Platform as commons

Power and public good

Most governments, as agents of power, bother about creating and maintaining public good only so far as it helps the cause of those in power. Governments are shaped by the need of those in power to remain in power. Govt can afford to bother about public good only when the electorate is wide enough – when there are many essential and influentials. (Refer ‘The dictator’s handbook‘ for the concept, or this video for a quicker appreciation of it.)

With the rise of digital platforms we have seen rise of super rich, super powerful corporations and individuals. Their rise has contributed to the the deepening of inequality. They have  boldly ‘disrupted’ lives of many for concentrated profit for a few people. Economically, platforms are disenfranchising people while creating a few super powerful elites.

What does it mean for democratic power?

Rising inequality means fewer ‘essentials’ needed for rulers to remain in power. (In a dictatorship typically, there is a ruler, a few essentials and many ‘interchangeables’: Whereas in a democracy, there is no absolute ruler, ideally there are many influencers, many essentials and few interchangeables.) Rising inequality directly affects the power and leverage that people hold. It leads to dictatorial power relationships. In a sense, in the domains of knowledge, markets and online relationships, Google, Amazon & Facebook are quite dictatorial, even if their beliefs are egalitarian. They can dictate the terms of accesses to their services. Indeed, have you ever thought of disagreeing to their ‘terms of conditions’? Is there a space to negotiate? and what happens when you start depending on these services completely, but cannot engage with these services meaningfully to negotiate with them?

When power relations are conducive for dictatorships, why would governments or corporates bother about the public good? What incentive do they have?

Platform monopolies are a threat to democracies. The possible knee jerk reaction to their hegemony, would be as well.

Facebook, Google, Amazon… are behemoths shaping our world. They are doing so not for public good, but rather private gains. Consider Amazon’s stock market performance for example. Why would people be investing in a loss making company? They are doing so for the long punt. People are investing in a monopoly of tomorrow in the form of Amazon. They are investing in Bezos’ vision of a complete monopoly. They want a piece of that monopoly’s obscenely fat profit. That is why investors allow him to put all the money at its disposal to expand its reach and locking consumers in its value chain. Consider the impending value explosion when Amazon can start leveraging the IOT (Internet of things) at its disposal – usage, user preferences, supply chain intelligence, user financial wherewithal, spy called alexa, vendor data… It is about to become the single biggest market that consumers across the world would have to deal with. It will not make economical sense for consumers to pursue an alternative. Amazon plans to be the default platform of economic exchange. Do you really want the complete global market to be owned by a few individuals?

Amazon hopes to become the ONLY global market platform for a majority of earthlings.

Similarly – Google is almost the ONLY global definitive knowledge and information platform.

Facebook hopes to be the ONLY global online relationship building platform.

Thank god, Uber faltered and hopefully can’t be the ONLY mobility platform.

Uber faltered because it very visibly threatens existing economic exchanges and consequently current livelihoods. It is visibly pitting one labour force against another. Amazon does too, though it is surprising that it hasn’t faced public wrath yet. Wars have happened for lesser losses of power & economic leverage. Consider the Knights Templar in 13th Century, the early European Banking Platform. They were burned at the stake by France’s king then, to take back the financial leverage that he had ceded to them. It is not 13th Century anymore, but it isn’t an utopia either. There are massive number of people who are getting left behind with the platform revolution and they are bound to react, in modern ways perhaps, hopefully peacefully, but there will be a reaction.

The most plausible reaction could be regulations. There is a trade-off there. The libertarian ideals of most of these platform owners meant that the digital realm was a egalitarian & non-judgemental space for conversations, exchanges. That libertarian ideal is under threat from regulations. China has successfully managed to create an internet for its citizen that is heavily censored and spied through. Unfortunately, other governments would be just as keen to use the economic loss to legacy businesses due to platforms as an excuse to change the nature of platform instead – from trustworthy exchanges to tools of surveillance.

