Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim our Digital Future from Big Tech
· James Muldoon
· Julia Rone
· Jeremy Hughes
JEREMY: Thank you to those that are joining us this evening. We will begin shortly. We are waiting for all attendees to make their way into the main Zoom space.
Welcome to those of you who are just joining us. We are just waiting for all attendees to make their way into the main Zoom space and we will begin shortly.
JEREMY: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for joining us tonight. I'm Jeremy Hughes, the communication co-ordinator here at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy. Before I introduce you to tonight's guest, a couple of points of housekeeping. This event is being professionally live, human captioned, you can turn that on using the Zoom toolbar at the bottom of your screen. Additionally, there is a stream text link available. It is a fully adjustable version of the transcript that will be available in your browser. The link to that will appear shortly in the chat and you will be able to open that and see that there.
A transcript will be made of the event, alongside the recording, you will be able to see that online, too. Before we begin, some other points: This event will be recorded on Zoom, as I mentioned. By attending you are giving your consent to being filmed and on this platform. The recording will be available on the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy and CRASSH website. Our guest will speak for 30 minutes and then there will be the opportunity for audience to ask Q&A please we ask that you use the Q&A function specific on Zoom to do that, as the chat will not be monitored for Q&A so, the Q&A button if that is all right. Follow us and tag us on Twitter and other social media platforms. Our account's handle is at @MCTDCambridge. We will drop the links for those in the chat, too. Tonight, I'm joined by two guests, one from our team here, Julia Rone, and James Muldoon. Julia Rone is a research associate at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. She has spent the last decade researching politics and Utopias and dystopias of digital media. Julia holds a PhD in social and political science from the European university institute in Florence and an MSC degree from Oxford Internet Institute. I will hand over to Julia who will introduce James.
JULIA: Hello everyone, I will present James and speak very briefly about his book. James Muldoon is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter. In 2020 he published Building Power to Change the World in which he explored the political thoughts of the German movement that brought down the German monarch. It dramatically transformed European politics. In his latest word, the one he is about to speak about today. Platform Socialism, James Muldoon sets out an alternative vision and looks at the digital economy. And I'm very excited to present this book. I read it over the Christmas and New Year, break, surrounded by five children. The original story, there were nine but a good friend of mine told me not to exaggerate. The number was five, very sweet and very loud children. I was completely immersed into this book and it became my new year resolution, without exaggeration I think it is one of the most, best and daring books I have read in the last year, actually. I'm going to mention three things that I find really great about the book and then I will give the floor to James. I, of course, as a critical academic, have comments and questions.
This book addresses two of the biggest problems of contemporary academic life. We are good at finding what is wrong with the current situation but we are worse at proposing alternatives about what should be done. James' book is a good example of the more speculative, political science and theory. In the sense it really proposes very concrete ideas of how things can be changed. This of course is a broader inference a very good example, that and in the department at Cambridge, there are easy lessons to choose from. I remember in the middle of the pandemic; the most popular questions were questions on Utopia. So, there is clearly a change with people desperately needing better visions about this and the book by James basically proposes. And second, something I have already mentioned, again, we are tired of people criticising neo-liberalism or capitalism in broad words but very vague ideas of what will come afterwards. And James' book is extremely concrete, very specific and it is a fantastic book that really outlines these kinds of radical reforms, as my colleague has outlined, who also works on British political theory. The good thing about the reforms, the radical reforms that James suggests, is that they are radical. They are system-changing but they are fortifiable; in the sense that you can see whether they work or if they don't and if they don't, presenting another alternative. But an ambitious but realistic utopian book. And this is the thing I like about it. I think it is very deep. I know this sounds ironic but I think in this case it is actually true. It is a book that draws on rich socialist tradition. And this is why I wanted to mention James' book, which draws on the work of George Cole and new socialism and the idea of socialisation of the economy. So, this brilliant book is quite often forgotten. It is a book that thinks about the future but is deeply rooted in the past and often forgotten good ideas, beyond the failures of using socialism. I like this a lot. It reminds me of current trends also in Eastern Europe, covering the socialist movements and traditions, that have been forgotten. So, it is a fantastic book. I recommend everyone to read it. Now I give the floor to James and then I will ask him my critical questions afterwards. James, the floor is yours.
