The City Is Not A Platform
The City, Or, Where To Live
I've been trying to answer a very basic question: where to live and how to live there. It feels like there are simultaneously a million options and one. On the one hand there's the quiet life: move to some small city or provincial town, with more space and the same faces seen regularly. This is a life more like my childhood, which felt peripheral then and probably would still now. The other option is the metropolis, a beating centre with lots to do, lots of hot chances, lots of friendships to make and remake. But I've liven that life and I struggled to make ends meet, I was exhausted all the time, and I didn't see all those equally busy friends as often as I wanted. Much of the experience felt purchased, nothing felt like my own. It felt always like living in borrowed spaces and on someone else's time. There was no spontaneity and it always felt temporary.
This question is not uncommon. A lot people of my generation find themselves wedged between some basic desires and an immovable material reality. We want to be where the things are happening, to be where our friends are, to be presented with an abundance of jobs and opportunities. To make a go of it and know that we tried. To live life large, beyond the parochial horizon. But whenever a desire inhabits a broad base, it demonstrates a ripeness for pretty solid product-market-fit. The shared desire to be "where the things are" is sold as the life more vibrant, forever aspirational. It is a product you buy with sky-rocketing rent, a crippling cost of living, and dwindling communal spaces.
Under the yoke of neoliberalism, more and more cities are converging on one standard model. Berlin is losing its edge. It could be Rotterdam or anywhere. During the last austerity steeped decade, a lot of neighbours slowly (or not so slowly) came to host the same destination nightlife: a strip of bars and restaurants that ebb and flow with the same trends - burgers in Paris, ramen in London. Every bar was cocktails, then craft beer, now natural wine. Every dish is now a small plate for sharing with anyone can actually afford to eat out. The modern city: first as the hot new alternative, then as housing crisis.
I recently read Cory Doctorow's post Social Quitting. Written in the wake of the 2022 Twitter exodus, he outlines how the big social media platforms of the 2010s engineered a mechanism for vendor lock-in by becoming the sites where everyone was. In the article, Doctorow tracks how tech platforms follow the same classic strategy of attracting users quickly through easy-of-use and unique features, before turning around and maximising profits through the distribution of advertising and the monetisation of user-generated content.
These platforms position themselves as forums that facilitate the now and the happening. Users sign-up on the promise of a web of community and access to the opportunity. Social media platforms thrive on being where everyone is and where everything is taking place. Facebook is moving fast and breaking things. Twitter is "what's happening" as it asks you to "join the conversation".
"When economists and sociologists theorize about social media, they emphasize ""network effects."" A system has ""network effects"" if it gets more valuable as more people use it. You joined Facebook because you valued the company of the people who were already using it; once you joined, other people joined to hang out with you." - Cory Doctorow
But as Google et al's lawyers have stressed while interpreting US anti-trust laws, nothing of value is created by Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram directly. They are the venue, they are the marketplace. A vector for desire, not fulfilment. This is platform capitalism — where everything is loaned or rented, and nothing is sold.
Building a following on YouTube is a time-consuming and ceaseless endeavour. You may have a 1000 follows on Instagram, but the algorithm will start to bury your posts if you miss a day. The reward system that underpins these platforms is engineered to surface monetisable content. It is selective, and it will bury content that is dull, ordinary, or pedestrian. And it get's harder every day: as the platforms shift gears to squeeze out new revenue streams by improving things for advertisers, the quality of the user experience is usually what takes the hit. Doctorow terms this the "enshittification" of the platform. It's why Instagram shows you more and more ads, and few and few posts from people you actually know.
It's no accident that only 25% of Twitter accounts post 97% of the platforms tweets. The platform business model is rigidly structured around selling space beside engagement. It divides users into posters and lurkers: those generating content and those that feed-back on content. For most users, social media platforms are not an active community: despite discouraging explicit anonymity, few know your name. You exist on the periphery even if you turn up every day. But for at least a few years, Twitter was where the internet happened. Being "extremely online" was a buzzy hit of the zeitgeist straight to the dopamine receptors. So what are we left with?
