A planet of the selfless

Written for Immerse! catalogue edited by Corina L. Apostol and Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás

I. Site condition: Cloud polis

In his contribution to Immerse! exhibition, Jonas Staal aims to collectivize Facebook. The statement sounds plain and simple: he demands the end of private ownership model for big tech platforms. However, what exactly does he mean by “collectivization” here? Coming from Eastern European post-communist context, my intuitions drift immediately towards different historical forms of asset transfers into state property: collectivization of agricultural production in former Czechoslovakia, extensive abolition of private ownership of means of production, or more recently, state take-overs (nationalizations, expropriations) of land for development of infrastructure projects such as railways or highways. Alluding to the ideals of stateless democracy, Staal moves in other direction, proposing instead to turn digital platforms into transnational public cooperative, thus transcending not only the political category of state, but also the cultural category of nation and economic category of ownership.

In my reading, Staal’s proposal hints at two important moments:

  • Introduction of a new type of political community – planetary polis;
  • Rethinking subjective status that grants a member of this political community an access to communal assets/resources along the lines of the category of usership.

The idea of planetary polis elaborates on the affordances of the existing global digital infrastructure. Following terminology of Benjamin Bratton, it is an infrastructure of “planetary-scale computation” (which has become one of the key terms in contemporary approaches to digital infrastructures across theoretical humanities, see Bratton 2015). This terminology encapsulates the reality of distributed, non-local nature of algorithmic processes mediated by cloud platforms, ranging from search engines through in-time delivery systems to social media. The “planetary” thus denotes here a scale that truly concerns the whole Earth, but not as a type of totality that would encapsulate the world in a homogeneous global (virtual) space. Instead of this kind of “world interior” (Weltinnenraum, see Sloterdijk 2013a, 169-170), it can be better imagined as a mobile multitude (Virilio 2006, 29) of addressable units roaming the grand planetary exterior.

Each platform conditions its service provision by requirement of membership in its user community (the cloud polis, see Bratton 2015, 119-124), which leads to the emergence of usership as distinct model of subjectivity, diverging both from the model of citizen (as a member of state polis) or consumer (as a member of market polis). Users differ from citizens in how easy one can become (and cease to be) a user of a platform compared to obtaining (or cancelling) a citizenship. They also differ from consumers when it comes to types of transactions they agree on by entering the respective cloud polis, since these do not involve only economic exchange (i.e. acts of asset transfers, buying and selling etc.), but first and foremost information exchange – one’s access to free information is redeemed by collection of user data that can be cashed out in worse case as a commodity for advertising companies and in better case as a means of platform governance and user coordination. Of course, today it has become customary to collapse the difference between economic and information exchange in platform economies, as well as to point at the asymmetry involved in these exchanges (especially by analogies that highlight either similarities between labour exploitation and exploitation of data surplus generated by users, or similarities between extraction of natural resources and data extraction). But even though it is completely correct to call out the power asymmetries arising within digital platform environments (after all, it is what seems to motivate Staal’s collectivization proposal), the expansion of the sphere of exchange within cloud polis beyond the narrowly defined market-economic domain stands among the most distinctive features of platform economies.

As the example of cloud polis demonstrates, platforms are organizational models that per se offer an alternative to both state and corporate structures. Today, however, this potentiality stands in sharp contrast to predominantly corporate ownership of digital platforms, which locks the logic of usership back into confines of market economy. Similarly, the consequences of non-locality of planetary-scale computation cannot be fully harvested under such conditions, since supposedly universal service provision is hindered by centralized, opaque forms of decision-making implied by corporate ownership of platforms. In this respect, enacting an ideal of planetary polis would mean to align affordances of planetary-scale computation with a proposal for decentralized mode of platform governance these affordances tacitly enable. Such an alignment could yield a political community not based on allegiances to particular nation states, but to general cooperative body of human inhabitants of the planet Earth. What Jonas Staal calls “transnational public cooperative” may serve as a good example of what a platform generating such a planetary polis can look like.

Continue reading