JAMES: Thank you so much for that kind introduction. I'm just going to put a link to the book in the chat. Let me also put in my little code. You can get 30% off the book if you use that. It is a little gift from me to the world. So, today I will share my screen with you, first of all, then I will be discussing some ideas from my book that was published this year, Platform Socialism. The book is about imagining a different way in which we can organise the internet; ways in which we can take over software, take over the platforms and have them run by communities themselves. So, the book came out in January and it's been really wonderful sharing these ideas with people and also hearing that so many resonances with other people's projects. Fortunately for me, the Big Tech companies continue to destroy the world and to have these amazing almost cartoonish-like episodes with Facebook becoming Meta and Elon Musk buying Twitter and as of today, it is really fascinating to see that four of the biggest communication platforms in the world are owned, essentially and controlled by two men, right, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. And it is really just an interesting and a deeply-troubling turn of events that so much of our political debate and how we communicate with each other is subject to the arbitrary power and the whims of these billionaires. So, what is Big Tech's ambition for the world? What kind of a world does Big Tech want us to be living in, in ten years' time or 20 years' time? I think it is important to see that what we see now with Facebook's turn to Meta and this construction of the series of kind of hybrid online and off-line worlds is a series of projects and services that Big Tech will be hoping infiltrates almost every aspect of our daily lives. From messaging services to shopping to connections with friends and family. The idea that everything will be connected in, as part of a broader ecosystem of products and that through things like subscription services, through monetising transactions, through monetising, you know, the way in which we trade and connect with other people that tech companies will be able to seamlessly take profits from us as we go through this system. That we might pay £20, $20 a month for such and such service. We would go on to a gaming platform or we might want to buy a new avatar or skin and transform them across different platforms. We can really see that the ambition of these companies is to create new digital worlds where we will be spending an increasingly large amount of our time. It'll be both for work, for friends, for entertainment and this will be a space that will be fully monetised and fully-owned by corporations. So, this is a very troubling kind of turn of events that has happened over the past couple of years and we can look at Microsoft's recent acquisition of Activision; the kind of gaming social media space seeing more connections, the growth of play-to-earn gaming, where you can earn money and almost kind of have a career being part of games, both developing them and playing them. there is a lot that is going on, right. Over the past five years, during the so-called tech crash, more and more people have turned against technology, right. They have seen technology and tech companies as part of the problem. But it is hard to agree on what the precise nature of the problem is, right? Some people are concerned about social media addiction. Others with hate speech and misinformation. And depending on your political persuasion, you will have a different diagnosis of the problem. Now, I want to briefly talk about two of those today, which I call the "humanist critique and antitrust critique" and talk about how I come from a different perspective that I think sheds a different light on the situation. So, the first group of critics that I talk about - no, need to go back - the first group are the tech humanists. These are the people like the Netflix' show the Social Dilemma that you might have seen, Jaron Lanier, people who say that the autonomy, thinking and feeling of human beings is being undermined by social media. And that tech companies have been able to circumvent our rational autonomous decision-making processes, leading us to an inhuman form of social media. I think there is a point to this. And it diagnoses a certain aspect of the problem but the solutions tend to gravitate more towards personal consumer choices, right. That we should just switch off social media. That tech CEOs should be more ethical in how they deploy technology. What I think it ignores a little bit is the underlying political economy of data markets and what the companies face when operating in these markets. You know, Facebook doesn't have a particularly unethical CEO. There is no suggestion that another individual in Zuckerberg's place would be able to do something different This is because the company is beholden to the shareholders and they have to increase user engagement and get people to spend more time on the platform, and part of that in social media places is to have more engaging, sometimes provocative and sometimes extreme content. And so, the question of the underlying political economy is really central to this. a second set of critics, I have much more sympathy for, people who are championing this new antitrust or anti-monopoly agenda. It is very big in both the US and Europe. You will have seen it on Elisabeth Warren's presidential campaign. They are calling for big tech companies to be broken up. They also have a really good point which is that - Big Tech companies are too big, too powerful and exercise enormous gate-keeping