The Horizons of Platformed Urban Politics

Tongling urban prefecture, Anhui province, China. Source: Ranqus [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Platform Urbanism.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

There are many ways to think about or imagine a “platform urbanism.” Our introduction to this roundtable laid out some open-ended questions: ontological (What are platforms? How do they show up as urban?); epistemological (How might we know platforms and the urban?); and political (What sort of power is exerted through platforms? Is it always repressive, or potentially also progressive?). But it also suggested some fairly particular ways of thinking about platforms: as parasitic on urban infrastructures, perhaps even novel infrastructures in their own right; and – with a speculative nod to Lefebvre’s notion of an “urban revolution”1Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. University of Minnesota Press, 2003. – as potentially co-generative with the urban. Our intention was to open up a number of possible avenues for discussion, yet also put forward some specific analytical lenses.

All of these questions and lenses have been engaged, very often critically, in this roundtable. Richardson’s opening essay is perhaps the most direct in critiquing the ontology of a platform urbanism. When we look at an oft-cited example like Uber, Richardson notes, it soon becomes apparent that the “platform” almost appears reducible to a novel software application, which enrolls a whole range of existing urban infrastructures, broadly defined. In this case, a “platform urbanism” becomes at least in part a story about the reconfiguration of urban infrastructures in conjunction with different platforms, notably the reconfiguration of their “public” and “private” qualities.

Krivý’s opening essay approaches matters from a more epistemological orientation, at least in so far as it tackles “platform” and “urban” as in many ways peculiar, and oftentimes vague, concepts. Drawing on Gillespie2Gillespie, Tarleton. “The politics of ‘platforms’.” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-364. he suggests that conceptualising platforms as a “raised level surface” might be a way to bridge media- and urban-centric approaches to platforms. From such a perspective, platforms become a way to simultaneously experience and escape the city; a new, generalised extension of Jameson’s “enclave,”3Jameson, Fredric and Michael Speaks, “Envelopes and enclaves: the space of post-civil society (an architectural conversation),” Assemblage 17 (1992): 30-37. which Krivy illustrates evocatively through the example of New York City’s High Line.

This roundtable’s contributions have, however, focused above all on what we might describe as platformed urban politics: a concern for both the urban politics of platforms and a platform politics of the city. For Stehlin the political imperatives are pressing: platforms have facilitated the expansion of a “global pool of insecure workers” while also creating alienating conditions in how they render everyday leisure activities into data. The right to the city, Stehlin argues (drawing on Shaw and Graham4Shaw, Joe, and Mark Graham. “An informational right to the city? Code, content, control, and the urbanization of information.” Antipode 49, no. 4 (2017): 907–27.), “must necessarily include the right to the platform.”

And yet if the logics of platforms and smart urbanism have already arrived – as Wilson suggests in his opening essay – the needed response might not only involve reclaiming platforms, but arriving at a new kind of technological ethics: an endeavor of constructing a platform urbanism that, as Wilson puts it, might be “more responsive and more responsible.” Barns’ opening essay, as well as her response, strongly echoes this political orientation. The politics of platform urbanism for Barns must extend beyond critique or resistance, and involve radical spatial practices which, for example, would work with and advocate for high quality open data and “against its commoditisation by platform companies.”

In positing a view of platforms in relation to, and as, urban infrastructures, our introduction also set out a possible tension between approaches to platforms in terms of what they are, and those more concerned with what they do. Both approaches have value, but we suggested that thinking about platforms as a form of “doing” deserves special attention.

All our contributors have responded to this provocation in different ways, and none have fallen back on simplistic critiques of platforms in terms of, for example, their ownership or control. As Richardson points out, a scholarly overemphasis on the repressive power of platforms risks creating new, singular monsters of late capitalism without thinking about the interdependencies platforms have with other arrangements beyond their interiorised control. In a similar vein, Krivý notes in his response that we need to ask “about frameworks that secure the reproduction of platform urbanism, but are not platforms themselves”; challenging a platform urbanism might happen as much from the “outside” as “inside.”

This emphasis on platforms as a form of doing – as processual – has unsurprisingly been paired with a strongly relational view of platforms as constellations or assemblages of not just bodies and technical devices, but also practices, data, procedures, organizational forms and ideals.5A view captured evocatively in the work of the late physicist Ursula Franklin. See: Franklin, Ursula. The Real World of Technology. House of Anansi, 1999. In this view, platforms (as, for instance, complex software applications) are inconceivable either apart from their interconnectedness with a wider ecology of urban infrastructures, or divorced from their genealogical continuities with urban technologies, understood expansively and historically6as suggested by Richardson in her response.

