisation from the perspective of our respective research. Nils Peters writes on the financial infrastructure behind platforms, to be followed by a text from Vicky Kluzik on care-platforms and a reflection by Rabea Berfelde on Airbnb’s response to the crisis.
We think that one needs to be cautious in the diagnosis of crisis as it often implies a temporary departure from a well-functioning standard. This possibly veils capitalism’s inherent crisis tendency resulting from the contradiction between capitalist accumulation and the reproduction of life. Nevertheless, moments of crisis are crystallisations of these contradictions that open up pathways for either transformations towards a more just and sustainable future or consolidation in relation to the opening up of new territories and frontiers to establish conditions for further capital accumulation. That is why we think it is necessary to reflect on them as laboratories for the new normal which necessitates a critique on the current political-economic states and a speculation on its future trajectories.
The emergence of platforms can’t be divided from moments of crisis. The business model of platforms which relies on venture capital investment directly relates to the political-economic responses to the financial meltdown of 2008. The ultra loose monetary policy and low interest rates lead to the growth of global money supply in combination with lower returns on financial assets which made riskier investment strategies more appealing. But this is only one side of the story of how the emergence of platforms is related to this moment of crisis in 2008. Their business model also intervenes into the care crisis resulting from the austerity politics after the credit crunch as will be shown in our reflections on care platforms and Airbnb in the blog posts to follow. In this blog series and the online workshop we are putting platforms at the centre of the study of this crisis.
Predicting futures: no profit, high value?
The platform business model—the pursuit of growth before profits and long periods of loss-making before they eventually turn a profit—is unthinkable without the robust flow of venture capital from the financial sector. What exactly makes platforms so valuable? Straight forward answers might include network effects, data capture, scalability, and the common practice of enclosure. As their valuation reflects all future earning expectations discounted to today’s value, platforms have demonstrated an outstanding ability to put themselves at the centre of investors’ imagination of the future. Often their valuation is a big bet on an automated future which might fail to materialise (on Uber’s future, see Aaron Benarav’s reflections). COVID-19 has put unprofitable start-ups under increased pressure, and many accepted funding that dramatically decreased their valuations to keep going. Previously, the cases of Uber and WeWork have exposed the shaky foundations on which lofty valuations often rest. This highlights the role of investors as crucial actors for the dynamics of the platform economy and calls for closer scrutiny to disentangle what the future looks like that platforms and venture capitalists are speculating about.
In general, platform capitalism describes the rise of the platform business model across society, fuelled by processes of financialisation, digitalisation and the spread of information and communication technologies. We argue that this spread of the platform-logic is best understood from a processual perspective. The process of platformisation signifies “the penetration of the infrastructures, economic processes, and governmental frameworks of platforms in different economic sectors and spheres of life”. Introducing the concept ‘platformisation’ alongside ‘platform capitalism’ allows for going beyond the digital economy, narrowly understood in relation to the tech sector, to analyse how these developments interact with societal organisation at large.
Emerging life-worlds of platformised social reproduction
In doing so, we understand the everyday life perspective as crucial for grasping how the platform-logic interacts with existing social, political and cultural practices. Platformisation does not only affect financial infrastructures, but also social infrastructure. A growing number of everyday life activities are being atomized, hierarchized and sold as a service. This oftentimes exemplifies a tech-solutionist attempt to offer short-term and private-sector solutions for general social problems. It is crucial to consider new tendencies of (re-)commodification and (re-)privatisation of social reproduction vis-à-vis the emergence of platforms. In this regard, we aim to understand how platformisation not only shapes the global labour regime, but also how it impacts the sphere of social reproduction, i.e. housing, health and other social services. Historically social reproductive activities, such as for example cleaning, caring and educating, are devalued. Many of the oftentimes invisible activities and care jobs were considered ‘essential’ during the unfolding crisis and thereby gained brief symbolid attention while systematic changes to tackle precariousness and the crisis of care are still lacking.
Partnering up to mediate the crisis
In response to the crisis we saw an increase in public-private partnerships between platforms and governmental bodies. The Lyft-UP and Uber Health initiatives sought to partner up with healthcare, government and business to stretch their business to the delivery of meals and medical supply in times of less demand for ride-hailing services. Airbnb promoted the provision of short-term rentals for medical staff. This tendency has been interpreted by some as platforms aiming at becoming essential infrastructure in the light of underfunded welfare systems and care-burdened households. With our blog post series and workshop we invite to collectively reflect on how the relation between the household, the market and the state is shifting in the face of this crisis. The coupling of platforms with governmental bodies once again reveals underfunded welfare systems that are now forced to collaborate with venture-capital backed start-ups to fill in (health-)care gaps. Arundhati Roy pointed out that the pandemic is a portal, “a gateway between one world or the next” – we therefore seek to develop a critical understanding of the platformised world to come and to collectively imagine different futures beyond technological solutionism.
We invite contributions for our early career workshop on 26-27 November 2020. Deadline for the abstracts is 9 October 2020.
Rabea (@RBerfelde) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths.
Vicky (@v_kluz) is a PhD researcher at the Sociology Department at the University of Frankfurt.
Nils (@peters_nils) is a PhD candidate at the Politics Department at Goldsmiths.