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Abstract

Digital platforms are reshaping cities in the twenty-first century, providing not only new ways of seeing and navigating the world, but also new ways of organizing the economy, our cities and social lives. They bring great promises, claiming to facilitate a new "sharing" economy, outside of the exploitation of the market and the inefficiencies of the state. This paper reflects on this promise, and its associated notion of "self-organization," by situating digital platforms in a longer history of control, discipline and surveillance. Using Foucault, Deleuze, and Bauman, we scrutinize the theoretical and political notion of "self-organization" and unpack its idealistic connotations: To what extent does self-organization actually imply empowerment or freedom? Who is the "self" in "self-organization," and who is the user on urban digital platforms? Is self-organization necessarily an expression of the interests of the constituent participants? In this way, the paper broadens the analysis of neoliberal governmentalities to reveal the forms of power concealed under the narratives of "sharing" and "self-organization" of the platform era. We find that control is increasingly moving to lower-level strata, operating by setting the context and conditions for self-organization. Thus, the order of things emerge seemingly naturally from the rules of the game. This points to an emerging form of complex control, which has gone beyond the fast and flexible forms of digital control theorized by Deleuze.
PERSPECTIVE
published: 13 March 2020
doi: 10.3389/frsc.2020.00006
Frontiers in Sustainable Cities | www.frontiersin.org 1March 2020 | Volume 2 | Article 6
Edited by:
Andrew Karvonen,
Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Reviewed by:
Alberto Vanolo,
University of Turin, Italy
Ugo Rossi,
University of Turin, Italy
*Correspondence:
Petter Törnberg
petter.tornberg@gmail.com
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Governance and Cities,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Sustainable Cities
Received: 03 December 2019
Accepted: 25 February 2020
Published: 13 March 2020
Citation:
Törnberg P and Uitermark J (2020)
Complex Control and the
Governmentality of Digital Platforms.
Front. Sustain. Cities 2:6.
doi: 10.3389/frsc.2020.00006
Complex Control and the
Governmentality of Digital Platforms
Petter Törnberg*and Justus Uitermark
Department of Human Geography, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam,
Netherlands
Digital platforms are reshaping cities in the twenty-first century, providing not only new
ways of seeing and navigating the world, but also new ways of organizing the economy,
our cities and social lives. They bring great promises, claiming to facilitate a new “sharing”
economy, outside of the exploitation of the market and the inefficiencies of the state.
This paper reflects on this promise, and its associated notion of “self-organization,”
by situating digital platforms in a longer history of control, discipline and surveillance.
Using Foucault, Deleuze, and Bauman, we scrutinize the theoretical and political notion
of “self-organization” and unpack its idealistic connotations: To what extent does
self-organization actually imply empowerment or freedom? Who is the “self” in “self-
organization,” and who is the user on urban digital platforms? Is self-organization
necessarily an expression of the interests of the constituent participants? In this way, the
paper broadens the analysis of neoliberal governmentalities to reveal the forms of power
concealed under the narratives of “sharing” and “self-organization” of the platform era.
We find that control is increasingly moving to lower-level strata, operating by setting the
context and conditions for self-organization. Thus, the order of things emerge seemingly
naturally from the rules of the game. This points to an emerging form of complex control,
which has gone beyond the fast and flexible forms of digital control theorized by Deleuze.
Keywords: urban digital platforms, complexity, self-organization, governmentality, control
INTRODUCTION
Mark Zuckerberg recently gave a speech in which he pointed to the way that digital platforms like
Facebook have “decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands” (Zuckerberg, 2019).
This is part of a broader discourse in which digital platforms make promises of freedom and free
speech, often echoing the hopeful narratives of individual liberation of the 1960s counterculture
movement. Free speech and individual freedom, as both Zuckerberg and counterculture activists
argued, will empower the powerless and push for improvements in society.
The updated version of these narratives, however, have a new digital bend to them: people will
be empowered to organize through the decentralized meeting-places created by digital platforms.
As Jim Whitehurst, CEO of the open source company Red Hat, puts it, “Uber has shown how
you can actually empower many thousands of people to self-organize” (Whitehurst, 2016). Digital
platforms have brought about the idea that society would not need leaders but organize itself as
“bottom-up cooperation coalesces into an ingenious and complex social organization” (Uitermark,
2015). This vision looks particularly attractive in an era in which both the market and the state are
increasingly losing their appeal due to rising inequalities and authoritarianism. Platforms suggest
replacing the top-down control of the state and institutions, with the harmonious, spontaneous,
and non-political self-organization of individuals (Benkler, 2006; Helbing, 2015).
Törnberg and Uitermark Complex Control
This narrative is based on fundamental dichotomy between on
one side the static, linear and top-down, and the other side the
open, informal, and non-linear—where the former is seen as the
domain of control and domination, and the latter of freedom and
informality (Krivý, 2018). This dichotomy is echoed throughout
the literature on digital technology (Sennett, 2012) and the
amorphous concept of “smart cities” (Rossi, 2016; Zandbergen
and Uitermark, 2019). This dichotomy can be traced back to
the now classic opposition between the bottom-up “organized
complexity” of Jacobs (1961, p. 429), and the top-down planning
of her arch-nemesis Robert Moses. Digital platforms promise
to deliver Jacob’s spontaneous self-organization into the modern
era. While they are changing society writ large, their impact has
been in particular fundamental to the urban experience, and the
vision of self-organization has come to stand in for a broader shift
in thinking within urban governance (Gershenson et al., 2016).
