By Rabea Berfelde, Jelke Bosma, Lilith Brouwers, Craig Fahner, Tess Herrmann, Vicky Kluzik, Eva Mos, Cansu Özmert, Jonas Pentzien, Sachini Perera, Yannick Perticone and Nils Peters.
From refugee camps to microfinance, from sex work to housing – the impact of platforms on economic, social and political spheres has become ever more prevalent. With the intention to map the various conceptual and empirical cases targeting platform infrastructures, platform labour and alternative visions, PERC hosted the workshop Mediating the Crisis: Platformisation in the Face of Covid and Beyond on 26 and 27 November. Across these two days, an interdisciplinary group of early career researchers delivered nine presentations followed by lively discussions. In the following, we will report and reflect on the contributions and revisit topics of discussion during the workshop.
Rabea Berfelde (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Vicky Kluzik (Goethe University Frankfurt) kicked off the event with a presentation on some of the core themes of the workshop. They introduced the conceptual difference of platform capitalism and platformisation as a process, and gave an overview of the (emerging) platformised labour geographies. Considering how digital platforms are mediating the unfolding Covid-19 crisis, they investigated how platforms are leveraging the crisis to become increasingly infrastructural. They proposed that to understand the processes of infrastruturalisation, we need to go beyond an understanding of the platform as ‘web application’ and ‘interface’ towards an understanding as “flexible spatial arrangement”, i.e. as reconfiguring socio-spatial relations (Richardson 2020). Rabea and Vicky developed an understanding of social infrastructure which sheds light on how platforms position their business model vis-à-vis an accelerating crisis of social reproduction caused by underfunded welfare systems and ‘austerity urbanism’.
Picking up on this theme, the first panel pursued the question whether we can understand platforms as essential urban infrastructure. Jelke Bosma (University of Amsterdam) chronicled how, over the past years, Airbnb has been vigorously establishing partnerships with cities worldwide. During the Covid-19 crisis, for example, the platform partnered with a wide range of actors including NGOs, public health authorities, and local and national governments. While Airbnb is by now a well-known player in the global tourism and hospitality market, these organisations are either government agencies or non-governmental organisations that perform functions commonly associated with states, such as health care, humanitarian aid and urban governance. Focusing on partnerships with the city of Amsterdam and the recently announced City Portal, Jelke argued that such city partnerships are a key strategy for securing the platform’s access to rental properties. These partnerships work particularly well for Airbnb because of their veneer of cooperation and amicability, meanwhile allowing the platform to legitimise its practices and gain access to city administrations. The resultant increasing infrastructural integration of urban governance with platforms—not only pertaining to regulation and taxation, but in the context of the Covid-19 crisis also the promise of a recovered tourist economy—comes with the risk of constructing and reinforcing dependencies between platforms and cities and other public organisations.
Sachini Perera (King’s College London) shared research findings that explored the platform intermediation of Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 response. She discussed some of the limitations of existing theories on platforms when applied to the context of developing countries like Sri Lanka. While it could be argued that platforms began to form or replace some of the urban infrastructure in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 curfew lockdown, the idea of infrastructure as ubiquitous needs to be challenged in the context of the country’s low and slow internet penetration. Sachini also shared that platform intermediation during Covid-19 contributed to shifts in the power dynamics between the state, private companies and citizens in Sri Lanka. She further shed light on the emergence of a form of platform-mediated disaster capitalism, the multiple roles of the state as both a platform regulator as well as a platform owner and developer, and the advantages and disadvantages of local platform companies compared to global or multinational platform companies.
The second panel of the day considered new frontiers of platform-mediated marketisation and commodification. Cansu Özmert (University of Lausanne) presented her research on the creation of digital market economies in refugee camps. Cansu pointed out that when we talk about refugees, we mainly focus on recent refugee movements towards Europe and often forget about protracted refugee situations. The majority of refugees find themselves stuck in refugee camps with important sustainability and financial issues for generations and have very limited or no access to the labour market. Cansu’s presentation focused on market and technology-based interventions that are aiming to tackle these problems and explored the role of digitalisation in the construction of market economies in refugee camps. Cansu’s presentation brought a new perspective to the discussions on refugee camps and aid dependency by showing that refugees are not spared from the drive to marketisation, digitalisation, and platformisation that have been greatly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yannick Perticone (University of Lausanne) explored the expansion of platform capitalism in so-called emerging and developing economies. He scrutinised platform business models for risk assessment in an attempt to provide inclusive motor insurance to prompted unserved and underserved individuals. Yannick argued that whereas proponents claim to solve financial inclusion issues through the data collection and analysis modalities of platforms, the latter seem to pursue a rather fraught process of expansion, strewn with obstacles, and perpetuating regimes of racialised differences in converting recipients into financial assets. In his concluding remarks, Yannick emphasised the coloniality of platforms and the necessity of platform-related research to unpack the contextual dimensions and inconsistencies of platform capitalism’s proliferation.
