How We Can Socialize Big Tech

Platform Socialism is a vital contribution to a left vision for tech, but it fails to fully account for the ways Big Tech is wedded to finance capital. Socializing giant platforms may only be possible in the context of broader political transformations.

A new book argues for the social ownership of digital assets. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

It isn’t news that there are serious problems with the digital spaces that many of us engage with daily as we work, play, interact, and generally try to stay alive. But it might be less evident that we’re living through an important juncture in digitized capitalism — one where the future of many of these platforms is currently being contested and rewritten.

The discourse around major international technology companies seems to have shifted hugely in the past five or six years. The growth of app-based, locally tied services for grocery delivery, transportation, care work, and other forms of labor has been accompanied by growing levels of worker militancy in many cities. This has led to new transnational coalitions in the effort to improve the wages, benefits, and general working conditions of platform workers.

The decisions made by corporately controlled social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram — or, more accurately, the sprawling, invisible bureaucracies that they have developed in an effort to placate advertisers and combat illegal behavior online — are increasingly met with protest by their users. They are also perceived as unsatisfying and problematic on both the Left and Right (albeit for different reasons). The situation has apparently become so dire that even Elon Musk has seen it fit to descend from his unholy perch in an effort to save the day.

In response to this problem, two pathways are currently emerging. First, governments are responding — in the past five years, there has been a global boom in new forms of regulation that try to tackle various policy issues relating to the platform economy. This trend is clearest in the EU, which is gearing up to intervene more actively in how the biggest players, so-called very large online platforms, conduct their activities. Here we are offered a slightly improved version of business as usual, a form of stakeholder capitalism with more market competition, better oversight, and a smattering of individual user rights sprinkled on top.

Technologists, however, have another plan — and we’re not just talking about the “prodigal tech bros” that have turned against the industry in recent years. Their shiny new model — the slightly nebulous Web3 — preempts the ongoing regulatory turn by largely ditching the existing platform-based model. Instead, it is shifting toward a new set of “decentralized” services based on cryptographic tokens. It’s a vision that ostensibly touts an increase in individual autonomy, the shifting of power away from increasingly unpopular intermediaries, and a chance to get paid for one’s online activities. (It all sounds nice, just please don’t look under the hood.)

In an excellent recent book entitled Platform Socialism, James Muldoon, a political theorist and labor movement historian, has provided a compelling alternative scenario. Muldoon argues against the two solutions on offer — denouncing both incrementalist modes of technocratic control and the technological solutionism of true believers and venture capitalists. Instead, Muldoon urges “the social ownership of digital assets” as a way to gain “democratic control over the infrastructure and systems that govern our digital lives.”

Toward a Global Digital Commons

In short, the book argues that we should socialize the tech industry. Its two central case studies are Facebook and Airbnb, although it also addresses Uber, Amazon, and Alphabet. It has less to say about online labor markets, industrial platforms, and the other players in the loose, difficult-to-define platform economy. Even so, it goes further than most critical accounts of the platform economy from the Left, which often focus on specific modes of corporate reorganization. A good example of this is advocacy that seeks to transform platforms into cooperatives. Muldoon pushes instead for a deeper, broader form of “active participation in the design and control of socio-technical systems” — ideally at the global level.

It’s a massively ambitious project, anchored by few central goals. The first set of these relates to democratic participation: Muldoon argues cogently that we need deep forms of self-governance in the online communities and platforms that people use. These must enable users to shape the rules and affordances — the capabilities of a given platform — that prescribe behavior on apps and websites. More importantly, Platform Socialism argues that firms developing platform services should be totally restructured so that they can optimize social value rather than shareholder profit.

To implement these ideas in practice, Muldoon makes the case for “democratic association,” drawing upon his preferred flavor of socialist organization. This is a strategy indebted to thinkers like G. D. H. Cole and the guild socialist tradition. Here coordination over the sprawling, complex global technology stack is achieved not through central planning or forms of algorithmic calculation but rather via decentralized, delegated forms of decision-making. These decisions will involve not just workers but also “producers, users and local communities.”

