by Karinne Madron
As we grapple with the study of digital cities and the influence of large digital corporations (LDCs), it is useful to consider two books that have explored the relationship between technological innovation and society. The first one is Manuel Castells’ (1996) groundbreaking work The Rise of the Network Society. This book is the first volume in a trilogy titled The Information Age: Technology, Society and Culture. Castells’ work situates the technological revolution in its historical, economic and societal context. With remarkable foresight, he observed, at the turn of the millennium, trends that came to define today’s society. The second book is Van Dijck, Poell and De Waal’s (2018) The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. This book analyses the ways in which platforms have permeated different sectors and transformed social relations.
Learning from Castells – How LDCs gain power by controlling networks
Castells’ (1996) analysis was made at a turning point in history that he describes as the beginning of a new age - the Information Age. He traces the rise of the network society to a number of related factors including historical events such as the end of the cold war, intensified globalization and most importantly an overhaul of the capitalist system (Castells 1996). In this restructured context where world economies were becoming more and more integrated and interdependent, the internet, ‘a new communication system, increasingly speaking a universal, digital language’ (Castells 1996, p. 2), became a tool of primary importance. Castells (1996) named the restructured capitalist system ‘Informational Capitalism’. He described it as a ‘capitalist economy based on innovation, globalization, and decentralized concentration’ where ‘networks are appropriate instruments’ (Castells 1996, p. 502). It is a ‘techno-economic’ system led by global networks of financial flows rather than a global capitalist class (Castells 1996). His analysis lead Castells to several insightful observations that were confirmed in the following decades as the network society matured. One of these observations was that ‘access to technological know-how is at the roots of productivity and competitiveness of global networks of capital, management and information’ (Castells 1996, p. 502). Indeed the pursuit of digital transformation is nowadays acknowledged as essential to the survival of nearly all sectors, private and public alike. The analysis also lead Castells (1996) to a key question concerning who the power holders in this new system are. To answer this question he introduces the concept of the ‘switchers,’ identified as those controlling network connections (Castells 1996). One could thus argue, based on Castells (1996) analysis, that the key position that LDCs have acquired in the constitution and control of networks is the basis of their rise to power over the past decades.
The platform society – The fulfilment of the network society
José van Dijck, Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal (2018) addressed the question of the growing power of LDCs or ‘Big Tech’ in their book titled ‘The Platform Society: Public values in a Connective World’. In this volume, the authors analyze the ways in which digital platforms are transforming social interactions and institutions. According to the authors digital platforms acquire a dominant position because of their promise to offer personalized services with lower transaction costs by bypassing intermediaries and ‘legacy institutions’ such as news organizations (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 2). Platform ecosystems which are ‘assemblages of networked platforms’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 4) are largely dominated by the Big Five: Amazon, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. These companies form the infrastructure upon which other platforms are built. They are thus the ‘online gatekeepers through which data flows are managed, processed, stored, and channeled’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 13). Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) also argued that ‘infrastructural platforms can obtain unprecedented power because they are uniquely able to connect and combine data streams and fuse information and intelligence’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 16). The book focuses on various sectors namely news, urban transport, healthcare and education in which LDCs have extended their influence. Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) conclude by arguing in favuor of ‘a profound rethinking the world’s online ecosystems’ (Van Dijck et al 2018, p. 163) so that platforms adhere to public values such as security, accuracy and privacy. While Castells (1996) foresaw the power that would come from controlling networks in the Information Age, Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) analyze the different ways in which LDCs achieve their rise to power by controlling networks. The Platform Society could thus be seen as the ultimate fulfilment of the Network Society under the reign of LDCs.
Considered together these two books, written in two different periods of the Information Age and twenty-two years apart, contribute to an understanding of the dynamics that led to the ascension of large digital corporations. The restructuring of the capitalist system since the 1980s created favourable conditions for the rise of companies able to harness technological know-how and a small number of these created an ecosystem that most of the world is now connected to and dependent on in various ways. The concept of LDCs as ‘gatekeepers’ described by Van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (2018) echoes Castells’ (1996) concept of ‘switchers’. Both convey the notion of control over networks and information and how this control makes LDCs the ultimate power holders in the network and platform society.
Castells, M. 1996. The rise of network society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Van Dijck, J., Poell, T., & De Waal, M. 2018. The Platform Society: Public values in a connective world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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