by Mike Pepi
Digital platforms remake our connection to the everyday, and have assumed an outsize role in aesthetic and political mediation. With these new players come new critiques. Yet platforms seem to be more than just new institutions; something else is there. How do we respond?
I keep several screenshots on my computer’s desktop. There are a few I distinctly recall snapping up and dragging down. The two that linger most in my mind are just text from an article: Digital media appeals to younger artists as a more democratic space that isn’t tied up with a system of financial value, Something has to take the concept of the avant-garde forward. […] How can you address the contemporary without addressing the digital? Every time I read those words I’m taken back to that moment of breathless optimism. For me it marks the height of our techno-utopian recent past. I recall thinking that one day I would look back on this platform ephemera and be separated from those ideas by some historical break.
This was the time when Google was to save the world, Facebook was to connect us all, and the solutionists from any number of Silicon Valley insurgents might remake our society — first on the “free” web, then on their heavily-engineered proprietary platforms. Yet these quotes spoke to something more. Unchecked optimism about the role of technology had crossed over and joined up with the art market’s insatiable drive for the new. The museum and the gallery would be torn down, just like Blockbuster and Encyclopedia Britannica. Only this time this triumphant advance wasn’t from the likes of Duchamp and Broodthaers but Zuckerberg and Thiel.
We’ve only just begun to process a historical shift whereby an old form, the institution, has begun to be intermingled, and often replaced, by a somewhat new arrangement: the platform. This action has necessarily caused an equal reaction: organizations that started out as digital platforms are now performing central services and consuming resources once reserved for institutions. My mail still arrives by US post, but the service is hemorrhaging funds as I check my email compulsively. My commute takes place over crumbling infrastructure, while riders shift to ridesharing apps powered by 1099 contractors, leaving labor protections weaker. Telecommunications firms and some tech giants, such as Google, see to it that I have “public” Wi-Fi while venture capital investments lure the greatest minds from our teaching universities to lead teams that remake the built environment. A small team at Facebook knows more about what happens to the American electorate than most groups inside DC. With this, we’ve come to recognize a new hybrid entity: the platforms that appeared on the historical stage as light and flexible have come to be entrenched, weighed down by the responsibilities once assigned to institutions.
The intention was to correct discursive gaps within an institutional climate overrun with techno-utopianism. We had been trained to critique institutions, but what about platforms? The vocabulary of critique would have to be rebuilt to adjust to new targets. This issue, which will unfurl over the next few months, assembles some of those voices. It moves in different directions. Our subject is the hybrid institutional form, that heavy machinery infused with the weight of the institution and the agility of the platform. There are few final answers; but the problem we’ve sketched is getting harder to ignore.
The term “platform” has always described some type of mediation. Today the term connotes a mediation over digital networks. The platform began its ascent just as a few key material conditions appeared. With the low cost of transmission and storage of information, as well as the mass marketization of the consumer internet, the promise of networked communication made the platform an organizational mode worthy of emulation. Benjamin Bratton defines platforms as highly technical forms that do not plan themselves, but allow plans to be realized upon them. In theory, they are designed to be light, flexible, and temporary. The opposite is true of the institution, which, though various in its appearance, is predicated on permanence, structure, and consistency. Massive corporate actors like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon feel like institutions — economically, they are larger than many nations. But despite their prominence, they are just larger accumulations of many platforms operating according to the organizing principles of computer networks. These digital networks are asynchronous, establishing a “many-to-many” presence unlike any institution before. The asynchronous platform is, formally, modular and decentralized — any one part can be swapped out with little changed to the larger whole. But an institution will arrive with a fixed set of ideas imprinted upon its structure. Institutions change, but when the pieces move a wake is left.