From Sea to Cloud, a Cartography of Big Tech Control
For a lot of us who have ‘access’ (and that is still only a little more than half of the world’s population), the internet boils down to simply flipping on the WiFi or data button on our respective laptops, phones, and other devices.
Admittedly, this is an oversimplification. But it illustrates an enduring myth of a seemingly weightless online world, unhinged from real assets. This is anything but the case. Not only is the internet an extraordinarily complicated corpus of hard and soft infrastructure, but this vast assemblage has become the latest dominion of control for Big Tech.
In a series of YouTube videos, Google employees take us through the material bedrock of their vast empire; data centers, deep undersea cables, and various aspects of cloud infrastructure. The incantation, “the engine of the internet”, is invoked multiple times as these videos stress upon Google’s unique technocratic prowess to maintain such infrastructure. The ownership of such vital material assets is presented as a foregone conclusion, with states or ‘communities’ settling for cameos in the process.
In this month’s issue of DataSyn, we trace the gargantuan footprint of Silicon Valley, from its undersea cables to the cloud, analyzing the ‘network’ in Big Tech’s network-data complex. The continuing geopolitical hold of the US on internet infrastructure has been superseded by geoeconomic motivations, now reflected in the privatization of the global internet architecture through US-based tech companies. Policy discourses on ‘breaking up Big Tech’ and half-hearted attempts to grapple with the data commons seem to sidestep the all-important question of the future of the internet as a global public good. A free and equal platform society calls for both network and data architectures to be governed appropriately.
Far away from the brightly colored bicycles of Mountain View, California, we explore a different, subterranean, trend. Even as digital labor platforms invent newer ways to discipline their workforces, women workers are reaching out to one another for connection and solidarity in important ways. In the process, they are trying to challenge another illusion perpetuated by the digital economy – that online laboring is somehow miraculously free of the messy inefficiencies of reproducing life.
Lastly, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge the big happening of the tech world. In a desperate bid to escape the deluge of backlash and criticism in the past months, Facebook reinvented itself into Meta. The internet of course has had a field day with riffs abounding on the Zuckerbergian metaverse. Do check out our own humble contribution to this in Post-Script down below.
The DataSyn Team
Social Relations under Surveillance Capitalism: Is Solidarity Still Possible?
In her seminal book Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Aihwa Ong detailed how even as capitalism subordinated Malay women workers to mere profit-making machines, they found the means to forge solidarities. In her piece, Bama Athreya traces recent efforts of women workers organizing in the platform economy, highlighting the constraints of collectivizing within a system of technological controls and surveillance that is designed to keep workers from even meeting one another.
THE BIG EXCESS
Digging Deeper: Assessing Big-Tech’s Capture of the Internet’s Infrastructure
We turn our attention to the tangible real estate of the internet that Big Tech commands and why it should matter to the Global South. In this revealing article, Tanay Mahindru offers us a peek under the hood of the internet and reveals Big Tech’s capture of the very levers of cyberspace through the online lifecycle of one of the internet’s most beloved content genres – cat videos.
The Sins and Synergies Lounge
Taking a broad sweep through history, from neolithic hunter-gatherers to contemporary anxieties about automation, Aaron Benanav traces the history of work and analyzes what galvanizes humans to manage their daily 9 to 5 in this review of James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.
Speaking of books, on this episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, Mark McGurl explains how Amazon is returning to its initial ‘disruptive’ moment in the world of publishing in the worst way possible.
In a reflective long read on algorithms and Google Maps, Leijia Hanrahan goes beyond questions of surveillance, posing the existentially loaded question “Where are you?” Read on to find out the unsettling answers that Google has for you.
As Bama Athreya’s piece in this issue highlights, Big Tech platforms have employed digital technologies to devise ever new means to control and discipline their workforces. What innovative forms of contestation have workers resorted to in response? Li Jin, Scott Duke Kominers and Lila Shroff offer an overview of just these efforts in the Harvard Business Review.
Finally, an important and affirming development that may have skipped your radar. The Waitangi Tribunal of New Zealand successfully appealed against the e-commerce provisions of the CPTPP, proving it to be in violation of the data sovereignty rights of the Maori community. Explore the critical and radical idea of indigenous data sovereignty in this throwback recommendation – a 2016 edited book by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor.
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