power over marketplaces, and incredible power over public debate and discourse. As we have seen recently with Twitter and Musk. There is a huge point. I am a big fan of some aspects of this movement. I agree with part of the diagnosis. I do think that some of these Big Tech companies, are too big and too powerful. The issue comes to the remedies as well. Sometimes it's claimed that we could break up some of these social media companies into a dozen or so smaller companies, such as what happened to big oil in the early 20th Century and the telecommunications companies in the 1980s. There is one practical issue - I don't think the affordance of social media and tech platforms really allow for something like this to happen, practically speaking. It wouldn't provide consumers and users of the platform to have a Midwest Facebook, an Asian Facebook. The whole point of social media is to have an international audience to connect with friends and family. So, there is a real practical question as to what the companies would be doing and whether that would actually be providing benefits. The second issue here is that because of the structural incentives these companies face, if we were to break up companies or, in some ways let's put in a different option on the table. Let's say they have to have a market capitalisation below a certain amount. Maybe they have to have a certain user base below a certain amount after which they get taxed at an incredible rate or something like that. Because of the political economy of data markets there is nothing to suggest that 10 or 20 smaller companies would behave any differently to the one giant monopoly company. Again, it is about user engagement and about generating profits. So, we face a certain problem here, that so long as you have these private platforms that make money, essentially off user engagement through advertising, there's going to be this systemic constraint over what you can actually do in the system. So, the question I put forward then is - is it right that some of the largest communication infrastructure that we operate and we need today is privately-owned, is subject to be scooped up by whichever billionaire feels the need on that particular day? Should there be assets traded on an open market? And do we need to start talking more about the fundamental, underlying questions of power, of ownership and of control. And so, part of the project of Platform Socialism and the book is about thinking about how we can turn our mind to these. So that we are not just talking about how to fix Facebook, how to regulate it, what kinds of constraints we might put on Zuckerberg & Co but thinking about what alternatives, what could we build and develop and what prototypes do we have and how they can be seen as an interconnected whole. This is really the problem I turn to in the book. Very briefly, I just want to talk about how I understand digital platforms, what I think the fundamental problems are, and therefore, what solutions we might want to look at.
So, I define digital platforms in the book as "value capture devices" the difference between a platform business and an ordinary business is that platforms and platform owners aren't necessarily doing any of the work. They are there to capture the value that is created by other people, either through acting as middle men, as gate-keepers or finding ways to benefit from the actions of others, right. That might be through an advertising model. It might be through a subscription model. There are a couple of different aspects of this. The first is that we can see, some people use the word "feudalism" I think it is still capitalism. I think a more accurate description is rentier relations, as it has been put. And here we can see that the platforms are acting as intermediaries. They are generating revenues through connecting parties; this may be on a labour platform or on Airbnb or Uber where people are connected parties that want to buy or sell or rent a house or having a holiday. It is owning rather than doing, where they can set up the conditions where there is an entire marketplace that occurs on their platforms, that takes place that they can skim a bit off every transaction. The idea is that you buy up competitors, you get rid of them, so you have a new monopoly and you can charge monopoly prices. This is one aspect. The second is, when it comes to digital platforms in today's platform capitalism, there is a real concentration of profits. We can see that the shareholding of the company and the market capitalisation is top 5 companies, mainly tech companies with a couple of exceptions. But at the same time, they are dispersing risk and responsibility. None of the platforms want to own anything. They don't want to own the houses or cars and they don't want to employ a labour force. We have the rise of independent contractors. We have a rise of risk, of undertaking work being pushed back on to workers. They don't get holiday pay, they don't get sick pay, they can't contest decisions happening on the platform because their algorithm is being managed. And this is kind of bleeding out into other parts of the economy now as well. The aspect of platforms is they generate network affect which leads to monopoly conditions. The more users you have, the better the data, the better the service and the more money you will have and because of how quickly a platform can scale and how quickly it can become dominant in a space, and how hard it is, then, to dislodge that corporation, it is very easy to dominate markets and this leads to some of the aspects, some of the problems we are seeing with digital platforms.