The third speaker in this panel considering new frontiers of digitalisation and marketisation was Nils Peters (Goldsmiths, University of London). He drew attention to the financial infrastructure behind the rise of platforms and how it influenced the pandemic’s fallout. Using the food delivery startup Deliveroo as a case study, Nils focused on the relationship between the venture capital funding model and the commission platform business model that companies like Deliveroo are built on. Venture capital investors are deeply involved in the operation of platforms, creating the economical and societal conditions in which their invested capital becomes valuable. His presentation argued that this constitutes another dimension of platformisation, in the sense that investors are drivers of a particular (platformised) reformatting of the economy.
The second day started with two presentations which challenged corporate platform imaginaries—that appear to have become even more entrenched through the pandemic—and proposed emancipatory alternatives. Craig Fahner’s (York University/Ryerson University) work examines platform imaginaries, seeks tactics that might meaningfully challenge imaginaries around monopolistic platforms and increases knowledge about alternative models. Craig’s presentation proposed that approaches borrowed from interventionist art might challenge dominant platform imaginaries, as these methods can engage the public with experiential alternative platforms that embody radically different values from those common in monopolistic platforms. He presented on an interactive speculative platform called Eigengrau, which is a communication platform that only functions if users simultaneously close their eyes. The art work Eigengrau is part of his doctoral research which consists of a series of ‘platform interventions’ that will be used as instruments to evaluate the possibilities of media artworks to engender critical literacy around platforms and algorithms.
The second penalist Jonas Pentzien (Institute for Ecological Economy Research IÖW) pointed out that the idea of platform cooperativism has increasingly been framed as a type of ‘silver bullet’ against the centralisation of data, capital and power in the platform economy. By strengthening notions of democratic governance and shared ownership, proponents of the so-called platform cooperativism movement hope to transform how value is produced and distributed in the digital economy. Recent investigations have mostly analysed platform cooperativism as a unified movement, foregoing an analysis of how democratic governance and shared ownership are operationalised (differently) ‘on the ground’. In his presentation, Jonas opened the blackbox of this movement to ask: do platform alternatives indeed share similar values and engage in similar transformation strategies? Based on a novel theoretical framework that combines platform studies with social movement studies, he compared notions of identity, legitimacy, resources and network integration across 15 platform cooperatives. His findings show that instead of a unified movement, we rather see varieties of transformation strategies within the platform cooperativism-movement, some more attuned to the particular challenges of the platform economy than others.
The final panel of the workshop explored how platforms reconfigure labour and social reproduction. Tess Herrmann (University of York) and Lilith Brouwers (Leeds University Business School) presented their recently published paper on the response of Adult Service Websites to COVID-19. Their presentation outlined how the platforms used by British sex workers to advertise their services to clients do not employ sex workers, yet their response to the pandemic has a large impact on sex workers’ financial and physical wellbeing. This effect is even stronger among migrant workers, who are less likely to qualify for, or be aware they qualify for, government support. Their study shows a large variation in the responses of these platforms: from donations to hardship funds for sex workers, temporarily not charging for advertisements, to directly extracting profit from internet-based alternative services, or even reducing safety features during the pandemic. These findings illustrate that while these platforms do not acknowledge the influence they have over the working practices of their service users, they do shift both the financial and health risks of the pandemic to the workers on the platform, and some recognise the potential that their platforms have to support sex workers during crises.
While participants explored the whole spectrum of platform research, there were common threads throughout the presentations and discussions. Various presentations made reference to the concept of infrastructuralisation—in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The infrastructural power of platforms is hardly observable in the way railway tracks or dams can be observed and studied. This forces platform researchers to creatively deploy research methods in order to make infrastructures visible that are usually hidden from plain sight. Infrastructualisation as a metaphor meanwhile allows researchers to explore how profoundly involved platforms already are with the provision of services that used to be provided exclusively by the welfare state.
Whether one considers the emergence of dark kitchens to provide Deliveroo meal services or the platform-mediated response to the Covid-crisis in Sri Lanka, key logics of platformisation unfold through the visible and sometimes invisible reconfiguration of digital and urban space. Nevertheless, the workshop has shown that the emerging socio-technological assemblages are not mere black boxes, but are embedded in specific geographies of power that need to be unpacked by critical research. In this regard it is important to mention that also the geographies of knowledge production in platform studies require critical scrutinising. As we see a lot of analyses focusing on the Global North, that should not be taken for universal developments. Our discussions have also shown that with the emancipatory potential of ‘platform inventions’ and social movements, the future of platform capitalism is anything but set in stone.