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Will Chinese medicine cure Big Tech excess?
The digital shapes the zeitgeist of our era. It also breathes life into twenty first century capitalism. The centerpiece here is the story of Silicon Valley gone astray; of the big bad tech corporation, and the little people who get trampled by it; of a data dystopia that looms over our liberties. And thus, the tropes write themselves.
Corporate power in the current epoch is rooted in control over valuable data and data-based intelligence. It is about parasitic profiteering that bears profound outcomes for workers and communities, as well as for development, equity, and justice. The impact of unbridled digital capitalism has been particularly devastating for nations and people of the Global South. A regulatory wild west in the digital economy has served powerful countries and their corporations well. The G7 has just announced Digital Trade Principles calling for free cross-border data flows, unabashedly celebrating the deal as a breakthrough for global rules of the game. Adopting a moral high ground, they have denounced protectionism – impervious to the privileges they arrogate to themselves by preserving the status quo. In the Big Tech-controlled platform economy, developing countries have little choice; they must open up their borders to foreign platforms and their data simply has to flow out. Techno-sovereignty, it seems, is the colonizer’s prerogative.
But slowly, and surely, regulatory institutions are reinventing themselves in the Global South. Even as Big Tech denies any wrongdoing, using every trick in the bag to subvert investigations by national agencies, India’s Supreme Court has held that Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart must face anti-trust inquiries.
At IT for Change, we have spent years decoding the digital economy and its discontents, understanding what they mean for the Global South with committed research and policy engagement. With DataSyn, we aim to deliver the same level of quality analysis in bite-sized content to your inbox every month.
Readers of DataSyn can expect an original and relevant take countering the big narrative about platform behemoths – well beyond flash-in-the-pan outrage, attentive to the deafening silences that conceal corporate impunity, and centring hope for digital democracy. Our origin story reflects this motivation.
This debut issue breaks ground with two analytical essays. In the first piece, Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami trace the response of the Chinese state to homegrown Big Tech, drawing lessons for how to go beyond the Westphalian regulatory playbook. The second, by Satyavrat Krishnakumar and Amay Korjan, analyzes worker-led platform initiatives and takes a reality check on the pathway for alternatives.
We seem to share our journey with uncanny bedfellows. Former US President, Donald Trump, recently announced his own alternative social media platform to “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech”. Ironic, but also instructive of the need to separate the wheat from the chaff in our critique of power.
We invite you to read, engage, and journey with us.
The DataSyn Team
THE NEW DIVERGENCE
Fixing Digital Capitalism: Learning from China’s Playbook
Anita Gurumurthy & Nandini Chami
The past few months have seen a media storm around various tech policy developments coming out of China. A record fine of $2.8 billion on Alibaba, rules that could break up online digital payment platforms owned by Ant Group and Tencent, and guidelines for algorithm usage.
This essay unpacks the overtures of the Chinese state against its home-grown Big Tech companies as well as concurrent regulatory developments in the US and EU to show why a new digital deal needs much more than hackneyed economic liberalism.
Worker-Led Alternatives: A Line of Hope for New Platform Futures
Satyavrat Krishnakumar & Amay Korjan
The market hegemony and capture of vital data infrastructure by dominant platforms went from strength to strength during the pandemic. While this made headlines, there was little coverage of the solidarities and new imaginaries that platform workers are conceiving for themselves in these times. How are workers in the Global South standing up to the tech giants of the world? What would it take for them to put up a meaningful fight? This essay documents some of these approaches, their challenges, and the nature of the struggle ahead.
The Sins and Synergies Lounge
In another step towards world domination, the biggest tech companies – rather unsurprisingly – will soon have sole ownership of the world’s biggest data pipelines. Read more on Spectrum.
In rather disturbing news, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are creating vast, underpaid assembly lines of microwork utilizing refugee labor across the Global South. Read about how Big Tech is powered by a covert crowd of the system’s castoffs.
Squid Game still on your mind? Check out this interview with philosopher Byung-Chul Han, where he talks about how social media makes the world around us disappear and what the Netflix sensation can tell us about society’s future.
Need a pick me up? Apoorva Tadepalli’s 2019 long read for Real Life on how Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project can be a blueprint for living online restores much needed hope in the revolutionary potential of the online publics. Go learn how to be a flâneur on the internet!
Read too much? Tune into This Machine Kills -- Jathan Sadowski and Edward Ongweso Jr.’s podcast about technology and the political economy. If you’re a first time listener, we highly recommend the episode on a decolonial ethic for tech and labor.
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