So “relational” has our collective emphasis been in this roundtable that, arguably, the coherence of platforms, as objects, has not really been addressed. A scholar such as James Ash,7e.g. Ash, James. Phase Media: Space, Time and the Politics of Smart Objects. Bloomsbury, 2017. might argue that the contributions to this roundtable have offered no plausible way to account for an urban politics centered on platforms as such, since there has here been a tendency to defer to the relations that make these platforms possible. The problem here is apparent in the way we have all liberally referred to specific platforms, such as Facebook or Airbnb, without reckoning with what (if anything) makes these platforms count as discrete entities. While it could be argued that a stronger position on platforms as objects risks exaggerating platform power, this need not be the case: as Richardson suggests in her response, it might help us critically question whether platforms per se really are the chief agents of concern in urban life today. After all, as Wilson suggests in his response, platforms are “[a]lmost always a sleight of hand … oversold, bursting with future-speak, and glitchy.”

A final observation we would make is that this roundtable has directed little attention to platforms as environments of digitally-mediated communication. As Barns points out in her opening essay, this is effectively how we first came to know platforms, “as intensely social spaces, as environments for the sharing of intimate communications” – which, of course, also initially involved a problematic and even naïve embrace of platforms as “a new kind of ‘openness’, largely progressive and egalitarian.” In subsequent years, Barns notes, the reach of platforms has expanded, both in the form of new platform services more obviously feeding off “urban” infrastructures (e.g. Airbnb and Uber), but also in many platforms transcending their web-based origins and building a more pervasive software ecology of apps and services.

Barns’ claim here is that neither these earlier nor later manifestations of platforms should be reduced to political economy: they both depend on everyday sociability. This is not to put in question the usefulness of political economic approaches. Stehlin’s opening essay and his response clearly outline the ways in which rent is a powerful concept for thinking about platforms and the urban. On the same score, however, we wonder whether Stehlin’s examples of Airbnb and Uber might exemplify the question of rent rather more convincingly than platforms based more so on communication.8This is not to deny, however, that data-driven advertising, seen on Facebook for example, could itself be seen as a form of competitive advantage at the interface of media and urban spaces.

Our point here is not to lodge a critique of Stehlin, just a reflection that we all will fall back on the examples we have studied, or with which we are most familiar, and that this will inform our conceptualisation of platforms and the city. Our observation regarding the absence of communication certainly derives from our own particular way into the theme of platform urbanism. In the last two years, via a case study of a controversial cycling scheme in East London, we have been studying how social media platforms appear to have emerged, really only in the last decade, as a pervasive communicative background in urban contexts like London. Our approach entails a more phenomenological view of platforms, understood as environments in which urban transformation, and its associated anxieties and claim-making, show up as matters of experience and articulation. So, from our point of view, the roundtable has perhaps underplayed these environmental, communicative or informational functionalities of platforms, as well as the ways in which participation in such spaces helps structure awareness and in so doing makes certain forms of urban public address more possible than others.

In any event, the contributions to this roundtable make clear that the horizons of a platformed urban politics should not and cannot end at their manifestation as new forms of capitalist organisation. Nor should we only see a platform politics of the city in terms of the repressive power of platform companies, or the apparently silent, algorithmic powers of platform architectures.9cf. Rodgers, Scott, Clive Barnett, and Allan Cochrane. “Media practices and urban politics: Conceptualizing the powers of the media-urban nexus.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 6 (2014): 1054-1070. To invoke Richardson’s phrasing, platforms “can create, intentionally or not, new forms of collective practices through which cities function.” If platforms are becoming utterly ordinary, and intrinsic to urban living in much of the world, their urban politics must necessarily be characterised by more than resistance. Such a politics ought to be one of critical engagement and practice.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
2. Gillespie, Tarleton. “The politics of ‘platforms’.” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-364.
3. Jameson, Fredric and Michael Speaks, “Envelopes and enclaves: the space of post-civil society (an architectural conversation),” Assemblage 17 (1992): 30-37.
4. Shaw, Joe, and Mark Graham. “An informational right to the city? Code, content, control, and the urbanization of information.” Antipode 49, no. 4 (2017): 907–27.
5. A view captured evocatively in the work of the late physicist Ursula Franklin. See: Franklin, Ursula. The Real World of Technology. House of Anansi, 1999.
6. as suggested by Richardson in her response
7. e.g. Ash, James. Phase Media: Space, Time and the Politics of Smart Objects. Bloomsbury, 2017.
8. This is not to deny, however, that data-driven advertising, seen on Facebook for example, could itself be seen as a form of competitive advantage at the interface of media and urban spaces.
9. cf. Rodgers, Scott, Clive Barnett, and Allan Cochrane. “Media practices and urban politics: Conceptualizing the powers of the media-urban nexus.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 6 (2014): 1054-1070.

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