The book’s ideal alternative to existing forms of platform capitalism requires democratic control of politically and economically crucial technological infrastructures. These include not only the privately owned material backbone of the digital economy (subsea cables, data centers) but also key intellectual property (software) and data resources. Importantly, these resources should not just be shared and made more widely accessible but also used in a way that actively seeks to reshape existing inequities of power in the post- or neo-colonial context. Rather than breaking up Alphabet or Meta into all of their constituent parts, this line of thinking asks how they could be turned into nonprofit foundations. In such a scenario, extra revenues could be given to a “Global Digital Wealth Organization” that actively seeks to provide a variety of high-quality services, without invasive tracking or ads.

Muldoon argues further that the ultimate goal should be more than striving for the nationalization of large platform companies or the transformation Google or Amazon into worker cooperatives. “Turning over Alphabet to its 132,000 employees would be great for them, but what about the rest of the global community?” Muldoon asks. Instead of distributing power to a set of new elites, we should aim higher and “democratise ownership and empower people to participate in new structures of governance.”

Winning This (Digital) World

Platform Socialism is more of a blueprint of a potential alternative future than a map for getting us there. Muldoon explicitly states that the book is intended to provide a utopian vision, framing platform socialism as a prospective long-term counter-hegemonic project for future battles against digitized capitalism’s many forms of exploitation and appropriation. This sort of vision serves an important role in driving public — and academic — discourse about alternatives to the status quo.

Although Muldoon appears to be a relative newcomer to the field of technology policy, I have been encouraged by the number of researchers that I have recently spotted reading the book. The timing could not be better — more and more, academics previously working on relatively narrow issues relating to digital platforms are increasingly looking to expand their perspectives. This may be a result of researchers increasingly identifying a fundamentally broken set of business models, governance regimes, and politico-economic incentives driving tech. New critical ways to approach the platform economy are necessary, and Muldoon’s book is a welcome intervention.

Nevertheless, as Muldoon writes, it remains “easier for us to imagine humans living forever in colonies on Mars than exercising meaningful democratic control over digital platforms.” This is likely true even if we think that the “answer to many of the problems of the tech industry is to subject these powerful companies to greater democratic oversight and control.” It’s a good wager that most bureaucrats and elected officials in Berlin and Paris would probably agree here, arguing that they are bringing electoral democracy to bear on unaccountable foreign technology barons. However, the EU’s recent regulatory efforts do not exactly democratize or meaningfully redistribute platform value.

The Revolution Will Not Be on TikTok

What if the strain of “platform realism” critiqued by Muldoon is not just the result of a failure of our imagination? The book is littered with examples that illustrate the extent to which the largest multinational technology companies have become central to the logic of global financialized capitalism. A major problem in untying the Gordian knot of platform dominance is the stake that powerful hedge funds and financial institutions like BlackRock have in the continued growth and profitability of companies like Meta and Amazon.

These structures of economic interdependency loom menacingly over any notion of real change. For example, take Standard & Poor’s index of 500 large, publicly traded companies listed on exchanges in New York and Chicago. The S&P 500 went up almost 27 percent in 2021. Almost a third of this growth was due to five companies headquartered in the United States: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, and Nvidia. As Muldoon notes, in 2020, these firms were responsible for a staggering 60 percent of the S&P’s returns. Following the economic historian Adam Tooze, the S&P can be understood to be a rough measure of the US economy’s productive capital. If this is the case, these numbers suggest that these major software and hardware companies have become critical to the economic growth upon which the United States (and the capitalist world system more broadly) is dependent.

In this context, even the most utopian thinkers among us will find it hard to believe that these most powerful of vested interests would ever allow these firms to be turned into nonprofits or socially beneficial utilities. Can platform socialism — or at least the central aspects of a platform socialist agenda — exist under capitalism?

Forms of meaningful online community self-governance online, as well as some of the narrower policy prescriptions presented by Muldoon, seem within closer reach. Achieving the broader vision, however, would require daunting levels of economic, political, and social capital likely only to be achieved through the successful realization of a more expansive political transformation.

Activists and organizers shouldn’t let a fixation on Big Tech distract from that overarching mission. That said, the tech firms and platform services that govern our day-to-day lives — especially if they indeed have become so central to the current order — are increasingly looking like a fruitful site for resistance, one that perhaps may provide a catalyst for broader long-term change.