Understanding the power of platforms

I define platforms as enabling environments/ infrastructures, that –

  1. Gives egalitarian access to other people/ services through
  2. Unique and valuable exchanges that would not be possible outside of that platform
  3. And allow people to improve upon, enrich the platform – either with APIs or engagement

Historically, such platforms were either pre-existing, or created and maintained by governments or community collectives. No private enterprise had the incentive or wherewithal to create platforms. Consider a road that gives access to people to move through that would not have been possible without it – a road is a platform then. It was cost intensive to build, so governments built it. It was a public good. It was part of the ‘commons’.

Consider a river. Communities access water for their use through it. Communities built dams, turbines, irrigation channels for the benefit of the collective. As such, a river is a platform for access to water that is also a part of ‘commons’. No one, in right conscience, would think of owning it.

Consider the 6 inch of top soil that the earth is blessed with. Without it humanity would not have existed. It is the platform of food supply. It enables farming, forests and the food cycle. No one can own it, unless they want to destroy humanity.

Consider the renewable energy decentralised grid that is powering much of Denmark. In this grid, people with solar panels installed on their roofs, sell their surplus electricity to the grid and can tap into that grid electricity when they are in want. Now this is a platform with an exchange of electric power too. Many private companies facilitated its creation, installation and maintenance.  However, they don’t stake a claim on the electricity thus generated. They understand themselves as enablers, not usurpers or rent-seekers.

Soil, water, electricity, roads… these are fundamentally empowering platforms, the access to which is a fundamental human right.

In the 21st century, similar access to knowledge, financial exchange, access to markets, relationships-at-distance… are all fundamental human rights.

Can you imagine a life today without being plugged into these various platforms? Such a life is possible, but it would be very disadvantageous for the minority activist. Without access to google & FB powered intelligence and communication, without amazon’s substantially cheaper goods, without uber’s efficient mobility, without convenience of credit cards/e-money, the minority activist is at a severe disadvantage.

So if these accesses are that crucial, can we trust them with far removed private interests? Typically, a white male from California is embedding his biases in these platform’s algorithms. A few of these men own the vast platforms that men and women from the farthest corners of the globe depend on. Even if they were to be epitome of moral righteousness (which they clearly aren’t), they are still just individuals amenable to influence of their investors, their immediate social circle, the government where they operate from. Consider Facebook’s misuse to influence election in US for example.

There is a fundamental conflict of interest. Lack of subjectivity allows for evils such as hate speech to gain access. But imposing a certain subjectivity curtails freedom of speech for another set of people, perhaps as an unintended consequence. There is no easy way out of this catch-22 situation. Consider the example of facebook banning breastfeeding pictures. It had to #freethenipple eventually. But the same issue will get vastly different responses in more conservative countries. How does a global platform manage such differences? Facebook is trying its luck with denial – “we are not a media company“.
But soon enough, it will have to take sides. Like when Scott Galloway implies for it to be American first!

In his otherwise excellent talk here exhorting these big platforms to be broken up, he brings in nationalism and suggests a smaller solution – to break them up. If global platforms earn revenues through global operations, why should they put any one nation first? Why should they prioritise paying tax in one country? They must give back in every country where it gains from. To be a global entity is to be globally accountable, globally responsible, globally adaptable.
Secondly, the solution of breaking the companies up – is inadequate. If the ownership does not change, what difference does it make if Zuckerberg presides over one large corporate or a dozen smaller ones to the same effect?

Besides, the integration of amazon, aws, alexa etc makes sense. It makes markets more efficient. The aggregate efficiency due to integration increases, which is good news for Humans who are going to soon suffer with human-excess-led climate change.

Scott Galloway has a soft corner for capitalism and its potential. He doesn’t want to see the obvious socialist ramifications of his argument.