So, taking these problems as they are, we can also see that there is a really big issue going on with Big Techs' marketing and PR campaigns. And this is something that I bring up in the book. It is not just that they are selling themselves as more efficient businesses, as leaner businesses, as places where shareholders will make greater profits. They are also selling themselves and we have seen this with Elon Musk today, as in - solving the world's problems? Connecting global communities. I call this in the book "community-washing Big Tech" it is a way of using the PR strategy and the Tech-for-good mindset to frame the activities of their companies in a much more positive community-empowerment way. And the irony from many of the tech companies is that it is almost in complete opposition to the very extractive business models that they run that are really designed to take as much money and value from people as possible. Most aren't selling a super-valuable service. They are finding ways in which they can set themselves up essentially to extract money from people. If it is Facebook or Google, it is through data mining operation of selling valuable consumer insights to people, without remunerating the users themselves at all. It is privatising a digital common. For other companies, either through charging transaction fees, through trying to find ways to get between people, to overtake functions, you know, that public administrators and other industries used to perform and you can see a long history of companies like Airbnb Facebook, now Meta and Airbnb slowly using these lessons in 2010s and rebranding themselves as community builders and engaging themselves in community engaging tactics of trying to get their using base to act as empowered community members against local legislators. And it is really in complete contrast to the very extractive way in which they approached real world communities; so, communities that they rely on. So, what are the alternatives then? Here are a few things about their community-building, their PR and marketing. So, what are the alternatives, I try to name Platform Socialism as an overarching strategy we might want to talk about, to think about alternatives to some of the big corporate platforms. We need to think about an underlying ownership model. So, some form of social ownership of the digital asset and some form of democratic control when we talk about governance over these systems is what really matters, right. So, it is not enough to have an ethical alternative. Not enough to have a cool guy that wears the T-shirt as the CEO. It is not enough to have diversity on the Board of directors, although those things might be good in and of themselves but I think we need much more. So, Platform Socialism is about new forms of participatory and decentralised Government. So, I look at a variety of alternative ownership models, different ways in which communities, big and small, can own and operate platforms together. I also introduce this new term, because I it facilitates holistic thinking about systemic alternatives, right. I think you cannot have Platform Socialism without a more thorough-building socialism. And I think it helps unite a series of divergent complaints that people have about tech companies around the common goal, of having greater community control, greater ownership over what is happening and I think this is, you know, a very important part of it. And so, really, the centre-piece of this project is thinking, is unpacking what we mean by social ownership here. You could say, democratic ownership. You could say public ownership. Let me, explain why I didn't use those terms. One reason why I think we need to think about social ownership, it is not always going to be the level of the state that the platforms will be owned. You need a variety of models, different slices of communities. So, drawing on the work of early socialist theorist called GDH Cole, I look at the size of the community that uses this, to determine how it might be owned and operated. So, there are a variety of different platforms that would work very well at a local level. I don't think we need state ownership of everything. I certainly don't think we need global behemoth organisations. There are a whole variety of things that are platform-mediated. Things like domestic cleaning, freelance work, food delivery, things that happen between people in a local level, within one suburb or city, these types of things can be run functionally by a workers' cooperative, an organisation where the workers collectively own the organisation and the tools that they use, and that they enjoy the full fruits of their labour, right. So, they are all equal members, equal cooperative operators of these platforms. And we are actually seeing a small, growing movement of platform cooperatives that is internationally organised today. They have a centre with Trevor Scholtz(?) in New York and there are some interesting things happening in that space. But I don't think workers' cooperatives should be the limit of our imagination when it comes to new forms of digital platforms? Some digital infrastructure, data centres, assets that are required are too large and too expensive to be run, efficiently by a workers' cooperative, right, and perhaps too important. When it comes to things like transport, like housing, some of these services might be better-run by a municipal government. It could be at the level of a city. It could be the level of a large section of a city. And we can imagine things like, you know, Muni B&B, an Airbnb run by a municipality. Whether over touristification, and gentrification, where houses are taken off the housing market and used as a commodity, on the short-term housing market. These issues might be dealt with more predominantly by someone with regulatory power, to tell an organisation how long they can actually have their house on a short-term market for. And it might be dealt with more effectively by organisations that actually run the other transport or housing options in that city. So, I think we can look profitably to the municipal level for a whole host of really exciting experiments with digital platforms and digital democracy today. Most notably of course would be Barcelona with things like the Decent(?) pilot and D code. Their old Technology Officer has done really interesting stuff with her team and many others in that space as well. But it shouldn't stop at the level of the city, right. I think there are many platforms that could be run very well at the level of the state. Particularly when it comes to things like social welfare and social security. The NHS has one of the largest data troves of, you know in the United Kingdom, for example. And when it comes to things like healthcare and unemployment benefits and things like, that we can imagine, national or state-level platforms. As well as like, digital ID systems and things like that. Now, I think the most challenging stage and one that I think is, you know, deeply necessary, is also the international level. And the trick here so we don't even have a partially-functioning democratic system on the international realm, as we do in the national one. So, it is very hard to imagine what an international democratic structure of governance would be like. But with digital platforms, we are, you know, closer than ever before to actually putting this into practice, right, so have ways in which we can vote online on proposals that we can have delivered for us. All of the practical limitations that prevented many former international experiments in democracy from functioning are much easier to deal with today. Now, the international level is also very important because of the issue of digital colonialism. We cannot talk meaningfully about nationalising Google or Amazon or any of the big American tech companies, without contemplating how unfair and unjust that would be on the billions of users outside of America that use these platforms that would honestly have no say in how they operated if these were, you know, suddenly put in the hands of American politicians and lawyers.