When you leave a system, you have to endure "switching costs" – everything you give up when you change products, services, or habits. Quitting smoking means enduring not just the high switching cost of nicotine withdrawal, but also contending with the painful switching costs of giving up the social camaraderie of the smoking area, the friends you"ve made there, and the friends you might make there in the future. - Cory Doctorow
Where do we go now? You could go home and read a book, but public libraries have been defunded and closed. You could watch a film, but the multiplicity of streaming platforms all but cancel each other out until none of them have the necessary turnover of content to stay fresh and engaging. There's a weird tension that presents itself, between what appears on the surface to be a plethora of choice, but turns out to be instead a dearth, a monopolistic sameness that you find when you really dig in.
Online platforms make money by renting advertising space. They encourage people to see those adverts by providing a distribution network for user-generated content. It is the privatisation of the social milieu, converting public discourse into a product. The neoliberal city does the same through the privatisation of public space. It is increasingly hard to find anywhere to socialise that doesn't require you to spend money, and policymakers seem to less inclined to prioritise the city as a set network of communities. Instead, urban policy increasingly sees the city as another platform.
Vendor lock-in is one of those gross symptoms of late capitalism. For all its prothletising about the free market, capitalism is not interested in keeping anything free. Freedom is of the utmost importance when investors are looking at new markets: nothing should stop players entering a market. But once a market has been shucked open, the focus switches to wedging the coffers open so that profits mainline directly into a few greedy pockets.
There are two sides to vendor lock-in. There is the sales monopoly that prevents consumers from circumnavigating a major player, and there's the protectionist methodologies that ensure the extractivism can continue. The latter is not always understood as vendor lock-in — but when only a handful of companies have the skills, technologies, and legal apparatûs to act in an economic space, you better believe they stay locked-in. Extractivism thrives on converting those provisioning goods and resources into increasingly exploited dependants. Once a country converts its economy toward foreign investment through the sale of natural resources, if it does not reinvest in localising those skills and technologies, it will be beholden to foreign money until that money runs out.
The smash and grab of extractivist imperialism is a logic as old as capitalism: first come the gunboats then come the railroads back out to the coast. Capitalism wants access and it wants assets. It wants resources ready to use or sell. Capital filters upwards, it congeals on top. It wants liquidity only so long as it flows out and upward. It rarely trickles back down. Vendor lock-in keeps the ball rolling with an existing process by blocking out competition. Innovation is often only a prelude to extraction.
Despite the boom of new tech platforms over the last decade, very few actually actually had business models that produced genuine profits. But because of the deep pockets of angel investors, they didn't need to. Uber could afford to be the cheapest ride going, because it didn't need to cover costs. This was never the goal. Instead, it was trying to drive traditional taxi companies out of business until there was no competition left. Then those low prices evaporate, as has happened in the past couple years. What we are left with is a deregulated service, where most drivers struggle to make minimum wage and others fall into immiserating debt, like the owners of New York taxi medallions.
Regenerating Our Relationship To Place
When I worked at a pub in Peckham in the summer of 2014, I remember having a very sobering conversation with a regular about the changing nature of the neighbourhood. He was an electrician who was born and raised on the next street over. He told me how he had just been offered upwards of a million pounds for the flat he had lived in for decades. But he found the proposition of such a life changing amount of money quite disturbing. He could take the money, but where would he go? Everyone he knew, his family and friends, the minutiae of his life was rooted in place.
When we talk about the way cities have changed in recent decades its impossible to ignore the vast swathes of displacement that have taken place. When a neighbourhood falls into the cross-hairs of property developers, it is working-class and immigrant communities who suffer. The decision to regenerate an urban area is always couched in the language of improvement, of support, of well-meaning optimism. Who doesn't want better services and cleaner roads? But such policy proposals seem only to mask the true intentions that drive these regeneration projects.
