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Cybernetic Landnahme

My very smart colleague Thorsten Thiel and I have been talking and writing back-and-forth about what we call the „Middle Age of Digitalization“. We haven’t quite worked out the details of that but the basic idea is that the digital transformation, as a technical, social, economic process, is moving from its early, disruptive phase towards a middle age of normalization and routinization.

The Dark Side of Utopia

As part of this, I’ve been reading and listening to other people for inspiration. Most recently, it was an episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast with Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff, along with host Paris Marx, gave a potted history of corporations and cyberspace. One of his points, at least as I understood it, was that much of the early utopian optimism about a free and deregulated cyberspace was to the benefit of corporations seeking to monetize these new technologies. The Dotcom bust seemed to end this era of commercialization but if anything, it was only a brief market correction before the web 2.0 era of platformization. Since then, we have witnessed a strong monolistic trend across different tech industries and a congealing of power structures everywhere.

I found this quite striking. The argument basically extends one that I’ve seen elsewhere, e.g. in a paper by Elettra Bietti, further into digital history. What it boils down to is the following premise: Corporations have taken the „electronic frontier“ metaphor to heart. But instead of interpreting it in terms of freedom (as John Perry Barlow and his fellow cyber-libertarians did), they are interpreting it in terms of untapped resources.

The Digital Land-Grab

The result is Landnahme, as Marxist theorists would call it – a land-grab, primitive accumulation in its purest form. There might be some question marks over the concept of land and its translation to cyberspace, and I have spent considerable effort trying to work this out. (Indeed, it not even clear whether land is land at all…) But that’s an academic issue – in practice, it means that corporations will treat the internet, digital technologies, and their user bases as spaces that they want to settle, monopolize or – failing that – carve up.

Hence the almost ridiculous extremes of companies like Uber focusing almost entirely on destroying any and all possible competition even before they become profitable. And where the early generations of companies could still fail and implode, such as Yahoo, AOL, Compuserve or the mighty, the surrounding economics have shifted. Data harvesting is now the key activity for big platforms and other companies, and the data business offers tremendous economies of scale. The bigger you are, the more benefits accrue, which makes dislodging an entrenched monopolist almost impossible. In another historical parallel, the big landholders, having successfully enclosed their land, will not give it up without a fight.

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