So, there is a real need to think about, from the local to the international, about the structures of governance that would allow users of the platforms to have a profitable say in how they are structured. How they are run and the new tools that are available, platforms like Difidim (?) Liquid Democracy, other tools that would allow us to talk to each other and have voting, we need to think about how they can be put into practice, to think about how the structure of the governance would look like in these platforms. Let me give you, this is theory-based but practical examples. Here is a local platform cooperative that I work with in Islington in, well, it is Jeremy Corbyn's constituency. Love or hate him, here he is, directing Wings. He had a rough run in 2016. I campaigned for Jeremy. It was a pretty tough campaign, wasn't it? But here is Rich Mason who is one of the organisers of Wings. And what is great about Wings, it is a practical alternative to Deliveroo for northern Londoners, that runs as a platform cooperative. So, all members share equally in the profits of the company. It is ethical. It is run only by push bike, so it is environmental-friendly. They have better relationships with restaurants. They charge restaurants much better fees; they are not looking to turn a massive profit and they have just started up. Another interesting thing about Wings, is that it is an example of a collaboration between a workers' cooperative and a municipal government, because Islington council has partially funded them to help them get off the ground and provided them with resources and tools. And this kind of partnership and this construction of a cooperative ecosystem is a really important point of getting more of these cooperative business models off the ground because, you know, one of the main lessons of cooperatives is that they do need a very flourishing cooperative environment in which they can prosper.
So, this that is one example and another example in the short-term housing market is this organisation called fairbnb.coop. It is an Airbnb clone if you will, offering short-term rental services but it is a very different model than Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms at the moment. They are businesses within businesses. Airbnb paints itself as a mom-and-pop collaboration of people being able to rent out their spare room. But the reality is over 50% are by professional Airbnb businesses, people who own properties and have taken them off the long-term market and take turned them into commodities. Fairbnb runs a one host policy and they charge a much lower fee; they charge 15%. Enough to maintain the platform. Half of this fee actually goes back to community projects that are chosen by the hosts.
One really interesting thing I love about fairbnb, is they are trying to move towards a multi-stakeholder model of governance. So, the idea is that groups of hosts, within a city, would be able to establish their own node and come up with the rules that would have to be abided by, by guests coming in to their city, it might include things like - paying a tourist fee to the municipal government. It might be a particular fee about how many nights that hosts can rent out to protect against over-touristification. It could be a variety of things but it is shaped in a federal network, where you can have people coming on to the same platform, using the same software but generating different rules, depending on where you want to stay and that could, in a way, be decided at a more local level that allows you to have a federation of cooperative alternatives but allowing autonomy within that as well.
Here is another example of turning to the sphere of transport and ride hail. This is something that I know people have toyed with before. But, it's just, well partly it is incredibly expensive and partly they would come up against the black cab legacy and it is a very difficult advocacy organisation to go up against. I don't think Sadiq Khan has any appetite for that. But politics aside, we can think about what a municipally-owned ride hail platform might look like. I live in London, so I have given that the example. In London it would be administered by an organisation called TfL which run the trains, overground and underground and they are many reasons to think why a ride hail service would work particularly well, when integrated into other public transport options. It could share in the data of the other networks, and it would be able to match the network effects of other large, corporate entities. But it could also enable the public transport organisations to nudge people away from single car transportation.
You know, for some people, it is just habit that they want to go somewhere, they will get their little Uber app and they will look how to get there. If you did that, and the only way you could do that was through a kind of integrated service that had a whole variety of options, the app could say, "You will save $5 if you take a train and a bus to get there and it'll only take you ten minutes' longer." That way you can create gentle nudges and encourage people towards different kinds of transport. Ways that strengthen existing public transport infrastructure and reduce one person travelling in one car. Uber has been terrible for major cities, increasing one passenger journeys. And this could pay the drivers properly and get rid of algorithmic management and allow workers to have decent autonomy over worker conditions and greater participatory rights for users of the platforms in different ways in which the platform could be governed and run, this participatory element is a very important aspect as well. So, let's get to social media.