Platforms as commons ruled by the principle of self-rule

The integrated platforms are powerfully useful for all. They should not be broken up.  The ownership has to be broken up. More accurately, they should not be privately owned at all. Private ownership creates disparity of wealth, invites biases and prioritizes innovations that serve the needs of elite, instead of the majority. And unlike other businesses, platforms are critically important for civic life. Would you want water, road or soil to be privatised? For the 21st century that list will include mobility, relationship, intelligence and market platforms too.

Ideally Bezos, Zuck and Sergey should create a plan to divest their companies’ ownership to the commons. They should steward their companies into becoming true platforms relinquishing their direct control. If Buffett and Bill Gates can give away their wealth, why can’t these platform makers instead give away control? Keep the wealth created thus far. Let the future wealth go into commons to make the platforms more resilient, useful and responsive to the diversity of the global exchanges.

Imagine all these platforms employing open source principles, becoming openly accessible, and evolving with the people they serve.

Imagine, all cab drivers, logistic companies, courier companies having access to the Uber algorithm, modified to serve their needs; modified to give every driver and rider a say in formulating the policies that govern them  and others like them in their locality. Imagine, all businessmen and individuals with access to amazon-based markets, governed by direct digital referendum based consensus making.

Amazon and Uber cut out the middle men. In turn they themselves became giant middlemen. It is time we do away with them too.

A solution like this would not have been possible 5 years ago. But with blockchain technology, there is a potential for mass democratic participation in platform management.

Blockchain based democratic platform management

Blockchain is an elegant solution to an important societal problem Earth is facing. It’s most promising feature is its ability to enable strangers to cooperate and trust each other. It enables ‘decentralised consensus’. This is a powerful ability that, I believe, has the biggest possible impact in democratic processes in every aspect of civic enterprise.

This technology would enable governing of platform by direct participation and consensus among users and vendors possible.

Watch this interesting documentary by Mr. Jeremy Rifkin. He talks about the three essential enterprises that shape us – energy, communications and mobility. And with digital technology and principles of open source, humanity can finally increase the aggregate efficiencies, productivity of human enterprise and bring down marginal costs of these enterprises down to almost zero. Why does this matter? Because, without this idea, we are at an economic and ecological dead-end.

Again like Mr. Scott Galloway, Mr. Rifkin too is afraid to unsettle the capitalists and shies away from taking his argument to logical conclusion. (look how he cleverly deflects the TTIP question. I won’t hold it against him though. He has a great idea and he needs to sell that idea to humanity. Tact is more powerful than hardheadedness when you want to bring about real change.)

Now consider this – every conceivable platform – energy platform, utilities platform, knowledge platform, mobility platform, market platform… Consider all platform are components of collectively owned infrastructure for humanity. Like with renewable energy platform in Europe, there might be an initial cost that consumers and vendors would have to pay in the form of taxes to help build them or buy them off. But then the marginal cost of running them in the future is minimal.

Imagine that world – People being able to access platform services in their context whenever they want, on their terms and without the fear of losing control of one’s own agency, one’s own destiny.

I believe that that would be a better world – a world which won’t depend on a single currency (read the first section on the link to understand why single currency ‘money’ is not that good an idea). The integrated platforms would enable seamless exchanges of products and services, the utility of the individual to the collective becoming the currency du jour.

The world would not need the ‘universal basic income’ that is being touted now as the solution to the impending mass class of ‘useless people’ and the Goliathan inequality that AI revolution will engender. If we charter an integrated platform access to all humanity as a human right, we will, in a sense, enable basic welfare of all individuals. Rifkin’s view of bringing the marginal cost down to zero is critical here… which means that there is gradual upfront cost of creating that infrastructure, that integrated platform of platforms. But once that is done, the costs would be manageable.

To make it a reality, it will require a ‘disruptive’ shift in corporate ownership, structures of governance and redrawing of notional national boundaries. All tall orders. It is a humongous project that would pan the globe and require cooperation among all governments. Not an easy task at all. But I am convinced of it being an essential disruption. Let me know if you have a better idea.

