Means of Production

Ingrid Burrington:

I've lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word "infrastructure" with "means of production." For example, from Facebook's engineering web page:

"Our data centers are the cornerstones of the global means of production that brings Facebook apps and services to you every day."

The sentence pretty much still makes sense -- without data centers, Facebook can't reach people, and therefore can't make money. It also works pretty well with this copy from a Cloudflare tutorial on the concept of infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS):

"In computing, the means of production refers to the computers and servers that run code and store data, and the wires and appliances that make connections between those machines. For example, servers, hard drives, and routers are all part of the means of production. Before cloud computing was an option, most businesses hosted their own means of production and ran all their applications on-premises.

"Means of Production-as-a-Service, or IaaS for short, is when a cloud computing vendor hosts the means of production on behalf of their customers."

So... a landlord. It's a little heavy-handed, I'll admit, but precision in naming things for what they are matters. As use of the term "infrastructure" in tech has grown, it's easy to lose sight of what actually gives Big Tech its power and what's at stake when proposing alternatives to such centralization: capital, and who controls it.

Breaking the platform economy's cycle of extraction and enclosure can redistribute power over data and infrastructure to the public.

Framing the platform policy discussion around the means of production also helps establish reasonable expectations. While it would be nice if Facebook as a "social infrastructure" provider had the vague sense of civic purpose that a term like "social infrastructure" implies, time and again we've seen that the company will not implement anything that serves the public but undermines Facebook's profits. Instead of describing Facebook as providing social infrastructure, we could simply say that it utilizes social interactions for profit through the means of production (by owning lots of computers and cables) and dispel the illusion of kind civic intentions.

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3 Responses:

  1. Dude says:

    "A landlord"? Is Ingrid suggesting FB's morally reprehensible business practices are akin to their morally reprehensible real estate propaganda?

    That's unpossible! The company never compromises its ethics for profit!

  2. John Hardy says:

    Absolutely the best way of looking at it. Makes the next step pretty obvious as well.

  3. Ham Monger says:

    The phrase "means of production" immediately reminded me of the Penny Arcade In League With Demonic Forces starring "Randy Pinkwood".

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