This paper reflects on this vision, and in particular its
associated notion of “self-organization,” by situating digital
platforms in a longer history of control, discipline and
surveillance. Using Foucault, Deleuze and Bauman, we scrutinize
the theoretical and political notion of “self-organization” and
unpack its idealistic connotations: To what extent does self-
organization actually imply empowerment or freedom? Who is
the “self” in “self-organization,” and who is the user on urban
platforms? Is self-organization necessarily an expression of the
interests of the constituent participants? In this way, the paper
broadens the analysis of neoliberal governmentalities to reveal
the forms of power concealed under the narratives of sharing and
self-organizing of the platform era.
DIGITAL PLATFORMS AND DREAMS OF
SELF-ORGANIZATION
Digital platforms have in recent years grown into powerful
institutions for the exchange of information, goods, and services.
These platforms have become so important that they take on the
form of indispensable infrastructures for social and economic life
(Plantin et al., 2018). Digital technologies are launched under
one of a plethora of marketing pre-modifiers: “smart,” “social,” or
“sharing”—signaling the idea that they provide “spaces” for social
interaction. User-generated content has to such degree become a
standard aspect of new technologies that “digital” and “social” are
increasingly used as synonymous (Marres, 2017).
A central part of the marketing of these platforms is
an emphasis on progressive values, calling upon ideals of
the counterculture movement: the digital platforms present
themselves as providing spaces for personal liberation where
everyone can speak their mind, fulfill their intellectual
and democratic potential, and express their individuality
(Zuckerberg, 2019). They promise to leave behind the passivity
of traditional mass media and invite citizens to participate, think
for themselves, and express their own views.
This links to a broader idea, seen in concepts like the “sharing
economy” (Puschmann and Alt, 2016) or “commons-based peer
production” (Benkler, 2002): that these platforms are providing
an alternative to both the market and the government. Digital
platforms are bringing a deep optimism about the advent of a
new, less hierarchical society:
While one might think that a largely self-regulating society
is utopia, a new kind of economy is already on its way.
Social media are networking people and, thereby, enable
“collective intelligence.” . . . Social media platforms, such as
Amazon Mechanical Turk make it possible to bring ideas and
skilled workers together. As a consequence, this leads to a
more direct participation of people in production processes
(Helbing, 2015, p. 3).
Central to these ideas is the increasingly prominent notion of
self-organization. Self-organization has in recent years become
an important idea—both as a political ideal and as a theoretical
concept (Sørensen and Triantafillou, 2009; Arnouts et al., 2012).
As a political ideal, the term self-organization is used to
describe a wide variety of governance arrangements where
private actors take their own initiative to autonomously act and
pursue public or collective objectives (Mattijssen et al., 2018).
The concept has provided the theoretical foundation on which
digital platforms have made claims to provide a third option in
the previous choice between state and the market—which in an
era of growing inequalities and authoritarianism has increasingly
become seen as a choice between Scylla and Charybdis. New
digital technology, which is seen as affording new forms of social
organization, disintermediated and without central leadership
(Uitermark, 2015). Platform technology has thus breathed new
life in the visions of societies organized without delegating power
to a central authority. Wikipedia is perhaps the ultimate example.
The encyclopedia was initially conceived as a project relying on
the authority of experts and revenues from advertisements, but
Wikipedia only took off after it became a non-profit and invited
everyone to edit and add. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers
have contributed to Wikipedia on their own initiative and
without central coordination, collectively creating a giant and
evolving repository of human knowledge. The idea that people
will spontaneously and harmoniously self-organize if given
the opportunity also animates enthusiasm for digital platforms
of the “sharing economy,” like Airbnb, Uber, CrowdFunding,
HomeAway, or social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, or
Facebook (Benkler, 2006; Srnicek, 2017).
This narrative has begun to spill over into how these
companies pursue their policy interests and mobilize their user
base. Airbnb, for instance, is employing the narrative of self-
organization to describe their “Airbnb Citizen initiative,” in
which the company cultivates so-called Home Sharing Clubs:
groups “whose host members share best practices, partner
with local organizations on volunteer work, engage with
neighborhood businesses, and advocate to local policymakers for
fair, clear rules” (Airbnb, 2016). This, in practice, implies that
they put pressure on policy-makers and push for “home owners’
rights,” that is, the “right” to short-terms rental of housing
property. Airbnb forms and manages these communities, and
they thus exist somewhere on the spectrum between corporate
outsourcing of lobbying operations and the facilitation of
interest-based advocacy (van Doorn, 2019). Airbnb, however,
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Törnberg and Uitermark Complex Control
simply describes these communities as “self-organized” (e.g.,
Airbnb, 2019, p. 33).
As a theoretical concept, self-organization was brought into
contemporary use by Cybernetics scholars, in particular by
Wiener (1948) and Ashby (1991). The concept, as well as the
Cybernetics movement at large, was over time subsumed by
Complexity Science (Johnson, 2009; Mitchell, 2009), which has
grown into a paradigmatic epistemology within both the natural
and social sciences in recent years—not least as foundation of the
emerging discipline of Computational Social Science (Törnberg
and Törnberg, 2018). Within Complexity Science, self-organized
systems are often defined as systems in which the components
“are to some degree independent, and thus autonomous in
their behavior, while undergoing various direct and indirect
interactions” (Heylighen et al., 2006, p. 125). The concept draws
on the study of the collective behavior of social insects, like ants
or bees, which have been found to organize without centralized
leadership or control: each bee or ant simply follows its own
simple instincts (Bonabeau, 1998). Despite of this, they are
capable of carrying out sophisticated feats of organization. For
instance, ants build bridges to cross chasms, construct anti-
flooding systems in anticipation of storms, farm, make gardens,
and organize wars. They even maintain advanced climate control,
and run massive public work projects on a scale that makes
the New Deal pale in comparison. And they do all this without
planning, leaders, or architects. The intelligent organization of
the colony emerges from local mass-interactions of the individual
ants (Mitchell, 2009; Ball, 2012).
