Platform Urbanism: An Introduction

Scott Rodgers and Susan Moore introduce a new Roundtable on urban platforms by asking how platforms may be understood as new forms of urban infrastructure.
[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.]

Talk about ‘platforms’ is all-pervasive. Used as an adjective or adverb, the word qualifies a whole range of contemporary practices and things: platform architecture; platform design; platform ecosystem; platform governance; platform markets; platform politics; and even platform thinking. As a noun, the term platform is perhaps most notably invoked by, and associated with, a growing range of digitally-mediated, cloud-based, data-driven companies. Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb or Google, for example, are all variably described as platforms. As Tarleton Gillespie1Gillespie, Tarleton. “The politics of ‘platforms’.” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-364. argues, for these large commercial entities, ‘platform’ clearly does discursive work. It has a metonymic quality that allows it to be used flexibly and ambiguously: it can refer to a technical platform; it can mean a platform for expression; or it can suggest a platform of entrepreneurial opportunity. In these registers associated with the tech sector, ‘platform’ above all appears to be deployed in ways that suggest neutrality, and perhaps immateriality.

This Mediapolis roundtable centres on the intersections of platforms and the urban. We are interested here in how the urban shows up in, through and as platforms; and at the same time, how platforms show up in, through and as urban. One possible entrée into these myriad intersections is to think about the relationships of platforms and infrastructures. This means thinking about the degree to which platforms are parasitic on different kinds of urban infrastructure, but it also means taking things one step further, and thinking about platforms per se as new forms of urban infrastructure.

As Jean-Christophe Plantin and others argue,2Plantin, Jean-Christophe, Carl Lagoze, Paul N. Edwards, and Christian Sandvig. “Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society 20, no. 1 (2018): 293-310. there is a growing overlap between platforms and infrastructures, both in how they are conceptualised academically, and also how they appear in the world. They suggest that not only are infrastructures increasingly mediated and even controlled by platforms, but platforms are becoming infrastructures in their own right. Plantin et al. outline two dominant approaches to infrastructure which might also inform how we think about platforms: historical perspectives on the development of infrastructures as large technical systems; and phenomenological perspectives on the experience of infrastructure. In their discussion of ubiquitous computing, Dourish and Bell3Dourish, Paul, and Genevieve Bell. Divining a digital future: Mess and mythology in ubiquitous computing. MIT Press, 2011, pp. 96-98. largely echo these alternative approaches, describing two types of politically-inflected lines of investigation that tend to emerge in infrastructure studies. On the one hand, scholars interested in infrastructure often raise socio-political questions, for example around what groups, institutions or entities control the historical development of, or access to, such infrastructures. On the other hand, other scholars (notably, Susan Leigh Star)4Star, Susan Leigh. “The ethnography of infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (1999): 377-391. have emphasised more phenomenological questions around the kinds of everyday dependencies infrastructures make possible.

There is a possible tension here, however. A socio-political approach would appear to lean towards thinking about platform infrastructures in terms of the kinds of things they are, while a more phenomenological approach suggests we think about platforms or infrastructures in terms of what they do. There is clearly room for both approaches, both kinds of emphasis. But we would nevertheless suggest that thinking about platform infrastructures as a form of doing might be especially valuable. As media anthropologist Brian Larkin5Larkin, Brian. “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327-343. suggests, an ‘infrastructure’ is not only a thing, but that which shapes the relation between things: infrastructures, Larkin says, “create the grounds on which other objects operate.”6Larkin. “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” p. 329. It is worth emphasising here that Larkin is proposing a broad notion of infrastructure. For Larkin, infrastructures are more than technical systems. We might also consider, he suggests, financial instruments, biological conditions or held-in-common social practices as infrastructural forms. Keller Easterling,7Easterling, Keller. Extrastatecraft: The power of infrastructure space. Verso Books, 2014. in her discussion of what she terms ‘infrastructure space’, likewise proposes a sense of infrastructure that extends beyond physical networks (e.g. roads, rail, canals, wires or water pipes), or even wireless networks (e.g. microwaves), to include phenomena such as shared standards or organisational forms.

Such broad conceptions of infrastructure, which are more inclined to questions of ‘doing’, also seem to invite a clearer picture of the overlap between platforms and infrastructures. In his book The Stack, Benjamin Bratton8Bratton, Benjamin H. The stack: On software and sovereignty. MIT press, 2016. describes platforms along lines similar to Larkin. As he suggests:

“Platforms are what platforms do. They pull things together into temporary higher-order aggregations and, in principle, add value both to what is brought into the platform and to the platform itself.”9Bratton. The stack. p. 41

Bratton’s discussion of platforms, like Easterling’s discussion of infrastructure, is articulated using a notably spatialised language. For Bratton, platforms are more than economic entities. They represent a new kind of political geography, and specifically, a new kind of sovereignty, one that potentially transcends the local and national. Bratton’s argument is not so much that platforms are generalized, homogeneous spaces. Rather, he deploys a broadly scalar typology of ‘layers’ (Earth, cloud, city, address, interface and user) that conceives of platforms manifesting in geographically uneven intensities and extents. One of the critical issues that then arises with such translocal platform ecosystems – as argued in an enticing and soon forthcoming book by Van Dijck et al10Van Dijck, José, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal. The platform society: Public values in a connective world. Oxford University Press, Forthcoming 2018. – is whether, or how, platforms might become spaces that embody or respond to public values.

With the term ‘platform urbanism’ we are not positing some new, coherent concept, nor necessarily inviting our roundtable contributors to establish one, either cumulatively or collectively. There is no ambition here to lay claim to the term, which is already alive and circulating in recent literature,11van der Graaf, Shenja, and Pieter Ballon. “Navigating platform urbanism.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change (2018 in press, research projects, workshops and conferences, including the set of themed sessions at the American Association of Geographers 2018 Annual Conference which helped bring about this roundtable. Yet neither have we selected this roundtable’s title willy-nilly. Platform urbanism invokes for us a twist on the notion of ‘platform capitalism’, introduced by Nick Srnicek in a book with the same title.12Srnicek, Nick. Platform capitalism. John Wiley & Sons, 2017. Here, we are speculatively substituting ‘urbanism’ for ‘capitalism’: a shift in emphasis similar to the one made by Henri Lefevbre in The Urban Revolution.13Lefebvre, Henri. The urban revolution. University of Minnesota Press, 2003. This move is not meant to discourage economic analyses, but rather, to foreground the possibility that there are emergent, irreducible, co-generative dynamics between platforms and the urban.

This provocation gives rise, we hope, to some critical questions about platforms and contemporary urban living, which this roundtable might at least partially address. Some of these questions might be more ontological, for example: What are platforms? Under what conditions, or how, do they show up as ‘urban’ (and vice versa)? Some questions might be of a more epistemological nature, for instance: What might be required – conceptually, methodologically, or empirically – to tease out the urban geographies of platforms? And finally, some might be more political: What sorts of urban political power is embodied in or through large-scale, commercial platforms such as Facebook, Uber, Airbnb? And is their power always repressive, or might platforms have the potential to be venues for a progressive or just urban politics?


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