Summary of Digital Socialism Reading

Digital Socialism? The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data – Evgeny Morozov – 2019

Much of this article relates to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s and Ramge’s (2018) Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data, which suggests that big data will transform capital as we know it, effectively destroying it. It states the price system in capitalism will be replaced by data. Morozov is critical of this idea, engaging with it in order to revitalise the Socialist Calculation Debate, stating that in the age of big data, socialism is a good organisational mechanism for society.

Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge (2018) argue that the price system has been displaced by digital technology which can conduct social coordination more efficiently, supposedly displayed in that market players now rely on data, instead of prices, to coordinate their profit making activities. Data are able to interact with one another digitally, which isn’t possible in analogue, making the market more efficient. This is more of an issue when data is centrally held by a small number of companies, even according to Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge.

However, one issue with Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge is that they conceptualise capitalism not as a system but simply as the activities of capitalists. This ignores the history of capitalism. Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge claim that they have proved Marx wrong here, in that money is displaced by data but this, incorrectly, conflates ‘money’ and ‘capital’. Even the ‘old big banks’ which are supposedly displaced by FinTech companies are heavily investing in big data, making it a market reorientation. That markets change neither proves Marx wrong nor destroys capitalism, both of which Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge claim is happening.

Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge claim that Hayek is an example of obsessing over the price system, with the price system representing all known interests being compressed into a number here. Morozov claims they are wrong about this too and that Hayek’s understanding of prices was more dynamic than just the two transactional actors in a given deal; instead, the price system is said to work because it does not require prior knowledge from the actors. Capitalism works because it fosters trust in prices without demanding knowledge from any specific individuals. This is because capitalism functions as a system, despite what Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge suggest.

It goes on to essentially say that big data simply adds to this process of capitalism, rather than reshaping it generally. Some of this is seen negatively, such as the logic of the law losing out to the logic of the market, tailored to atomised customers. Essentially, a government by numbers has been instituted through reducing legal formalities and a discrete disciplining of customers through algorithmic regulation.

Morozov claims the feedback infrastructure of data is actually the most important thing to examine, with the ownership of this infrastructure being as important as the ownership of the data itself. For the left, this should not just be trying to defend existing legal structures, as areas exist in which there is only a minor legal presence. The solution suggested here is to use feedback infrastructure for non-market forms of social coordination. The first is solidarity as a discovery procedure, which detects new needs and non-market solutions to them. The second is designing non-markets which concerns social coordination in matters unrelated to production or consumption. The last is automated planning which is about economic coordination (these are expanded upon in the longer notes). The point is that increased market complexity doesn’t have to be met with increased competition and that these feedback infrastructures should be socialised. This goes beyond the price system and addresses non-price knowledge which exists in capitalism and helps drive markets. Both these capitalist markets and the price system must be addressed by the left, not just one or the other. Non-price knowledge helps to address urgency of threats but this is warped by capital’s desire for profit. Thus, without socialised feedback infrastructure, threats such as climate change cannot be properly addressed, meaning the left must demand systems of social coordination are reoriented away from the market to deal with existing issues.

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