Within Complexity Science, self-organization is thus one
of the defining feature that distinguishes “complex systems”
from “complicated systems” (Andersson and Törnberg, 2018).
While complicated systems are assembled, complex systems self-
organize (Bar-Yam, 1997). This distinction between complex
and complicated systems is central to the conception of self-
organization, and worth dwelling on. Complicated systems
are like sophisticated machineries; top-down, hierarchical and
bureaucratic, each of their components designed to carry out an
organized function that fits into a larger structure. Such systems
can be made highly efficient and capable of executing large-
scale tasks with extreme precision, but they are at the same time
brittle: fragile to internal and external disturbances, and lacking
in their capacity to adapt to shifting circumstances (Michod
and Nedelcu, 2003). Complex systems, on the other hand, tend
to have less functionally differentiated components, and are
instead organized through a large sets of interacting components
on same organizational level (Andersson and Törnberg, 2018).
Complex systems tend to be more flexible and adaptive than their
complicated counterparts, since modifying functionality does not
require a redesign of the entire system, but can often be carried
out through self-organization. While complicated systems are
fragile and sensitive to disruptions, complex systems are thus
resilient due to their inherent redundancy: components may step
in for other components. Simply put, the effects of disruption in
complex systems is more like removing an ant from an anthill
than removing a cog from a sophisticated machinery.
This conception of complex systems has become the epistemic
foundation for a broader shift within urban governance,
from “complicated” to “complex,” illustrated by notions,
such as “network governance” (Jones et al., 1997) and
“adaptive governance” (Folke, 2007). These constitute discourses
describing a move from bureaucratic structures within firms
and formal relationships between them, to organic or informal
social relations. This shift is often motivated by the requirements
on adaptability and resilience imposed by the rapid changes
resulting from current crises of large-scale social-ecological
systems (Gunderson and Light, 2006), but has also been
linked to a broader shift toward neoliberal modes of urban
governance (Joseph, 2013; Chandler, 2014; Blanco, 2015). The
discourse of digital platforms as enabling self-organization can
thus be seen as part of a broader shift toward complex and
decentralized governance.
This is thus the context and the theoretical roots from which
digital platforms are weaving new visions of an anarchic future.
Uitermark (2015) describes this as a “longing for Wikitopia”: the
ideal of a self-organized city, where people are not directed by
central authorities but cooperate voluntarily in communities and
for the public good. Just like ants, this society rises from the
bottom-up interaction of individuals, coalescing into a highly
functional social organization. This vision has empowered a
range of initiatives, from urban gardening (Mattijssen et al.,
2018) via technology hubs (Moisio and Rossi, 2019) to child-
care facilities and makerspaces (Chiappini and Törnberg, 2018).
Digital platforms are seen as hubs for coordinating and meeting,
disintermediated and leaderless, to solve collective problems. As
Helbing (2015) puts it:
Digital revolution is thus seen as allowing distributed
(self-)control, i.e., bottom-up management. In fact, cybernetics
(i.e., control theory) and complexity theory tell us that it is
feasible to create resilient social and economic order by means of
self-organization, self-regulation, and self-governance (Helbing,
2015, p. 2).
While this governmentality is covered in an antipolitical veneer,
it reflects and reinforces a particular value-system: “while the
logic through which uncoordinated and individual decisions
produce social outcomes is readily accepted as a consequence of
intrinsic principles of self-organization that have to be respected,
the logic through which collective and coordinated decisions
produce social outcomes is suspect” (Uitermark, 2015, p. 2303).
In other words, the “top-down” organization of governments and
institutions is seen as an unnatural expression of constraint and
control, while the “bottom-up” of decentralized systems is an
expression of the natural and free will of the participants. What
are the antecedents of this type of governmentality?
THE GOVERNMENTALITIES OF DIGITAL
PLATFORMS
A virtually inevitable starting-point for tracing the genealogy
of contemporary governmentality is Foucault (1977) Discipline
and Punish, the main thesis of which is that the first half of
the nineteenth century saw the replacement of punishment as a
public spectacle by forms of incarceration that worked through
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techniques of discipline and correction. “At the beginning of the
nineteenth century. . . the great spectacle of physical punishment
disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical
representation of pain was excluded from punishment. The age
of sobriety in punishment had begun” (1977, p. 14). In Foucault,
the disciplinary society was founded on the omnipresence of
surveillance, the arch model of which was the Panopticon: a
prison and system of control designed by Jeremy Bentham in
the eighteenth century, with an architecture organized in such
a way that all prisoners of an institution can be observed by
a single security guard, without the inmates being able to tell
whether they are being watched. The power of the Panopticon
thus rests on the limitless capacity for watching, or what
Bentham calls the “apparent omnipresence of the inspector”
[Bentham’s (1995), p. 45].
This form of power was a quintessential part of modernity is
perhaps most visible in its dystopias and nightmares (Bauman,
2013): Orwell and Huxley’s worlds might have differed in
almost every detail, but they shared a common foreboding of a
tightly controlled world, repressing any expression of individual
freedom. This was the natural extrapolation of the control of high
modernity (Arendt, 1973; Bauman, 2013). Critical theory was
thus aimed at fighting the machinery, with its homogenizing and
implicit totalitarian tendencies, while defending individuality,
freedom and the right to be different (Horkheimer, 1972).
The aim was to liberate individuality from the totalitarian
homogeneity, tearing down the machinery of modernity to
release workers from their factory cages as free individuals.
