We Are All Platform Urbanists Now

Image by Elin Matilda Andersson, commissioned by Sarah Barns for the Platform Urbanism project.
Sarah Barns argues that a platform urbanism should be more than a focus of academic critique, but also a site for radical appropriations of urban space.
[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.]

The ‘Age of the Platform’1Simon, Phil. The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business. BookBaby, 2011. – or perhaps, more colloquially, “the uberisation of everything” is now well advanced. The successful execution of platform strategy by the world’s dominant global digital platforms – now simply known as GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) – has left management consultants everywhere championing the platform business model as a new blueprint for competition. Any company, big or small, incumbent or disruptor, will read up on platform strategy in an effort to scale. Public institutions, too, are being urged to adopt the ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) playbook in order to create public value for coming generations.

When we consider the platform through its underlying business strategy or ‘platform-play’, we move beyond understanding platforms as individual companies, or bright, colourful and somewhat addictive apps.  And indeed, seen in this light, the mighty influence of platforms appears more troubling. Platforms are now theorised as noxious markets; monopoly service providers; accidental megastructures; digital-era network rentiers.2Langley, Paul, and Andrew Leyshon. “Platform Capitalism: The Intermediation and Capitalisation of Digital Economic Circulation.” Finance and Society. 3, no. 1 (2017): 11-31.; Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT press, 2016.; Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

Platforms are now so important to our lives many now see them acting infrastructurally, but they are also, perhaps even more fundamentally, reprioritising our attention (as argued in this YouTube video from ethicist James Williams). Platforms may well be the ‘hyperobject’ 3Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. of the digital age. Platforms have emerged, then, as modes of value-creation, intermediation and socialisation, operating across space and time, whose continuously morphing nature we will surely be grappling with for some decades to come.  How did it come to be so?

We came, first of all, to know platforms as intensely social spaces, as environments for the sharing of intimate communications, for connecting with long-lost school friends. Initially, much of the world embraced platforms as evidence of a new kind of ‘openness’, largely progressive and egalitarian. Platforms like YouTube enabled once-passive consumers of content to become ‘produsers’, allowing all manner of internet-enabled interactions between networked publics.4Varnelis, Kazys, ed. Networked Publics. MIT Press, 2008: 145–164. Later, we shared bedrooms and bathrooms, these intimate home spaces Airbnb released into platform circulation as ‘latent space’, allowing its users to experience foreign cities ‘like a local’. Such services underscored the network effects of digital platforms. From Web 2.0 came the City 2.0, and with it the potentiality of urban informatics and digitally-networked citizens connecting to re-imagine cities in ways that better served the needs of future generations.5Foth, Marcus, ed. Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City. IGI Global, 2008.; Barns, S. ‘Visions of Urban Informatics: From Proximate Futures to Data-Driven Urbanism’ in Fibreculture 29: Computing the City. 

But just as urban disruptors looked to the ‘internet-enabled layer’ of cities to accelerate progressive change, the world’s social media giants were going about reconstituting the nature of digital connectivity in their own image. Extending from social media to software, platform players adopted the cherished ‘open innovation’ principles of the internet to allow the functionality of their software to be extended by their users. They did so by creating proprietary ‘platform ecosystems’, governed through the API or ‘application programming interface’. Instead of simply creating stand-alone software products, platforms created the spaces that allowed others to innovate as well. And in a sense, this changed everything.

For a company like Apple, the creation of the App Store both extended the functionality of iPhones, while also building a new market for software developers, generating billions of dollars in revenue for both software developers and Apple. As something of an ur-moment for platform intermediation, the release of the Facebook developer platform allowed Facebook to evolve as an ecosystem of users and producers, developers, advertisers, and consumers, all exchanging various kinds of value among themselves.

Through the infrastructure of the API, the platform-play thus emerged as a highly effective business strategy for the digital age, focused on the scalable benefits to be had by maximising interactions of any kind. A highly active ecosystem of users and producers, software developers and marketers, drivers and riders, all governed by the terms of engagement set out by the platform and its API, generates beneficial, if not always equal, network effects for its participants.6Mackenzie, Adrian. “From API to AI: Platforms and their Opacities.” Information, Communication & Society (2018): 1-18.In this respect, as one platform evangelist has exclaimed: “We are not in the business of building software! We are in the business of enabling interactions!”

