Ben Grosser: Planning the Exodus from Platform Realism

Thinking about the current state of platforms, I’m reminded of Mark Fisher’s articulation of capitalist realism, the idea that we don’t imagine or build alternatives to capitalism because we can no longer envision a world without it. Big tech, in a few short years, has managed to instill within the public a similar state of platform realism. So many are unable to imagine how global communication, media, search, etc. could ever function without the platforms. Despite a growing malaise, it’s become difficult for many to consider a world without big tech platforms as a viable conception of the future.

That means we undoubtedly need to focus some of our energy towards the building of such alternatives. Users of big tech will need to see, feel, and use new avant-garde technologies that center anti-capitalist pro-public values before they ever abandon big tech platforms en masse. But along the way, we also need to engage the world where they are. With 3 billion+ people already signed on, some of this work should happen inside big tech’s platforms themselves.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds, though, because platforms can be fruitful spaces for cultivating criticality. Whether covertly subversive or overtly confrontational, platform manipulations (such as those that can be enacted via browser extensions, online performance projects, etc.) can prompt users to reconsider the role of these systems currently considered as inevitable parts of the 21st century landscape. By exposing the hidden and hiding the visible, hacktivist art, tactical media, and other related practices can help users question the role of platforms in everyday life. Why are they built this way? Who benefits? Who is made most vulnerable? How could it be different?

Such manipulations can also transform big tech platforms into good spaces for modeling resistance to capitalism, as the platforms themselves embody capitalist values in their most distilled and potent forms. The platforms are encodings of tech bro entrepreneurial ideology, agential systems that enact and amplify their beliefs in the importance of scale, the imperative of growth, and the superiority of the quantitative. Examples include my own projects that alter existing platforms to hide their metrics, to confuse their algorithmic profiling, and to distill their central manipulation mechanisms down to their barest essentials in ways that make them visible and tangible.

Other examples include projects by artists such as Joana Moll or  Disnovation, as well as essential software/platform/code/media studies critiques by thinkers such as Wendy Chun, Safiya Noble, Matthew Fuller, Søren Pold, yourself, and others in our community. The more we can illuminate existing connections between wider societal ills and the ways that big tech models, reifies, and amplifies them, the easier any platform exodus will be.

Decentralization undoubtedly holds some promise for dreams of exodus from big tech platforms. But decentralization on its own is not a panacea. We only need look at speculative finance and libertarian crypto dreams to find clues about who feels most excited about decentralization and why (e.g., it’s not about rebuilding the public or strengthening democracy).

In other words, the problem with platforms isn’t, in all cases, centralization per se. Instead, the negatives we contend with on big tech’s platforms are rooted in their software’s alignment with and embedding of the ideologies of capitalism. Global-scale software-based platforms are reflective of the same profit-focused business values that drive big tech’s executives to build those companies in the first place: growth, scale, more at any cost. This foundation is doomed from the start, as it inevitably leads big tech to treat users as resources to be mined, manipulated, and transformed into profit. It makes expendable user-centric values around privacy and agency.

Instead we need a turn away from the private and a return to the public. Without a private profit motive, many of the problems with big tech platforms would fall away. I say this knowing full-well that making such systems public is by no means a solution by itself. We’ve seen unprecedented corruption of and new justified distrust in public institutions over the last many years. But big tech’s platforms are decidedly anti-public, and this positioning is part of what makes them so damaging to privacy, agency, and democracy.

I think we should also experiment with new platforms (public or non-profit private) that enact decidedly different values than what big tech promotes. For example, what would a platform look like if it actively worked to defuse compulsive use rather than to produce it? Or if it wants less from users rather than more? Or if it encourages conceptions of time that are slow rather than fast?

For me, these ideas point towards a shared set of values to consider as we work to dismantle the control of big tech. These include:

SLOW — We need media that actively and intentionally works against the platform capitalist idea that speed and efficiency is always desirable and productive.

LESS — We need alternatives that advance an anti-scale, anti-more agenda. Facebook’s answer to the negative effects of platform scale post-2016 was to foreground Groups to “give people the power to build community.” Four years later that platform-produced power propelled racism and authoritarianism to new heights, culminating (so far) in a violent insurrection at the US Capitol.

PUBLIC — Social media infrastructure for 3 billion+ users should never be driven by profit or controlled by single individuals. Ditto goods distribution (Amazon), information access (Google), etc.

DECOY — To help produce a culture of platform exodus we need new projects/works that get into the platforms and help users turn themselves away from them.

28 June, 2021,, Urbana, IL USA