But as the disciplinary society faded, the result was—to
scholars like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Zygmunt
Bauman—not liberation and freedom, but rather new forms of
discipline and control. These forms of control, we argue, have
since continued their evolution into their current embodiment
in digital platforms.
Subjectivities of Neoliberalism and Digital
Platforms
Digital platforms are promising individual liberation and
freedom, in the form of a bottom-up alternative to both the
market and the state, in which individuals are to self-organize
without central leadership. But this begs the question: who is the
new individual of the platform? What are the subjectivities of the
“user”? Airbnb refers to their users as “citizens”—but who is the
Airbnb citizen? What type of freedom are afforded by the arena
in which these “citizens” meet?
In his analysis of the post-disciplinary society, Bauman (2013)
focused on the ostensible dissolution on the top-down and
Panoptical forms of power characteristic of disciplinary societies.
For Bauman (2013), the transition was characterized by the
dissolution of institutional structures, carrying an unfulfilled
promise of new individual freedoms. For Bauman, the freedoms
handed down to individuals through this transition were
the freedoms of a consumer society, which meant that they
were accompanied by political disempowerment: the space for
mobilizing and acting as political beings were closed down, thus
transforming citizens into mere consumers, without capacities
for political action.
For Bauman, freedom necessarily has a collective basis,
and the individualization of the post-disciplinary society thus
implies a new form of disempowerment. Bauman argues that
individualization and the absence of top-down control are not
equivalent with freedom or even of empowerment of individuals:
just because something is individualized and “bottom-up” its
outcomes are not necessarily in the interest of its constituents or
an expression of their will. Market choice is not a substitute for
political action, and neoliberalization and its associated shift to
individualized forms of politics and power were thus not a shift
toward increasing freedoms.
While neoliberalization brought the construction of certain
neoliberal subjectivities—which for Bauman implied that
its promised freedoms were merely the illusory freedoms
of consumerist individualization—its capacity for shaping
subjectivities were in certain ways relatively coarse. In
comparison, digital technology allows unprecedented flexibility
in constructing the subjectivities of its users. The digital interface
constitute an encoding of an epistemology, representing what
is important and how the user can navigate the world, by what
it include and what it leaves out (Halpern, 2015; Kitchin et al.,
2017). Those representational logics structure the agency and
subjectivity of user, not merely by defining the user role, but
by constructing her as a subject and define, in part, how she
conceives of, relates to, and inhabits her social world. The
digital platform interface thus embodies a kind of ontology:
it defines what the world is and is not. How a user will act
is a function of what affordances and view of the world
that the platform provides and the details of how these are
implemented. While the use is free in the sense that she gets
to choose from a menu of options, what is on the menu, the
order of the options, or the subtle designs that shape how it
is perceived, is provided by the platform. Precise algorithmic
design allows great flexibility to promote certain forms of
subjectivities (Isin and Ruppert, 2015).
An example of the way choice is constructed on platforms can
be found on Netflix. The Netflix recommendation system is often
hailed as an algorithmic success story, argued to be capable of
knowing us “better even than we know ourselves” (Gomez-Uribe
and Hunt, 2016):
Ask users what movies they plan to watch in a few days, and
they will fill the queue with aspirational, highbrow films, such as
black-and-white World War II documentaries or serious foreign
films. A few days later, however, they will want to watch the same
movies the usually want to watch: lowbrow comedies or romance
films. People were consistently lying to themselves (Stephens-
Davidowitz and Pinker, 2017).
This system “in total influences choice for about 80% of hours
streamed at Netflix” (Hallinan and Striphas, 2016). Just like other
comparable recommendation systems, its inner workings are
“wired shut” with patent and trade secret laws, non-disclosure
agreements, non-compete clauses, and other legal instruments
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(Bottando, 2012; Vaidhyanathan, 2012; Hallinan and Striphas,
2016).
Such recommendation systems are both ubiquitous and
central to digital platforms. Their impact is particularly visible
in the city, where the recommendations of platforms like Google
Maps, Airbnb, and ClassPass are powerfully reshaping flows of
people—and thereby the social web of the cities. The platforms
are directing their users to specific places in the city, sorting
geographies through software (Graham, 2005).
This recommendation system has come to intervene in our
daily life, claiming to help us make “better decisions” (Hallinan
and Striphas, 2016). However, the difference between what we
claim to want and how we then act, is not a matter of “not
knowing our true selves,” but an expression of an inner struggle
between who we want to be and our drive to satisfy our immediate
urges. These are both expressions of a true self, but from two
separate systems of evaluation—the Id and Superego, if you
will. Netflix and similar recommendation technologies are in
this sense intervening in an internal struggle, taking the side
of immediate urges and whims, pushing for the immediate
satisfaction of any wishful impulse—regardless of our higher
ambitions. When our worst instincts are pitted against the better
angels of our nature, the algorithms are thus standing firmly
on the side of the instincts. The self is not fixed or definite,
but rather a relational, malleable and porous entity (Conradson,
2016; Kingsbury and Pile, 2016), and digital platforms make
use of precisely this malleability to shape their users into their
most profitable selves. This is not merely an algorithmic solution
to a claimed problem, but an intervention in the conceptual
foundations of culture, implementing a profitable answer to a
difficult question of who we are.
Similarly, social media and computer games are aimed to, as
they say, optimize engagement or what would be called addiction
if it were about drug use. They implement in their technology
whatever instrument or insight for social control they have come
across, whether discovered in casinos or in social psychology
textbooks. This weaponized social psychology is ripe with
unexpected social and psychological externalities. For instance,
it is widely documented that negativity engages (Rozin and
Royzman, 2001), and this is identified by algorithms and used as a
way to drive engagement. This turns our public sphere turn into
an addictive outrage machine, affecting the political and social
climate with hard-to-predict outcomes (Lanier, 2017). While
the subject of neoliberal society is the consumer, thus limiting
political freedom, the platform subject is a significantly more
controlled and reduced subject, whose agency is manufactured
in such a way as to best fit the profit motives of platforms.
