Cloud Empires

How Digital Platforms Are Overtaking the State and How We Can Regain Control

By Vili Lehdonvirta

The rise of the platform economy into statelike dominance over the lives of entrepreneurs, users, and workers.

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Summary

The rise of the platform economy into statelike dominance over the lives of entrepreneurs, users, and workers.

The early Internet was a lawless place, populated by scam artists who made buying or selling anything online risky business. Then Amazon, eBay, Upwork, and Apple established secure digital platforms for selling physical goods, crowdsourcing labor, and downloading apps. These tech giants have gone on to rule the Internet like autocrats. How did this happen? How did users and workers become the hapless subjects of online economic empires? The Internet was supposed to liberate us from powerful institutions. In Cloud Empires, digital economy expert Vili Lehdonvirta explores the rise of the platform economy into statelike dominance over our lives and proposes a new way forward.

Digital platforms create new marketplaces and prosperity on the Internet, Lehdonvirta explains, but they are ruled by Silicon Valley despots with little or no accountability. Neither workers nor users can “vote with their feet” and find another platform because in most cases there isn't one. And yet using antitrust law and decentralization to rein in the big tech companies has proven difficult. Lehdonvirta tells the stories of pioneers who helped create—or resist—the new social order established by digital platform companies. The protagonists include the usual suspects—Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Travis Kalanick of Uber, and Bitcoin's inventor Satoshi Nakamoto—as well as Kristy Milland, labor organizer of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform that has emerged as an ersatz stand-in for the welfare state. Only if we understand digital platforms for what they are—institutions as powerful as the state—can we begin the work of democratizing them.

Hardcover

$27.95 T ISBN: 9780262047227 256 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 14 b&w illus.

Endorsements

  • “If you are interested in the future that the tech sector is constructing for us, you must read this brilliant and utterly absorbing book. Crucial for understanding today's debates about the role of the tech platforms.”

    Juliet Schor

    Professor of Sociology, Boston College; author of After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back

  • “A fascinating and necessary guide to our new world in which the Internet giants have not only disrupted existing governments and power structures, but created their own, with significant consequences for the future.”

    Nathaniel Popper

    author of Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money

  • “An essential book that demonstrates how online platform markets operate in practice and asks how challengers to state power might be held to account.”

    Diane Coyle

    Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge; author of Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, And What It Should Be

  • “The rise of digital empires is one of the most critical political developments of our time. Cloud Empires is the deepest and most urgent account yet written.”

    Rana Dasgupta

    author of Capital: The Eruption of Delhi