JULIA: I will also have to jump in to say you have two, three, four minutes.
JAMES: That is good, I will be over in two, three, four, minutes. I agree with what Jack is saying, "In principle, I don't believe anyone should own or run Twitter." He is a smart man, "It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company." Again, "Solving for the problem of it being a company, however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness." This speaks for itself. Here is the light of consciousness. The man who said he could solve world hunger for $6 billion but decided to spend seven times that buying Twitter instead. What would be an alternative to Elon Musk extending the light of consciousness through his singular vision for Twitter? Well, there are actually a variety of models of distributed social networking that currently exist and they, you know, they go on what Jack was talking about, open protocols. Think of how we send e-mails, we don't all need to be part of the same platform. There are code and open protocols that allow people to have interoperable services, "I can send you an e-mail because different platforms use the same software and the same ways of communicating with each other." There are examples that would enable us to have messaging services, to have communication platforms, that were interoperable in this way. And that might be more decentralised. OK. So, when we think of how, you know a series of platforms could be organised we might imagine it in a much more similar way as like a sub-community of Reddit. Where different groups have more autonomy to set their own rules, so set their own moderation policies and that you can have more private discussions, while still allowing people to communicate with each other across them in a kind of federal model. What can that look like in practice? We will we have things like Mastodon, a lot of people have been talking about it today. I think the server crashed because too many people went on to it, but Mastodon is like a Twitter clone, and there are servers which integrate different platforms for publishing and communication and they can kind of talk to each other, but they have faced some problems. So, content moderation becomes a huge problem, if you have smaller communities that are in charge, content moderation can be a huge burden and it can raise really difficult political questions and, it can drain resources of groups basically. The second problem is a lot of these things don't look good and they don't have a great user experience because they are not well-funded, we would need ways of public funding or ways in which they can compete against much better-funded alternatives. A third problem is when they are interoperable, this slows down the way you can change features. Everything still has to talk to each other. An example I gave is that Signal, the messaging app isn't interoperable for precisely this reason. They didn't think they could make it good enough and have the same innovation if they made it part of the Fediverse. So, you need to migrate people from the dominate platforms. This is a huge question; I think we will get to it in the questions in the discussion. So, I will leave it there so we can have a chat about it afterwards:
JULIA: Thank you very much, for the interesting presentation that extended the lifetime consciousness. I will pose some questions and also integrate the questions from the audience because I any they are very much straight on point and I was also thinking along these lines. My first question is in your book you outline the very interesting strategy of combining resistance, with both epistemic existence and workers' movements than regulation at the state level and recoding. I think this is a fantastic proposal and the idea to progress on all three fronts is very, very good. One of my main questions is something you also raised, you talk about the immediate capture of institutions and I would also say a lot of companies are spending money lobbying to convince politicians they are indispensable and beyond the ideological capture, people thinking that Elon Musk is a genius, everyone is having conversations about this. How can we challenge it? What are the types of actors that you see, progressing the alternative visions? In the book you talk about social movement. I was wondering what about the political parties and here I also want to ask another question that was raised in the questions and answers by an anonymous attendee, is it useful to label this? Do we want to come up with alternatives, so that we can satisfy everyone? Or do we explicitly want, for example, left-wing parties to say what is the better strategies to actually make these proposals possible and to fight against both the elite and ideological? That is the first question, both combining myself and the anonymous person and then we will move on.
JAMES: What is really, really interesting and a really important question, as you point out, in the book, I try to have my cake and eat it, too by saying we need a combination of bottom-up forms of resistance, things like unionising, workers standing up to their company more, we need regulations that will erode the power of Big Tech companies and we also need to create the alternatives. Now you raise the question of political parties. I think in order to enact legislation we need people and activists within parties to be putting, you know, innovative, transformative proposals in the manifestos of political parties. I think we saw some fantastic proposals in the British Labour Party in 2017 and 2019. Things like full-fibre broadband for everyone to be rolled out by 2030. There was some interesting stuff around workers' cooperatives. So, these aspects need to get on the agenda of political parties. I don't see political parties really as necessarily at the forefront. I think, you know, I think it is much easier for civil society groups to raise more radical demands. I see that as the cutting edge. So, people who were former tech workers and software developers. People who are really engaged on this, on a daily level. I think that is when most of the interesting stuff comes out and then trickles over to political parties. But obviously, when it comes to like getting into power, getting new laws, getting the funding for this kind of development, has to be through, you know, city and national governments, I think political parties play a vital role in that. I don't want to go back to the movement-only extra-parliamentary politics that existed before. It was a long dead-end. The second part of your question was around...