Through platform design, the platform citizens’ agency can be
reconfigured as easily as the platform can itself, making the
“conducting of the conduct” of subjects precise and efficient
(Vanolo, 2019).
Panopticon, Synopticon, and the Social
Synopticon
Central to understanding governmentalities of societies is to
consider the way they structure surveillance and control (Gane,
2012). Foucault (1977) encapsulated the structure of control
in disciplinary societies through Bentham (1995) metaphor of
the Panopticon: a guard watching over the prisoners from a
central watch tower. But the self-organization of digital platforms
is promising a decentralized, leaderless society without central
guard towers—does this imply a society without surveillance and
discipline? If not, how do we understand the dominant mode of
surveillance and enforcement of discipline of platforms?
Bauman (2013) characterization of the individualization
brought with the fading of disciplinary societies again provides
a starting point for tracing the antecedents of the platform
govermentalities. Bauman’s theory of individualization came
with an analysis of the new forms of surveillance and discipline
for which the metaphor of the Panopticon were no longer
sufficient. He wrote of a Synopticon: mass media, and television
in particular, had brought a society in which the many watch
and admire the few. The Synopticon produced human beings
who control themselves through self-control to fit neatly into
capitalist society, by modeling themselves to the televised ideals.
With this, the spectacle again takes the place of surveillance, but
without losing disciplining power; obedience not by coercion, but
through enticement and seduction. Control thus takes the form
of the exercise of free will; we admire and follow the examples we
see without someone telling us we must do so.
The Panopticon was founded on the notion of a single guard
watching over the many prisoners, and the Synopticon is the
mode in which the many can watch and admire the few. Within
contemporary society, however, a new model is growing in
significance: the social Synopticon of digital platforms, in which
the many watch the many. This is in part enabled by the way that
social media provide ways to interact and give feedback through
comments and likes, in practice providing tools that afford the
policing of identity expressions. Sundén (2002) describes this as a
mirror, through which we view ourselves in the eyes of others,
using this image to “write ourselves into being,” relating our
story about who we are to the social structures we see around
us. This social Synopticon is carried out in ways that are tightly
bound up with the design of the platforms, and in particular
various forms of social indicators of reputation and standing
(Ert et al., 2016).
Snapchat, one of the currently most popular apps among
young users, is an excellent source of such examples. The
platform has implemented multiple measures inspired by social
psychological research, for instance the so called Snapstreak.
Snapstreak is a measure of the number of consecutive days that
you and a friend have sent direct snaps messages back and forth.
Streaks are thus tangible, almost physical, proofs of friendship,
as well as important status markers as they ostensibly provide a
measure of popularity. Many teens invest significant time and
effort in creating long streaks, which are awarded with fire or
mountain icons, and losing a streak can be a devastating blow—
an expression of disinterest. For the Snapchat engineers, the aim
of this is, of course, to push users to return daily and spend more
time on the app thus being more exposed to advertising. It is
hard to predict the long-term social consequences of such a large-
scale psychological experiment in which human insecurities and
desires are gamified for corporate profits.
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Foucault and Self-Organization as the New
Laissez-Faire
Foucault’s (2008) lectures on biopolitics include an analysis of the
notion of laissez-faire, which prove useful for deconstructing also
the notion of self-organization. Foucault traced the conceived
opposition between the “bottom-up” of the market and the
“top-down” of the state to a transition in the late eighteenth
century when scholars of the state and social order contemplated
the idea of a creating a self-regulating market. With this shift,
the market started to appear as something that “obeyed and
had to obey “natural,” that is to say, spontaneous mechanisms”
(Foucault, 2008, p. 31). This brought a new relationship between
the state and market, empowering the market while putting limits
on the powers of the state. This is the roots of the notion of
“laissez-faire,” implying that a free market is the natural state,
while government power is seen as unnatural. Foucault saw in
this notion a “naive naturalism”: as Polanyi (1944) famously
argued, the market did not emerge spontaneously; it had to
be constructed. Competition and market freedom thus did not
come about naturally, and, as Foucault argues, continuously
have to be monitored and subjected to governmental “control,
constraint, and coercion” (2008, p. 6). This means that,
ostensibly paradoxically , “economic freedom . . . and disciplinary
techniques are completely bound up with each other” (2008, p.
67). Competition and its “game, mechanisms, and effects [are]
not at all natural phenomena” (Foucault, 2008, p. 120).
This means that the role of government in neoliberalism
“should not be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with
permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention” (2008, p. 132).
Neoliberalization means not that the state steps back but rather
that its techniques of control take on market forms. Audits,
indicators and rankings are for Foucault examples of the way the
state can promote competition and thereby compel self-discipline
and self-surveillance. This form of control is based on tuning
and shifting the market competition, using flexible and market-
based forms of control, while concealing and de-politicizing
through technical coding, which modifies the competition within
the market, rather than regulating top-down. An example of
this are the international indexes and rankings provided by
institutions like the World Bank, and used by companies around
the world to decide with which markets to engage. Such indexes
are described as objective and level playing fields, within which
nations and institution can compete for global capital, in line
with the neoliberal and individualist ideal of free entrepreneurial
competition (Harvey, 1989). However, the indexes are also ways
to promote a market agenda, making the reality of the indexes
far from as objective and technical as is claimed. This can be seen
in a recent instance involving the World Bank’s Ease of Doing
Business index. Over the last 10 years, Chile has plummeted in
the index, going from 25th to 55th place in the ranking—despite
the fact that no major policy change had taken place. What
had, however, taken place in Chile was the election of a socialist
president, Michelle Bachelet. Closer inspection revealed that
subtle tweaking in the definition of the index was causing Chile
to alternate between climbing and falling in the ranking, as the
nation alternated between Bachelet and conservative Sebastián
Piñera. This shows how rankings provide ways to technically
encode political perspectives, in order to promote certain policies
and agendas (Zumbrun and Talley, 2018).
