The following is a very interesting essay by Jaron Lanier, well-known as a VR pioneer, about the emergence of Antigoras, participatory platforms which profit from huge amounts of periphery labour and increasingly present users with a situation of ‘lock-in’.
In our essay on P2P Theory, there are several elements which link to the points made by Jaron Lanier. The first is the notion of Protocally Power, (should be: Protocollary Power), developed by Alexander Galloway, which points out that the design principles of the P2P platforms actually determine to a very large degree what we can ultimately do with them, socially, and Jaron Lanier insists on the importance of the initial conditions, which determine the ulterior developments. The other concept is that of a new segment of the capitalist class, which we have called netarchical capitalists, which are no longer dependent on the ‘ownership’ of intellectual property rights (the thesis of cognitive capitalism), nor on their ownership of media vectors (the thesis of MacKenzie Wark on vectoral capitalism), but on their control of the participatory platforms. Since this part of my manuscript is not online yet, I’ll reproduce it in the next installment of this blog.
What Jaron Lanier is contributing to this debate is showing more precisely what these netarchists are doing: they are creating Antigoras or “Anti-Agoras”.
I’m citing extensively from his article, which is recommended reading:
Another consequence of digital brittleness and lock-in is that more niches turn out to be natural monopolies than in previous technological eras, with Microsoft once again being a celebrated example. I call these niches “Antigoras,” in contrast with the classical idea of the Agora. An Antigora is a privately owned digital meeting arena made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor provided by people who crowd its periphery.
Microsoft is an almost ideal example, because users are dependent on its products in order to function in cooperation with each other. Businesses often require Windows and Word, for instance, because other businesses use them (the network effect) and each customer’s own history is self-accessible only through Microsoft’s formats. At the same time, users spend a huge amount of time on such things as virus abatement and glitch recovery. The connectivity offered by Microsoft is valuable enough to offset the hassle.
Traditional stock markets, or even flea markets, are a little like Antigoras, in that they are also private meeting places for business. One obvious difference resulting from the digital quality of the Antigora is a far stronger network effect; Antigoras enjoy natural monopoly status more often than physical marketplaces because it would be almost impossible for locked-in participants to choose new Antigoras.
Another defining characteristic is the way that people are connected with the value they produce in an Antigora. Much of the efforts of individuals at the periphery of an Antigora do not officially take place. Their work is performed anonymously. The reason is that the owner of an Antigora is powerful enough to get away with the enjoyment of this luxury. The potential to deny access to a locked-in digital structure gives owners a profoundly valuable “narrows of trade.”
As with any abstraction, there is no perfect actual Antigora, any more than there is any other perfect instantiation of an economic model.
Amazon and eBay are what might be called half-Antigoras, or Semigoras. They benefit from the enhanced network effect of digital systems, and an extraordinarily high level of volunteer labor from their customers, in the form of general communications and design services. They differ from perfect Antigoras because, A) Customer volunteer labor is not given anonymously, and B) Physical goods are usually the ultimate items being sold, so they are not locked-in. A book sold on eBay or Amazon can easily escape the system and be sold later in a physical flea market.
Wal-Mart is another interesting example of a Semigora. It is a traditional retail store from a customer’s point of view, but it has also engaged an enormous worldwide Web of suppliers into a proprietary digital information system. It enjoys the enhanced network effects of digital systems, and is able to demand that suppliers adapt to its digital structures instead of vice versa.
If Google maintains its success in the long term, it will do so as an Antigora, but it isn’t there yet. The services it offers thus far, which are essentially advertising placements, are not dependent on digital lock-in. Someone else could still come up with a way to offer ads in a way that trumps Google. It is only once new digital structures are built on top of Google’s structures that Google can leverage the full power of the Antigora. My guess is that Google will become an Antigora within a year or two.
Some other examples of Antigoras are Oracle and Apple’s iTunes/iPod business. The Internet and the Web would be fabulous Antigoras if they were privately owned. A hypothesis I have entertained from time to time holds that private layers of locked-in software are always dependent on public layers. There could be no Google without an Internet. It’s interesting to note that many of the public or pseudo-public layers, such as HTML and LINUX, arose in a European context, where the ideal of the Agora is more influential than in the USA.
I should make it clear that I am not “antigoraphobic”, and indeed have made use of many of the ones I’ve mentioned here in order to perform the task of writing this essay. They are part of life.
Indeed there are reasons to like Antigoras. The Linux community is an attempt to nurture an Agora in what has become a traditional Antigora niche. The Linux project is only a partial success, in my estimation. It is able to generate digital plumbing that gains a following and gets locked in, but the Linux market is poor at generating high quality user interfaces or end-user experiences. These things perhaps require some degree of privileged authorship, and the owner of an Antigora is a super-privileged author. If that author, by the grace of fate, happens to have good taste, as in the case of Steve Jobs, an Antigora can deliver extraordinary value.
The phenomenon of Antigoras exemplifies the intimate and unprecedented relationship between capitalism and digital information. Because of the magic of Moore’s Law and the network effect, the Invisible Hand has come to be understood not just as an ideal distributor, smarter than any possible communist central committee, but as a creative inventor outracing human wits. At the same time, tiny situational advantages, particularly related to timing and code compatibility, are amplified by the exponential growth environment of the Net in such a way that unusual figures can suddenly emerge as successful entrepreneurs. A recent example at the time of this writing is the Baltic crew who started Skype on a shoestring, although it’s still too early to say which firm will win this Antigora prize. The resistance of digital brittleness to interventions by governments, together with the possibility that any clever person can strike it rich with minimal starting capital by being in the right place at the right time to plant the seed that grows a new Antigora, has caused libertarianism to be the house philosophy of the digital revolution.”