To an economist, these interactions – in the form of platform-based value sharing – represent a more efficient matching of supply with demand. But to platform operators, a programmable API also allows for absolute control over activity data. In Helmond’s words, it is the API that allows platforms to “decentralise data production while recentralising data collection”.7Helmond, Anne. “The Platformization of the Web: Making Web Data Platform Ready.” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (2015): 1. In this way, platforms leverage the network effects generated by digital ecosystems into unique data holdings they govern in absolute terms – thus intermediating the ever-expanding value created by user interactions across their market network.8Langley, Paul, and Andrew Leyshon. “Platform Capitalism: The Intermediation and Capitalisation of Digital Economic Circulation.” Finance and Society. 3, no. 1 (2017): 11-31.

If we wanted to call platform ecosystems simply digital-era advertising platforms, we would be missing half the picture. Companies like Google and Facebook can commoditise their platform ecosystem by selling user attention to advertisers – but they also leverage the data exhaust of our daily interactions to generate new software services. As dominant platforms like Google and Amazon leverage their ecosystem data into artificial intelligent (AI) applications, this means they further entrench the functional superiority of their services. “Like a path through a forest trod ever clearer of debris, it becomes the natural default” writes Frank Pasquale on Amazon. He argues that this is no longer just online shopping: the power yielded by platform companies is emerging as a kind of  “functional sovereignty”, which may indeed, according to Pasquale, be threatening the logic of territorial sovereignty associated with that of the state.

Scholars of the platform society,9Van Dijck, José, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal. The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. Oxford University Press, Forthcoming 2018. and of platform capitalism,10Srnicek, Platform Capitalism. have helped underline the radical significance of platforms in restructuring all manner digital social relations and transactions. Platform urbanism, now emerging as a subject of critical urban research, recognises the way the platform-play is reconstituting urban governance, services, interactions and experience through the principles of platform-mediated interaction.

Spatially-distributed technologies and devices that pervade our cars and trains, streets, homes, traffic lights, and so forth, are themselves being intermediated by the platform-play. Moreover, platform companies are not only becoming infrastructural, but also seeking to become providers of more traditional infrastructure. Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, for example, sees the potential to leverage Google data assets into urban services like Coord and even, in the case of Sidewalk Toronto, into urban design and planning. Platform urbanism, in this light, emerges as a functional reconstitution of city design and services as a platform.

But in a sense, to focus on the platform-play into infrastructure misses the most potent asset of platforms: their inherently scalable sociability. Unlike smart city strategy, which for the past two decades has seen public and private investments in technology solutions for cities yield limited results, platform urbanism begins, first and foremost, with the everyday interactions of smartphone-equipped urban subjects. Platforms may enact modes of algorithmic governance, but their means of extending into diverse locales and registers of urban life and experience are all-too-human, and depend fundamentally on our inherently social, relational natures.

Equipped with glowing rectangular screens, we continue to experience the potency of platforms as highly social, branded ecosystems of interaction.  Platform urbanism, enacted daily as we commute, transact, love, post, listen, tweet, or chat, deeply implicates the everyday urban encounter. Put simply, platform urbanism is not only a problem of political economy, nor even of digital strategy, but also of everyday socio-spatial practice. Performativity and technology are increasingly blurred. If the platform interface has become an increasingly significant locus for the remediation of experience, this has been accomplished not only as a distanciated mode of software-sorting.11Graham, Stephen. “Software-Sorted Geographies.” Progress in Human Geography 29, no. 5 (2005): 562-580.

We, the ‘platform-enabled’ subject, are, in a sense, being encouraged to facilitate this spatial reprioritization ourselves, through our everyday intimate encounters with urban life.

For this reason, platform urbanism must surely constitute not only a focus for critical
interrogation, but also act as a site for radical spatial practice. As I discuss in this video on
Cities in the Age of the Platform, just as platform companies seek to ‘distract by design’, in
order to facilitate ever more intensive modes of platform-centred interactions, a critical
platform urbanism might consider the appropriate media ecologies of urban spaces. A critical
platform urbanism needs to continue to champion the quality and openness of urban data
against its commoditisation by platform companies. But ultimately, a critical platform
urbanism recognises that it is not just cities, their utilities, or their technology services, which
are being redesigned, but also, most fundamentally, the complex socio-spatial entanglements of everyday urban life. As architect and digital futurist William Mitchell once quipped: “This
is urban life, Jim, but not as we know it”.12Mitchell, William. e-Topia: Urban life, Jim – but
not as we know it. The MIT Press, 2000.


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