The idea that self-organizing systems are spontaneous, while
top-down control is artificial, is essentially a return of the notion
of “laissez-faire” in new clothing. Just like the market was seen
as something that “obeyed and had to obey “natural,” that is to
say, spontaneous mechanisms” (Foucault, 2008, p. 31), so does
this broader category of leaderless complex systems. Foucault’s
deconstruction of laissez-faire applies equally well here: self-
organization, just like markets, “should not be identified with
laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity, and
intervention” (2008, p. 132). In the case of platforms, this
vigilance is carried out not by governments, but by the platform
companies—who in turn partially outsource it to the users
themselves. Digital platforms are far from disintermediated: they
are constituted by a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting
information, nudging and surveilling, with the ultimate goal
of benefiting their owners (Weinmann et al., 2016; Marres,
2017). The user is always audited, and manipulated in behavioral
experiments with the aim of learning how to best steer and nudge
the users in profitable directions. Even Wikipedia, the basis of the
dreams of “Wikitopia,” on closer examination has a significant
amount of top-down efforts in the forms of management,
surveillance and intervention (Uitermark, 2015). The Wikimedia
Foundation that supports Wikipedia, has over the years come to
play a bigger role, often pushing or crowding out initiatives by
collectives of volunteers (Rijshouwer, 2019).
Central to “self-organization” and “complexity” as theoretical
concepts is an inherent notion of spontaneity. The emergent
patterns observed in these systems tend to be seen as natural,
or even inevitable. That phenomena that spring from mass-
interactive systems are hard to link to specific causal roots is
taken as a sign that they are “spontaneous”—as if micro-level
causes were not just as much a function of external constraints
and conditions. But just like markets, platform self-organization
has to be constructed. The notions that digital platforms
are “social” and that they enable “disintermediated” forms of
interaction are embodying the same naïve naturalism as Foucault
identified in the notion of “laissez-faire.” While platforms are
marketed under the notion of “making technology social,” their
actual impact tends rather to be to make the social technically
mediated by transforming modes of interaction into quantified
and datafied forms that permit control through intervention and
manipulation (Van Dijck and Poell, 2013). Social technology thus
constitutes a centralization of the modalities of social interaction,
giving private institutions the power to nudge and shape our very
modes of communication. Social media are tools and methods
for the social world, employing quantification that distorts the
social reality and carries ideological choices in their technical
codification (Feenberg, 2002).
One way of understanding this is through the literature on
behavioral economics, where idea of “nudging” was developed
(Thaler et al., 2013). Through this lens, digital platforms embody
“choice architectures” which drive the user’s behavior by shaping
the contexts in which they make decisions. While choice
architectures are inescapable—our decision-making always takes
place in a given context and with limited information—nudging
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Törnberg and Uitermark Complex Control
is the rigorous process of designing the architectures to alter
behavior in predictable ways. This shaping may take place
through modifying what information is presented, what the
options are, what the default choices are, or by creating different
forms of implicit or explicit awards, scores or ratings. Ratings
and scorings are particularly salient examples that are frequently
used to “gamify” and nudge users toward certain behavior
(Vanolo, 2019).
Examples of the way ratings and scoring shape social life
can be seen in the way “quantified self” (Lupton, 2016) systems
like FitBit are nudging us to measure our productivity, health,
and well-being, with the implicit imperative to self-regulate and
optimize in relation to e.g., health care, education, and workplace
productivity (Vanolo, 2019). A less subtle example is the way
ratings are encoded and employed to create decentralized forms
of “self-governance” that is found in the various Chinese social
credit systems that assign scores to citizens based on their
behavior (Liang et al., 2018). These constitute expansions of
traditional credit score systems to take into account additional
data to rate an individual, and thereby shape his or her behavior
in line with the interests of the Chinese state. There are
several such systems currently in operation, generally using
data on consumption behavior, wealth, social connection, etc.,
to calculate a score. There are furthermore currently attempts
being made at unifying a number of different social credit
scores into a single “social trust,” which will provide a publicly
available rating of citizens. The social ratings have a range
of consequences, from the success of one’s visa applications
to being displayed on online dating platforms. This makes
it a powerful tool for shaping individual behavior, while
remaining a seemingly decentralized form of self-governance,
as it becomes part of individuals’ everyday social lives
(Vanolo, 2019).
This notion of self-organization as natural often takes the form
of stripping problematic outcomes from their conflictual and
power-struggle dimensions. For instance, digitization is widely
observed to have brought the ubiquity of highly asymmetric
“long-tailed” distributions, in which a few actors receive a
majority of the resources of the digital platforms—whether
income, attention, or influence. While spatial structures tends
to bring normal distributions (Feynman, 1964), the networked
architecture of digital media tends to bring about extremely
uneven distributions (Castellani and Rajaram, 2016). This
could—and arguably should—be cast as the outcome of a political
design choice, but it tends to instead be seen as an inherent
aspect of digital technology. Researchers describe it as following
from foundational micro-properties of networked systems, such
as “preferential attachment,” i.e., the increased likelihood for
nodes to connect to more well-connected hubs (Barabási and
Albert, 1999). The fact that the platform design creates the micro
dynamics of preferential attachment, which then in turn produce
the problematic macro level outcomes, is disregarded. As Krivý
(2018) puts it, this is the politics of the “end of politics.” Thereby,
the unequal outcomes of self-organizing systems are stripped
of their political, conflictual and power dimensions, and cast as
inevitable and natural.