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Essential Mutations for the 21st Century Brands

1. Rise of the walls

21st century weather report

The world is reeling under the hate wave of right wing xenophobia, binaries of ‘Us vs. Them‘. The hate wave is projected to continue and expand as people turn their back on ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which had yielded unequal fruits for the globalised citizens of the 20th Century. While the globalisation opened up the barriers for free-flow of money across the world, the flow of people has been artificially impeded creating great pressures at the arbitrary borders. The potential energy arising from the stalled flow is bound to turn into kinetic energy, overpowering the borders – eventually. That possibility of bursting of dam obviously scares people on either side.
Uncertain times, uncertain times.

In times of uncertainty, people seek certainty –the privileged seek Certainty of ‘walls’ to save their way of life. The underprivileged ‘others’ seek certainty of the better life on the other side of the wall. Hence, we have Trump’s wall, refugee crisis across the globe and right-wingers gaining political power.

Netherlands, India, Australia, Nigeria, Philippines… xenophobic demagogues are gaining political power everywhere. Are we collectively getting more selfish? Or is there something else beneath our collective psyches that needs recognition?

The new Modernism: From globalist to Nativist

For the purpose of this essay, understand ‘Modernism’ as essentially blinkered optimism and ‘Post modernism’ as the recognition of futility of Modernism’s idealism. So most –isms (Capitalism, Socialisms, Casteism, Communism or even Taliban’s vision of Islam or even art movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism) that imagine a simplistic utopia, that propagate a simplistic worldview are essentially modernist imaginations. Modernism is about believing that utopia is within reach and that ‘only if these things change, the world will be perfect and harmonious’. Those who want walls are also modernists in that sense – they believe that closing their worlds to others would solve their problems.

Post-modernism is about recognizing the tragedy of modernism – that the world is simply way too complicated for any utopias to come to fruition. Dissolution of Soviet Union, Quantum Physics, LGBTQ pride parades, Crypto-currencies, Tech Billionaires eschewing suits, memes… Events like these puncture worldviews of modernists. ‘Sacrilege’/ ‘Blasphemy’/ ‘Traitor’ they yell. The edifice of certainty comes crumbling down. Nothing hurts as much as disavowal of a dearly held worldview – the source of one’s identity, the coordinate of one’s perceived reality.

When the pace of change becomes unbearable and humanity needs a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, modernist rail against the symbols of authority, symbols of status-quo in an attempt to ‘reset’. They hope to start over to ‘do it right this time’. Hence, Americans want to make America great ‘again’ and Chinese & Indians want to ‘regain’ old glory.

What does this have to do with brands?

The cultural role of brands is now fundamentally changed. It is an important shift that marketers must understand. In the last century, global brands were at the forefront of propagating western values of individualism, freedom to enjoy & dreams of building personal wealth, accessing evermore-exclusive lifestyles. The globalist philosophy of brands marginalised national, cultural, tribal identities & associations. There was one ideal lifestyle, one ‘-ism’ shaping the global culture most stridently– that of individualistic consumption over everything else. Slavoj Zizek qualifies this cultural force engineered by brands as the ‘obligation to enjoy’.

However, people are reacting to that imposition now. Some by questioning their consumptive choices, some by questioning the globalist legacy of brands and some by outsourcing their consumptive choices to search engines/ suggestion engines/ Alexa.

Let me illustrate this with two recent historical events.

From the Berlin wall to Trump’s wall

November 1989 – The Berlin wall was brought down by the will of people.

November 2016 – Americans elected a real estate developer as their president for his promise to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

What had changed between November 1989 and November 2016?

In the 80s, East Berliners craved for the choices that the West Berliners had – to own stuff, to travel, to listen to music, to use deodorants, to smoke cigarettes. A thirst for freedom to choose one’s own destiny brought down the Berlin wall in November 1989. Eventually, the freedom to choose destinies was conflated with the freedom to choose brands. Bbrands used that confusion to their advantage.

