Digital socialism?


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The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data

More than a decade after the onset of the financial crisis, capitalist ideologues are eager for good publicity. Once-alluring promises of meritocracy and social mobility ring increasingly hollow. They pine for a slicker, PowerPoint-friendly legitimation narrative—hard to concoct against a background of rising inequality, pervasive tax evasion and troubling omens about the true state of the post-crash global economy, were central bankers to withdraw their overextended support. What real-world developments could underpin such a narrative? What theme could make the idea of capitalism more morally acceptable to the latest batch of Ivy League graduates, who may risk getting drawn to notions like eco-socialism? Despite the growing ‘tech-lash’ against the faangs, capitalist thinkers still look to Silicon Valley and its culture with a glimmer of hope. For all its problems, the Valley remains a powerful laboratory of new—perhaps, better—market solutions. No other sector occupies such a prominent role on the horizon of the Western capitalist imaginary or offers such a promising field for regenerative mythologies.

A new strand of thinking has begun to address how the global economy might be re-engineered around the latest digital innovations to introduce a modicum of fairness. The ‘New Deal on Data’—the term surfaced in a 2009 paper presented at Davos—is the tech world’s neoliberal equivalent of the Green New Deal, but requires no government spending.footnote1 It envisages formalizing property rights around intangibles, so that individuals can ‘own’ the data they produce. One advantage for its proponents is that this market-friendly ‘new deal’ could help to forestall alternative attempts at imagining users as anything other than passive consumers of digital technology; they could enjoy their new status as hustling data entrepreneurs, but should aspire to little else. The New Deal on Data has accumulated considerable political support: from the European Commission to the United Nations, many world institutions are convinced that some such ‘fairness’ initiative is important to guarantee the future of digitalized capitalism.

The Austrian legal scholar and a one-time successful software entrepreneur Viktor Mayer-Schönberger bears some responsibility for planting the dream of ‘salvation through data’ in the capitalist imagination. His best-selling Big Data (2013), the ur-text on the subject, co-authored with an Economist writer, had a straightforward thesis: the massive amounts of data now being harvested and analysed by a few far-sighted firms would produce new business models and destroy existing ones; disruption was imminent, profits assured.footnote2 Five years later, Mayer-Schönberger’s latest book, Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data, shares some features with that earlier work. Co-written with another Economist contributor, the German business reporter Thomas Ramge, it deploys clear and anecdote-friendly prose to document another big trend—‘as momentous as the Industrial Revolution’—while making pragmatic recommendations for businesses and policymakers. But Reinventing Capitalism has far greater ambition, as the book’s original German title, Das Digital, suggests. Das Kapital, they argue, is out of date: once it is efficiently utilized throughout the economy, Big Data will not just reinvent capitalism—the English title is too modest on this point—but end it. ‘It may be time to close the door on history and officially eliminate the term “capitalism”’, they proclaim.footnote3 In place of finance capital and firms, data-rich markets will empower humans to work directly with each other. More dramatically, data will supplant the price system as the economy’s chief organizing principle.

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