Complex Control
Together, these points illustrate the way digital platforms
emphasize forms of control that constitute a departure from
previous forms of governmentality. To draw the genealogy of the
new dominant mode of control that is traced by these points,
we turn to Deleuze’s (1992) conceptualization of the transition
of power that was part of the transformation from disciplinary to
post-disciplinary societies.
In Deleuze’s view, as the disciplinary society faded by the
middle of the 20th, new flexible and mobile techniques of
power, “ultrarapid forms of apparently free-floating control”
(Deleuze, 1992, p. 178), rose in their place. Deleuze argued that
control replaced discipline, and referred to these new societies
as “control societies,” distinguished from disciplinary societies,
with the latter working through fixity and confinement and
the former through mobility and speed. While discipline, as
high modernity more broadly, was based on fixed form and
heavy architectural structure, control is constantly modulated—
it can be open or closed, enabling movement for some while
immobilizing others. This was founded on new, more flexible
technologies. While the disciplinary societies were founded on
technologies of incarceration and total institutions, the control
societies were founded on “a third generation of machines,
with information technology and computers” (Deleuze, 1992,
p. 180). Digital systems thus enable the same evolution as
can be seen in contemporary capitalism at large, combining
flexibility and speed of control, making it “short-term and rapidly
shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded,
whereas discipline was long-term, infinite, and discontinuous”
(Deleuze, 1992, p. 181). While Deleuze overstated epochal
shifts—he wrote at the dawn of the era of mass incarceration
and underestimated the extent to which brute force would
continue to buttress power (Wacquant, 2010; Sassen, 2014)—
he was prescient in other respects in elaborating how the early
forms of computer and information systems that existed at
the time of his writing remolded power in the same ways as
they did capitalist production: from heavy and structured, with
the fixed boundaries and confinement, to flexible, dispersed
and fluid.
But the control seen in digital platforms, the outlines of
which we can already glimpse in the analyses above, seems
to have moved beyond even what Deleuze described. With
progress of digital technology since Deleuze’s (1992) writings,
the technological shaping and nudging of behavior can now be
exercised in more sophisticated, nimble and elusive ways than
ever before. Digital platforms can constantly shift underneath
our feet. It is not only the pace of change of new technology
that has changed with digitalization, but also feedbacks of
evaluation of how new innovations affect the social web in which
they become part. Complexity Science approaches, in the form
of sophisticated data analysis, A/B testing, and instantaneous
evaluation of the social practices evolving on digital platforms
enable platform companies to shape their users’ behavior
with unprecedented precision and control. The feedback loop
between evaluation and changing of technology (Lane, 2016)
has become increasingly rapid, as technology owners have
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Törnberg and Uitermark Complex Control
precise and detailed data on how their products become part
of a larger sociotechnical context. This has brought perhaps
the most important shift in the expression of power from
the control society identified by Deleuze: we are seeing the
rise of a new cybernetics, as control has become scientific in
its application.
Control in the era of digital platforms is expressed not
through top-down command, but through invisible nudging
and shaping of local behavior: it is embedded in the very
rules of interaction; what we may refer to as complex control.
Like in a complex system, the desired outcomes emerge
from micro-interactions, but the difference is that system
designers—iteratively, experimentally, incrementally—develop
and harness features to the extent that they further the interests
of the platform’s owner. As digitization is permitting the
rapid formation of mediated platforms, control increasingly
moves to lower-level strata. This is the power of designed self-
organization. It constitutes a transition from Deleuze’s control,
to letting the outcomes emerge seemingly naturally from the
order of things; power is now expressed as the subtle tuning
of some technical code of a performance indicator, which
brings about a cascade of change among in networks of
interacting players.
While the flexibility and fluidity with which this is carried
out is new, it is not an altogether new form of control.
These transformations are reminiscent of Elias (1969) analysis
of the power transformation of the court of Luis XIV. Elias
observes a transformation of power from the exercise of brute
force to a more subtle and diplomatic game. Luis used the
ceremonies of Versailles to construct a network of social status
that upheld social control. Instead of requiring well-organized
central control of the nobility, the control was distributed,
put into the fabric of interaction, through a status hierarchy
organized around the center of power. Through this, Luis’
interests were upheld not through direct command-and-control,
but as an outcome of the very rules of the game—and the
nobles had little choice but to play this game. Today, the
rules of such games are constructed by highly flexible digital
technology, making the games liquid and capable of expressing
precise control.
Just like the market has been surrounded by notions of
natural, and inevitable, so are the ideas of self-organization
today. This often comes together with a normative dimension,
in which emergence and self-organization is seen as inherently
positive. While emergence in natural systems is natural, in
the sense that the underlying physical laws are timeless
and universal, the rules of our social games are not—
they are constructed and negotiated, and therefore local and
temporal. There is in this sense nothing natural about self-
organization. Part of this naturalization is a tendency toward
seeing emergent phenomena as inevitable, since the outcome
is not the active intention of any of the actors involved,
but rather the outcome of something intangible between the
actors. Neither is there anything inherently good about self-
organization: that a phenomenon emerges bottom-up does not
mean that it embodies the will of its constituents or serves
their interests.
CONCLUSIONS
This paper has revisited work on discipline and control, to
thereby trace the genealogy of, and critically examine, the
governmentalities of the contemporary platform era, identifying
and adapting a number of key concepts to capture the forms of
control inherent to digital platforms.