JULIA: Strategic, basically danger.
JAMES: Why did I call it Platform Socialism? I see your point. Point taken. Socialism is not everyone's cup of tea, right. But I think at the end of the day, when you think about it, when you think about things like social ownership, community ownership, that is what socialism is. Much like the debates around feminism and the constant need about - why don't we say we are feminists because it offends people, we are for equality. At the end. Day you have to name it for what it is. We are for community control and greater democracy over how the platform operates. I see your point that it doesn't have as broad an appeal as perhaps another label or another name but I think in the end, I went with it because it is what I was describing. And I think it's just - it would be silly to try to pretend it is like something else.
JULIA: I would quote Eric Meyer "Give it a million names make it all the same." And this is I am convinced this is a valid question. There was another question in the chat I wanted to raise by Laura James. So, Laura notes that "There are already quite a few existing alternatives but the problem is that they can't scale." What concrete suggestions do you make in order to help these projects scale? I know you mentioned some of the things in the book and maybe it is nice to discuss that briefly.
JAMES: Scaling, I think it has to be public funding, right. I think it has to be. The only way that some of these small, current prototypes would go beyond a local community or city level is that if organisations like the EU, for example, or like national governments invest serious money into digital technology that isn't corporate-controlled. Particularly by, like American or Chinese tech companies. And without that money, I think it would be very, very tricky for anyone so outcompete Uber or other tech companies in a capitalist environment. Rosa Luxembourg called it 100 years ago. It is very tricky for a cooperative to compete against a capitalist competitor in a capitalist marketplace. It makes the problem of transition through cooperative forms of economic production very difficult, right. Because, the model that I have really tried to adopt is that of Eric Olin Wright, a Marxist sociologist; I think Julia, you mentioned the word Utopian. I think he has it more or less right; that you basically need to eke out and gradually expand a corporate feel of productions, you are growing institutions, building networks, you are getting power. More people, you know, in the public media. You are growing institutions and growing think-tanks and sectors of the economy. You might be at 5% production then at 10 then 20. That kind of model of eroding and transforming capitalism is one of the only viable parts. I think that part must ultimately lead through parliamentary elections at some point. And there will be a moment where there is a break a switching over. But scaling in the beginning it has to be public money I think the profit mode is fund be mentally corrosive in an attempt to do things in the public interest because that will be overridden despite the ideology. And sometimes alongside the ideology. Most tech people think they are saving the world. Most of the CEOs and billionaires think they are genuinely, you know, solving problems and there for the benefit of humanity because that is, I don't know, it seems to be the nature of rich people and oligarchs, you just delude yourself and if so, many people believe in your bullshit, you start to believe it as well. And that is probably symptomatic throughout history of oligarchs who think they are making the right decisions for everyone else.
JULIA: Megalomania. And a question: How do you engage with places that are not democratically run and governed? So, what is the future of democratic socialism in countries where there are authoritarian regimes and where people who might find Facebook or Twitter, even owned by Elon Musk, potentially more democratic from their own government. This was a question that we had, someone from our team.
JAMES: I get this question every time, because it is such a good one, such an important question. My only answer is that we have to struggle for greater forms of democracy online and off-line, there is no other route to democratic reform. I guess part of this project is really about - how do you spread democracy from a narrow political sphere, to greater sectors of society? How can we have universities that are run democratically? How can we have more of our lives with public and accountable forms of power are operating, rather than private power where a single person or a small group of people can make arbitrary decision that is affect everyone else? So how do we have more people taking part in decision-making? It is a very tricky question, right. Because in some of these - even in the UK today, right, it is a very fragile form of democracy and form of faltering, you know, more and more and eroding more and more every day. Look, I don't think there is any like, silver bullet. Like, obviously, there isn't a silver bullet to this. I think when it comes to digital platforms, I think you can create forms of democratic governance on the platforms, regardless of what kind of country you are in but that is always going to come up against hard barriers. You are always going to have people attempting to switch off platforms, to ban them, to ban certain features of them. I think the only answer is really to struggle for greater forms of democracy within these authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. At the same time as we struggle for greater democratic control over these online platforms, which, in themselves, are kind of as we have seen with Twitter, have these very oligarchic structures within them, much like the authoritarian governments. We probably don't hate Musk as much as we hate Putin, for example.