27 years since, the realisation is setting in – choosing brands of your choice is not the same as choosing your destiny. A recession and a few maxed out credit cards later, a typical consumer is beginning to realise that the very act of consumption is ensnaring him/her in a vicious cycle of debt, instead of setting him/ her free.

It was implied with overwhelming branding, that the consumer would succeed, would be happier due to his brand choices. Instead, it only helped him project his success and happiness at the cost of actually gaining success & happiness. Without actual success, the credit card loans caught up with him. Without actual happiness accruing from individualist brands, he was left in want of social relationships, a cultural identity. He was left feeling powerless – he had to suffer in the recession and then the bad economy, even as he was doing what was expected of him. That resentment was amplified by accelerating inequality.

Since we cannot accept our own powerlessness, we direct our blame at ‘others’ – South Americans, Africans, Muslims… It is psychologically easier to find a scapegoat, rather than confront our own powerlessness against the real tyrants. Hence, people elected a real estate developer promising to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

Implications for brands

  1. The role of brands in our culture is changed. Brands are not beacons of progressive ideals of individualistic freedom and fraternity anymore.

In a walled-in world wanting out, brands were symbols of freedom, of free globalist identities.
In a wall-less world wanting in, brands are addictive identity crutches that must be pared down, in favour of collectivist identities.  

This is the reason for meteoric rise of brands like Patanjali in India (which is positioned on Indian heritage and traditional know-how) or rise of agitations against global brands (such as these ones in China).

  1. There is no single ideal that can be universally understood as ‘progressive’. Is wearing a burkha patriarchal or is it a will-full choice? Are revolutions always desirable or not? Is science always progressive or should we be worried about its advances? (For instance with GM foods). Does individual’s rights matter more than nation state’s priorities? The right answer is – it depends! There are no absolutes. Contexts matter. Hence, brands need to be cautious about their stances.
  2. Local relevance: In the pre-liberalised world, accessing an ‘imported’ Dove moisturiser in South Asian countries was in itself an adventure, an occasion to celebrate and talk about. Never mind the product was not made for the skin type or the weather. One was happy to be able to access an international quality brand. That is not true anymore.
    The profusion of brand choices means that people are used to accessing brands that are more sharply relevant to them. There is no incentive now to go for a global brand that does not answer the local, contextual need.
  3. Cultural currency: The internet was supposed to open the world. Instead, it has created ‘filter bubbles’ – echo chambers for people who exchange local cultural memes at warp speeds. In such a world, language, ideas, cultural heroes, stories mutate and gain layers of meaning on an hourly basis. To be relevant to different cultures, different ‘bubbles’, one must be immersed in it. You cannot skim it; you must devote a part of you to it. That necessitates a fundamentally decentralised and spontaneous way of working.
  4. Rise of the need for ‘Authenticity’:
    A wall-less world is a free-fall world where there is no concrete identity, no concrete reality. For example, ‘If you are defined by your profession alone, how are you different from the hundreds doing the same job across the globe?’If you are a global citizen, where do you exactly vote?’
    Hence, in an uncertain world, we need the buoys of brands to shore up our identities. For example – ‘I might be a replaceable software engineer, but I am an irreplaceable Indian who likes classical music’. It is easier to build a seemingly authentic identity by wearing a FabIndia kurta (a traditional shirt from South Asia) and to ‘like’ a local artist on Facebook.

A walled world is concrete world, not just of concrete walls but also of supposedly ‘real’ culture – with predefined customs, biases, beliefs, rituals and heroes. It is a more comforting world with lesser cognitive tax of building identities by simply subscribing to an existing one, instead of building identities independently.

