Platform Urbanism Rejoinder: Why now? What now?

Sarah Barns uses Henri Lefebvre's theories of the quotidian to consider platform urbanism as a mode of ‘everyday’ urban intervention.
[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.]

Digital platforms have been with us for some time. Why the sudden coalescence of interest
around ‘the platform’ as a mode of urbanism? Is it because platform companies are now the biggest in the world – the most successful in history, if we consider the US $1 trillion valuation of Apple and Amazon in 2018, soon to be followed by Google? Is it because there are well-known platforms like Uber and Airbnb that are are increasingly acting as sites for a contemporary urban politics, through the appropriation of ‘the local’ – as in a sense of place, of home, or intimate knowledge of the urban – by global circuits of digital capital?

Nick Srnicek’s formulation of platform capitalism has helped bring the platform to the fore of contemporary political economies of urbanisation and financialisation – even if business consultants and digital entrepreneurs had been espousing the monopolistic possibilities of the platform-play for the past decade. If platform capitalism is remaking the city, then what kind of city are we living in? This collection of essays instigated by Scott Rodgers and Susan Moore has offered many welcome provocations about the emergent terrain we now negotiate. Political economies of platforms assert the reprioritisation of locational advantage facilitated by the platform. As John Stehlin wrote, the urban and the platform are both “built environments whose mutual entwining creates landscapes of locational advantage that bridge the physical and the digital” (emphasis in original).  Following Srnicek, and others such as Langley and Leyshon, we adopt the lens of platform urbanism to explore, as Stehlin does, how platforms remediate forms of locational or urban value.

And yet, arguably, the platform is not primarily – certainly not only – a mode of value extraction, or even a core infrastructure for the governance of digital infrastructure. If it has become so, it is because successful platforms are also highly appealing ecosystems of interaction – as media theorists exploring lines of enquiry about the ‘platform society’ have emphasised for some years. Platforms are experienced as highly social spaces. Critical to the infrastructuralisation of platforms has not only been the extraction of value by platform owners, but the facilitation of value-trading by diverse platform participants. As platform economists have discussed, platforms lower barriers to entry to facilitate these forms of value sharing: this is what has enabled them to scale socially as much as infrastucturally.

When we tweet, post, uber it home, google, and facetime, we choose to participate in the platformalisation of our everyday lives. Sitting up in bed, glowing rectangle screen in hand, we platform away our nights. When we work on our Research Gate or Academia profile, or touch up our LinkedIn bio, we do so because we see value in these services, and, for some reason, value the modes of interaction they facilitate. To point to these examples is not to suggest that platforms act in a benign way – far from it – but to emphasise that it is through the everyday ecosystems of interaction that platforms encourage us to engage in, like casino slot machines, that their capacity to emerge as infrastructures governing the city has been facilitated.

In a sense, then, platform urbanism must reckon with the many registers of urban life and experience that platforms act upon, and in the many fine grained forms of agency, interaction, design, market-making and experience that urban spaces embody. This, I think, is what Lizzie Richardson is also pointing to in describing the complexities of market-making in cities as different forms of publicness.

To reduce platform urbanism to the logic of capital extraction, or even infrastructuralisation, is to risk reducing how we ‘think the urban’ to its transactional logics. Here we return again to Lefebvre – and his dialogues with Castells,1Castells, Manuel. The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach. Trans. Sheridan, A. Edward Arnold, 1977. While Castells shared Lefebvre’s conception of the city as a specific product of the historical relations of capitalism, he disagreed with Lefebvre’s advocacy of an “urban revolution”, which identified the specific spatiality of the city as a basis for progressive political action.2For a discussion on this debate see Soja, Ed, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Blackwell, 2000, 101. Lefebvre not only asserted the ‘urban revolution’ as reshaping the social, and the spatial specificity of the urban, but also encouraged us to critically engage with conditions of spatial production and experience in ways that were grounded in the reality of everyday urban existence.3Lefebvre, Henri. The Critique of Everyday Life. Trans. John Moore. Verso, 1991.

This is I suppose why, when I began to work with ‘platform urbanism’ as a project supported by the Urban Studies Foundation, I was focused on how my work as an urban policy maker and design practitioner could intervene against the logic of monopolisation and data capture so endemic to platform design, and instead encourage city councils, urban digital strategists and consultants to advance more ‘open’ modes of urban platform interaction. One that resisted vendor-driven models of the smart city and instead created spaces for citizen deliberation and dialogue.

Inspired as much by Lefebvre’s activism as his urban theory, I have seen platform urbanism as a mode of ‘everyday’ urban intervention, a site of urban spatial practice, disrupting smartphone media ecologies through collaborative, site-specific media interventions in the everyday spaces of the city, calling into question the valorisation of urban data as a way of knowing the city. If, as Scott Rodgers and Susan Moore remind us in their introductory essay, via Bratton4Bratton, Benjamin H. The stack: On software and sovereignty. MIT press, 2016., that platforms transcend the local and the national, their potency surely remains firmly in the everyday.

As this collection of essays has surely helped to articulate, the diverse sites for negotiation with platform urbanism as a body of emergent urban theory and political practice will keep us busy for some time to come.


1 Castells, Manuel. The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach. Trans. Sheridan, A. Edward Arnold, 1977
2 For a discussion on this debate see Soja, Ed, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Blackwell, 2000, 101.
3 Lefebvre, Henri. The Critique of Everyday Life. Trans. John Moore. Verso, 1991.
4 Bratton, Benjamin H. The stack: On software and sovereignty. MIT press, 2016.
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