In Against the Manchester Model, Issac Rose outlines a process that began transforming the city of Manchester way back in the late 1980s. It's a process that echoes in numerous other cities, it is something of a neoliberal blueprint for the 21st Century city. It goes like this: a city council looks to rejuvenate an area, and while they could do this through public funding, it's a hard sell only exacerbated by widespread austerity measures. So in step a web of private entities and property developers, who make a well-honed pitch that the best way to attract investment is by converting the area into a destination for nightlife, shopping, and dining — "the embrace of "entrepreneurialism"". The seeks to bring money in by appealing to a different demographic — one that is younger, more affluent, more middle-class, with a more monetisable set of desires.
In parallel to the state-led efforts to regenerate decaying industrial zones, was a concerted effort to tap into what was in the mid-2000s the trend of the day among urban policymakers—the "creative class". This concept, drawn from the work of neoliberal booster Richard Florida, argued that if cities were to compete globally, they would need to be attractive to a class of people in professions as wide and varied and "scientists, poets, actors, writers, finance, legal, healthcare and wealth management"—a menagerie which he gave the overall title as representatives of the creative class. Manchester was praised by Florida himself in 2003 as the UK"s most "creative" and "enterprising" city. - Issac Rose
But obviously this cash has strings attached. The goal here is not social welfare or the revitalisation of the local community, but for profits to be channelled back into the pockets of the developers. Any existing communities are collateral. And despite their aspirational desires, the middle-classes that have moved in would do well to recognise they are not benefitting either. Maybe some are starting to see that it takes more than bars, boutiques and brasseries to forge a place into a home. The city as product is revealing itself as a lifeless inorganic husk, lacking the types of spaces needed to bring people together. Houses should be more than just financial assets, neighbourhoods should be where we meet and help one another. The city is not a platform. The enshittification intensifies as rents continue to rise, communal spaces are closed, and public services fall away. The only winners in this scenario have been the developers who cashed out.
Moving Away Is Not Checking Out
But what are the options? For many, it seems to be to leave the big cities. Since the pandemic, if the endless headlines are to be believed, cities like New York and London have seen inhabitants steadily picking up sticks and moving elsewhere — either to smaller regional cities or to the countryside. Others are staying put, either organising in active opposition, or just trying to carve out some space where they can live and stay sane. But both options require time and energy that working people have in short supply.
Moving out of the metropolis is not some silver bullet. New arrivals into regional cities are bringing a housing crisis with them. But, in the UK context at least, the fact is there just aren't enough houses across the country. The social housing stock was sold off in the 80s, and never replaced. As easy as it is to blame an influx of people for exacerbating these problems it's important to recognise that this is a policy failure. In fact, it is a string of colliding policy failures: unrestricted rentier profiteering in the big cities drive people into new smaller cities with a lack of housing.
Life in the country is in some ways much more self-sufficient. You can make decisions for yourself because you have space and distance. As such, it is arguably much easier in rural areas to develop projects that stand in stark contrast to atomised home-ownership and rentier capitalism in the cities. Land trusts and housing cooperatives are the obvious examples. But the question of whether those approaches can scale enough to be impactful makes clear the importance of urban approaches, such as rent strikes and tenant unions.
Solidarity is crucial. At the end of the day, well-to-do middle class folk have far more in common with working class and immigrant communities than they do with the super rich who are buying up their cities. If you're moving to a new city, it's important to engage and understand the existing problems and what is being done to remedy them. Those moving to more rural areas need to engage with the existing community so that they can find a way to belong that isn't antagonistic.
Marketing the city as a branded product has been so successful because the sales pitch is the same as it is for all products: that it will make life better. But it hasn't, and if left unchecked it will only get worse. It is hard work building any sort of community. It takes a long time and it takes space. Defining that space, and protecting it long enough for the community to take root is what is needed if we are to transform cities from products back into homes.