2. Rise of platforms

Brands in a world of mediated choices

1989: From freedom to choose

To

2017: Unlimited scroll of choices accessed through few platforms

Prof. Byron’s influential book ‘How Brands Grow’ suggests that advertising should build and reinforce associated memory structures. But the nature of these very memory structures is changing now. A Columbia University study found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.
We forget things that we are confident we can find on internet.
Brands are on internet.
Ergo… Google, Amazon, TripAdvisor become the primary portals of brand discovery. Now you do not need to remember brands, the search engine and the suggestion engines would do that for you.

This dependence on internet to remember things is an illustration of a concept called transactive memories, where one depends on others to recall a memory. This is in contrast to independent memories, which rely on one person providing complete recall. The interdependence to remember, to consider, to prioritise has accelerated with platforms. We are dependent on others’ reviews, others’ opinions and platforms’ ability to serve these to us. For instance, you will not straight away go to Dove’s website to buy its moisturiser. Most probably, you would search for the best moisturiser for your skin type for your local weather on Google or Amazon.com. Based on consumer reviews and suggesting engine, you would choose a brand to buy.

This has profound implications for brands as more and more people shift their memories & decision making online.

The strategic perspective towards building brands must change accordingly. The goal of branding then is not necessarily to build ‘memory structures’ of individuals, but rather to make it easy for the brand to be recalled by the transactive memory of the hive-mind of platform-users combine.

There is an important nuance to understand here. Brands can still build ‘memory structures’, but that is not ‘essential’ anymore to grow. What is essential is to be ‘available’ for the hive mind to find you and like you. The profound shift is that of addressing the ‘memory structure’ of a collective instead of the ‘memory structure’ of an individual. This perspective, if understood well, can give tremendous competitive edge to marketers.  For instance, imagine the savings on ‘not doing commercials for Superbowl and instead putting that money in improving product access, product experience, encouraging consumer to review it or instigating a cultural conversation in the platform-users hive.

Platform brands & brands sold on Platforms

There are essentially two kinds of brands – platform brands and brands that are sold through these platforms. In the new economic ordering, there can exist a limited number of platforms, but almost an unlimited number of ‘long tail’ brands (precarious, unless governments regulate online platforms). Understand what you want to be and adapt accordingly.

Becoming the next platform is very different from winning in the long tail.

To succeed as a platform,

  1. One must understand that it is a race for monopoly. It might be a specialised platform, but for that particular purpose/ consumer set/ needs targeted, there can exist only one platform in the long term.
  2. The growth strategy is about building a network of users and leveraging the network effect’. Network effect is the phenomenon of some services to become more valuable as the number of its users increases. For platform, this is universally true. With each new user, the platform gets better data, improves its service and enhances its relevance. Therefore, to succeed, it is imperative to recruit the biggest segment of users and to incentivise them to stay in that platform.
  3. Platform brands succeed when they create egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible earlier. Hence, the focus of the brand has to be on making such exchanges possible and communicating the value of it.

To win in the long tail,

  1. People key in their queries, as against asking an attendant to help or seeking a brand directly. This is true even in some retail shops these days as the attendant key in keywords on consumer’s behalf). This behaviour shapes the nature of brands that would come on top. It is in the nature of keywords to be linear and additive – People get more and more specific until their needs are met. To acquire a consumer before he has to get specific, brands need to build ‘memory structures for the hive of platform-users’ for the specific need it uniquely fulfils.
  2. This incentivises brands to be specialists – the sour tasting chips, the scented toilet papers etc. Be a specialist.
  3. There is a limit to growth for ‘a’ brand. The flip side of this level of segmenting and specialisation is the limit to the size of addressable segments. The brands would necessarily be not large or global.
  4. The key branding considerations for a brand are how to become easier for the consumer to find it, use it, and recommend it?

The essential mutation

There is no escaping change. In a world of resurgent nativist identities, global brands need native mutations. Brands must audit their local relevance and the authenticity of their engagement with culture. Secondly, technology is changing the nature of exchanges between consumers and brands. To succeed in this new reality, they have to appreciate and leverage the fundamentally different market dynamics of platforms.