JULIA: And also, for another substantial question, posted by an anonymous attendee. What do you make of the idea, I wrote to you in an email, about not having socialism in one country; so platform socialism is not enough and this I think is a fundamental question and one I struggle with. How can we be sure that democracy will work? Aren't we kind of, solving everything by saying we just need more democracy? Considering the sectors that we have, a lot of this information, a lot of the uncertainty, polarisation, conflict, why are we so certain that democracy is the answer? And my own project is on democratising (inaudible), so something I have been struggling with. If we go deeper, why do we think it is a better way to govern or manage any platform than what we currently have. Maybe it could be worse, actually as a result of democracy?
JAMES: It is a really good question. It is certainly not going to solve everything, right. So, I'm not suggesting, and I don't suggest in the book that social ownership and democratic governance of the platforms is going to eradicate all the issues we have here, right. What I do think is that it will go a significant way in helping tame some of the most, some of the larger problems that we have. I will give you a couple of examples: Because of the profit motives and because of the need for constant growth and constant engagement, social media companies are structurally forced to push the most engage content and it has been shown to push polarisation, it is not for them to have hundreds and hundreds of moderators for their service. It is a concentration of profit and externalisation of risk and responsibility. If they just want to make money and it is run as a "for profit" service, they care about user numbers and they care about how many hours you use the platform and they care about keeping the costs down.
So, there are so many issues around mission information, around harmful content on platforms, around social media addiction, about how teens and children are treated and users of social media. So much of this would be reduced and would be dealt with, if it was a public service that had a degree of accountability for it, that had a charter for looking out for the public, in the same way that other public services that we know do. Now, this isn't going to solve everything, right. You look at the BBC. It is not like a bastion of socialist Utopia, by any stretch of the imagination. But it would make a big difference. And it would also give communities a greater degree of control to how to act back on that service. It creates a mechanism for a counter-veiling power to develop and for people and communities and activists to constantly have their voices heard and say something. The problem is when Musk announced he was going to buy Twitter, so many were resigned to it, it was like, why are you complaining, who cares? It is like the beginning of the end of democracy but, you know, it is worrying that one of our main squares, are owned by a... (Sound dip...) and any last questions, I would encourage people to write others, but a practical one. There are fascinating movements, as you mentioned, in Spain, and other movers that are active on this, how can we talk with the movements, how can the book make a wider resonance? And I think, as organisers, we will look at the ideas but what more can be done and how do you look at, that your book being very concrete with that and then I give the floor to Jeremy. A big question?
JAMES: Well, I'm trying my best, I will talk to groups, individuals, big or small, if people e-mail me, 99% of the time, unless they are a maniac, I will get back to you, even if you are not one of the big kahunas, I will talk to anyone, cape to come to your reading group, happy to chat to you or your friends. I am trying to get the book translated and talk to other people. A lot of my contacts are in Germany. My main reaching out is there. I'm willing to spread my networks further. It is not just about the book. The important thing is that there are lots of really interesting people, writing and doing work in this space. So rather than thinking about Platform Socialism, obviously I write the book and engage with the work, I think it is also really important to engage with all the different centres and thing thanks and scholars and activists that are doing work, thinking about how we can have more ethical platforms, more community control, and yeah, I really want to add a small contribution to the debate. Particularly drawing on the history of socialism stuff that I did. Early 20th Century workers' movement. I didn't talk about it, I wanted to give the most accessible side but there is interesting social theory stuff in there for those who are interested in it
JULIA: Jeremy, I give the floor to you to maybe close the event.
JEREMY: Thank you Julia and James for such a wonderful conversation. It is fascinating. We will have the recording available online in the next couple of days. For those of you that know other people that couldn't make it or would like to relive the talk, please do capture that. And to a mention about a couple of events we have coming up. We are to announce on May 20th we will be hosting Frances Haugen, the whistle-blower and we have a couple of other events; we will be hosting Azeem Azhar who wrote a book that we will be discussing on May 10th online and in-person and we will be hosting Lisa Park on May 17th. And that will be an online-only event. We hope you can join us for that. All of our events are usually at the same time, which is 5:00pm in the evening, British Summer Time. We hope you can join us. Thank you to James and Julia for your time. And for all of you for joining us at home. we look forward to seeing you at another event soon. Bye