Platform Subjectivities
Bauman critiqued the notion of freedom in the individualized
society through an examination of the constructed subjectivities
of the neoliberal individual. Digital platforms, similarly, are
powerful technologies for shaping the subjectivities of their
users, providing certain affordances and interfaces that embody
epistemologies shaping what a user is, putting limits on how she
conceives of, relates to, and inhabits the world. While Airbnb
refers to their users as “citizens,” they could not be further from
the political animals of the polis or agora, their capacity for action
being limited to what the platform permits (Arendt, 1958).
Surveillance
Bentham’s/Foucault’s Panopticism of the discipline society, in
which the few watched the many, and Mathiesen’s/Bauman’s
Synopticon of the mass media era, in which the many watched
and admired the few, have now been replaced by a social
Synopticon—in which the many watch the many. Social media
platforms have replaced mass media as the locus of conformity
and self-discipline, as they have grown into important arenas for
the formation and enactment of social identities.
Laissez-Faire Self-Organization
Foucault deconstructed the notion of “laissez-faire,” critiquing
the notion that a free market is somehow the natural state, on
which government power is merely infringing. But the same
idea has resurfaced as part of the notion of “self-organization,
as it contains a value-system in which the outcomes of
uncoordinated and individual decisions are spontaneous and
have to be respected, while collective and coordinated decisions
are controlling and limiting, and thus suspect (Uitermark,
2015). But just like the market, self-organized systems are
constructed, and need to be constantly maintained through
“control, constraint, and coercion” (Foucault, 2008, p. 6). These
narratives of self-organization thus serve merely to naturalize and
hide the forms of control that underlie platforms; there is nothing
natural about self-organization.
These dimensions intertwine to together constitute the
governmentality of digital platforms: what we refer to as complex
control. Deleuze wrote of the shift from the slow and fixed
power to fast, flexible and shifting forms of control, enabled by
early computer technology. With platforms, control has gone
through another qualitative shift, increasingly moving to lower-
level strata: by setting the context and conditions for self-
organization, the order of things emerges seemingly organically
from self-organization. But self-organization itself is organized.
Designers tweak continuously to achieve those types of self-
organization that are compatible with the financial interests of
the platform’s owners. This is the control of digital platforms:
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Törnberg and Uitermark Complex Control
the platform city is the urban embodiment of Deleuze’s (1992)
society of control. Its new instrument of control is horizontal,
decentralized, networked communication.
There is an ostensible paradox at the core of this: the
very notions of bottom-up, contingency, complexity and
unpredictability have become instruments of control within
the governance models informed by complexity science (Krivý,
2018). The association between top-down command-and-control
and oppression runs so deep that describing this new form
of control requires an almost Orwellian language (“freedom is
slavery,” as the newspeak slogan went). But that centralization
was the dominant mode of discipline and control during the
twentieth century should not blind us to the novel forms of
power relations and control enacted through decentralization
and self-organization. While the modern society was founded
on linearity, stable states, and negative feedback, the complex
control of the platform era embraces chaos, positive feedbacks,
and non-linearity.
While digital platforms may seem to create individual
freedom, they in part do so by concealing the pushing, nudging
and pulling that set the context and boundaries for that
individual freedom, and that are at the core of what digital
platforms are. Digital platforms are bundles of rules whose
function is to direct interaction to become “organized” by
enabling certain forms of action while preventing other. Digital
platforms do not bring disintermediation; au contraire, they add
additional mediation by expanding technological control into
new parts of social life. They provide the “choice architecture”
within which we act, and provide the configurations that
determine what is possible—indeed what is thinkable—and what
is not.
This changed understanding of what digital platforms are has
implications not only for how we should view the political claims
of platforms, but also how we study them and the data they
produce. What type of epistemologies are required for a critical
examination of self-organization as a form of control? How do
we critically study platforms through digital data?
So far, the pre-modifier “computational” seems to preclude
“critical.” Computational Social Science is in large part founded
upon Complexity Science, resulting in a naïve naturalist
epistemology that assumes social processes can be studied
through the “data traces” left on digital platforms (Törnberg,
2017). The same naïve naturalism seen in the depoliticization
of self-organization as a political ideal is part of the social
scientific conceptions of data as “raw” or “natural” unprocessed
traces of social processes, central to Computational Social
Science (Marres, 2017). While platforms have become power
hubs pursuing their interests through sophisticated data
manipulation, researchers are studying the data they provide
without consideration of the political economy in which they
were produced. Many scholars interested in digital social
life have been lured by the siren-call of new methods and
abundant digital data to lose their gaze from precisely the
context and conditions underlying the production of these data
(Törnberg and Törnberg, 2018).
This calls for a new critical study of social complexity; a
critical computational science, in which “bottom-up” is not taken
to mean spontaneous, natural or non-political, and in which
conflicts and power-struggles are not erased, but brought to
the fore. There is no such thing as raw data, and there is no
such thing as truly bottom-up: structure and power always come
into play in shaping the context and conditions for interaction.
The role of such a critical complexity science would be the
unveiling of the operation and mechanisms of complex control,
making visible the implicit and hidden forms of power inherent
in social technologies.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
PT conceived the idea and wrote the first draft of the manuscript.
JU discussed and revised the manuscript in several iterations.
All authors contributed to the manuscript revision, read, and
approved the submitted version.
FUNDING
This project has received funding from the European
Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
project ODYCCEUS (grant agreement no. 732942). The
funders had no role in study design, data collection
and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of
the manuscript.
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Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
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Frontiers in Sustainable Cities | www.frontiersin.org 11 March 2020 | Volume 2 | Article 6
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