Political economy and visibility

The profit motive to a large extent drives the development of the internet, the backbone of the infrastructure of digital societies. A myriad actors of all sizes participate in this process, with widely different resources and strategies. What is peculiar to this marketplace, however, is the extent to which issues of visibility and opacity become salient in its everyday workings. Inasmuch as what is monetized is attention, a double race to visibility ensues. On the one hand, a competition to provide content and service, which entails being noticed in a sea of similar producers; on the other, a need to mine the revealed preferences of consumers ever further in the quest to match and sort them optimally. At the same time, however, contemporary digital societies have brought a long-term process of anonymization to its ultimate refinement: capital flows have now reached a historically high level of technical opacity, allowing wealth to be moved worldwide in near-perfect obscurity. Overall, this equilibrium produces an interesting, novel political economy configuration: surveillance capitalism for consumers, in symbiosis with the struggle for visibility of producers, juxtaposed with the utmost fintech-enabled confidentiality of capital flows.

Central to both these dynamics are the middlemen who make these exchanges function smoothly, the platforms and systems mediating economic transactions in the digital world. Issues of trust are central to the operation of these exchanges. In part, this sphere can rely on centuries’ worth of developments in norms and procedures: a market economy, and especially a fiat currency, are after all textbook examples of social trust, and therefore have always required mechanisms for the prevention, deterrence, and repression of abuse. The availability of such scrutiny, however, is commensurate with relative power: large investors may demand complete transparency from the vectors of their financial transactions, while gig workers are for the most part at the mercy of the opacity of the algorithm allocating their chances in the platform’s marketplace. Therefore, the main issues related to trust the project will examine have to do with visibility and relative power: to what extent do old, State-mediated safeguards of economic activity still hold for market participants in the digital world, or are new regimes of trust based on reputation evolving to complement them? How are visibility and market power linked? How is opacity negotiated?

In pursuit of this inquiry, the project will explore measures of the digital transformation of financial and labor markets: information on the size of tax havens, on the prevalence of financial scams, on the rise of cryptocurrencies will be assessed, as will be case studies of gig economy careers and the implications of platform dependence for influencers and content creators. Expert opinion on these matters will be sought from transparency activists, academic financial economists, as well as from various categories of market participants.

Basic references:

  • Brunton, F., 2019. Digital cash: the unknown history of the anarchists, utopians, and technologists who created cryptocurrency. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  • Turow, J., 2017. The aisles have eyes: how retailers track your shopping, strip your privacy, and define your power. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Wu, T., 2016. The attention merchants: the epic scramble to get inside our heads. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Research on politics