#CIES2018: “Welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West” – On education in the age of platform capitalism

By Julia Erdelmann

Very early on the second full day of the CIES conference 2018, Susan L. Robertson (University of Cambridge), Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster University), and Eva Hartman (University of Cambridge) invite us to critically engage in the nascent discussion about ‘the jungle’ of digital platforms working around, with, and through us. Discussing familiar platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, or Monster, the panellists equip us with a guide to negotiate various way in which to think about ‘platform capitalism’ as a new form of market making in education. Specifically, this session is focusing on the political economy of these platforms in the terms of a new firm; the implications of the dissociation of (academic) knowledge and its management from production; and the effects of platform capitalism on social mobility and stratification looking at the transition from education to the labour market.

Opening this enticing and stimulating debate, Susan provides us with an overview about the role education plays as a key element to kickstart a host of profound changes in the organisation of advanced capitalist and transnational economies, as key social structures have become organised by electronically processed information (algorithms). What is the platform, and what modes of governance are found in the platform economy we can observe in the digital spaces? To think about platforms in laymen terms provides us with a very accessible conceptualisation; that is, platforms are online-mediated digital infrastructures which enable geographically disperse users – or, in our case, economic agents – to interact with each other. The platform itself also operates as an intermediary, as well, as the platform owners often charge fees for their services.

Drawing on Nick Srnicek’s pivotal work ‘Platform Capitalism’, we find out that there is a considerable discrepancy between the promises made by the advocates and providers of the platform and the underlying market mechanisms Susan has analysed: Whereas terms like “sharing, gig economy and the fourth industrial revolution are tossed around, with enticing images of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility bandied about” (p. 1), a closer look at the political economy uncovers a form of algorithmic governance, working on pop-cultural concepts, such as ‘clicks’, ‘likes’, ‘endorsements’, which is tied to creating new markets and anchored in established capitalist relations. Susan provides us with a differentiated typology of how to understand these platforms, the contemporary academy, and the different knowledge production purposes, encompassing different kinds of relations, worlds, and values made possible. A paper covering Susan’s investigations in more detail is online on the CPGJ web page. A pivotal aspect of this paper relates to knowledge production in the academy, dominated by Elsevier along with Springer, Taylor and Francis, Sage, and Wiley Blackwell (the big 5), who own 50% of the academic publishing market. This example not only demonstrates platform capitalism’s tendency to create monopolies, but calls to attention the labour behind the creation of these new market forms. Although platforms change the scale and scope of knowledge production, they remain experimental and unstable and ultimately have to ‘be made’. Just like established markets, this entails risk calculation, cost analysis, strategy building, and expertise.

To illustrate this point, Janja next walks us through academic digital platforms in more detail and investigates how they are affecting the research process and the social relations among academics. By uncovering the workings of popular academic platforms, such as Google Scholar Citations, Academia.edu, and ResearchGate, we find out that platforms have opened up to incorporate all parts of the conventional research process, from identifying research opportunities, forming collaborations, sharing drafts, discussing ideas, to disseminating results. More than merely providing a digital space, however, these platforms have developed numerical signifiers, which are attached to researchers engaging in these infrastructures. Through providing numerical feedback, platforms urge researchers to participate in a form of competition going beyond fostering academic knowledge production. Setting out new metrics, such as the RGscore, academics are now urged to stay engaged with the platforms, succeeding only if they make continuous use of them. Thereby, these platforms not only aim at generating big data, but also to increase their market value catalysing the so-called ‘network effect’: the more numerous the users the more valuable the platform. Janja maps out three processes she identifies to render the research process ‘platform-ready’: quantification and individualisation; enhancing competition; and re-structuring academic social relations. Ultimately, platform capitalism forms new academic social relations, resulting in a restructuring of social relations outside the platform.

Finally, Eva picks up on this topic of platforms and social mobility to deepen the discussion of how platform capitalism bears the potential of reforming social relations. Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital theory, Eva explores the possibility of platforms to generate as yet unknown information and make it available to employers seeking to fill open positions sustainably with the proper candidate. According to labour market studies, the transition process between formal education and employment acts as a bottleneck for recruitment: We learn that a major challenge to identifying adequate candidates from the position of the employers is the absence of relevant information about the candidate’s social and cultural capital; that is, their ‘soft skills’, communication and linguistic skills, as well as weaknesses. Acting as ‘match-makers’, job boards like Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder and social networks like LinkedIn and facebook uncover and marketise this ‘hidden’ data, using new evaluative infrastructure with interactive devices such as reviews, ratings, and rankings. These infrastructures bear potentials, as they open up local and regional market spaces to transnational competition and provide candidates with the opportunity to include relevant information to their profile, however, the validation of these profiles remain as problematic as the impact which these infrastructures have in enabling a range of new actors to get a say in the evaluation of the worth of qualifications. Does it really enable a window to re-arrange social stratification according to abilities or does it foster a form of capitalist reproduction according to experienced or otherwise passively assumed social and cultural capital?

Enabled by discussant Tore Sorensen, a dialogue between the panellists and the audience highlighted the problematic of state relations with these newly emerging economic agents and prompts suggestions for further research. How do these platforms play ‘cat and mouse’ with the state and bypass regulation, hence creating a ‘wild west’-kind of market sphere? How do academic platforms foster the establishment of what Fourcade (2017) has termed the ‘ordinal society’, highlighting the individual’s relative position? In which ways can investigating platforms beyond the logics anchored in the political West and linguistic limits of the English language contribute to a variegated and contoured taxonomy of this emerging market sphere? And, how applicable are consequences of the meddling of platforms in the labour market to informal economies?

Taken together, the presenters put the case for a new research programme on platforms in education and what the rise of the platform economy means for knowledge production, circulation, management and consumption.