Data capitalism's moment

What is revealed when we look at the biggest companies in the world?

Approached with caution, quite a bit of caution that is, lists of the biggest companies in the world might reveal some shifts in the direction of capitalism over time. This is never going to give a full picture, there is a lot going on beyond this surface, yet looking at the tip of the iceberg can give a sense of the defining features of the times. If nothing else, it is at least suggestive of wider trends.

At a glance, in very crude terms, if we look across a 50 year period what is striking is the move from very material forms of capitalism to something a little less tangible and perhaps more immaterial. A reminder perhaps of Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of Liquid Modernity, with a continuing movement away from the heavy and fixed and toward the light and mobile. There may be something in this, yet we would need to also consider the materiality of any new forms of capitalism too (for example, Bitcoin has been estimated to use the same electricity as Argentina). In more specific terms it is perhaps, broadly speaking, the increasing value of data that seems to define the direction the list has taken in more recent years.

Last week, an interesting Guardian article on the size of big tech contained a series of data visualisations, these included the below chart showing the top five companies across time.

Cars, oil, utilities and communication infrastructures defined much of that 50 year period. As we move through to 2020, data capitalism seems to be having its moment. The picture is of a relatively significant move as the value of data and interfaces has become increasingly important. Just based upon this, if we consider the assets and activities of these companies, there does seem to have been a shift in the structure of value. The next step will be to see what happens given the circumstances of the last year and how this might have accelerated or exacerbated these trends.

Perhaps it is IBM that might give us the bridge across this previous period and into the current moment. Taken from, below is chart showing the value of IBM during this same period.

I don't want to draw too much from this, there are lots of complicating factors and a graph like this can never be read in a straightforward way, but the increases are clear as is the peak in 2013 being followed by it doing a relatively decent job of holding its value. Here an older form of capitalism perhaps persists, even if not in the top 5.

There are aspects of what IBM has actively done across the decades that connect into them being overtaken by the famous tech giants. Yet IBM remains important and was perhaps foundational in creating the conditions for data capitalism's moment. Any moment has its genealogy, and IBM are part of that.

IBM have provided their own chronological history of the company on their official site. Of course it is the company’s own account, that said it still makes interesting reading and the photos provide insights into these moments too. The chronology covers developments such as their first vacuum tube computer in 1952 or the connecting of computers and software in the 1960s - leading to further developments in local area computer networks in the mid 1980s. When it comes to data antecedents, there is the supermarket checkout scanner that they released in 1973 and the doubling of disk storage in the same year. The latter story told in this official chronology is of how upheavals in computing in the 1990s led IBM to move further into computation structures, networking and AI.

These types of developments at IBM continued and so did the establishment of a broadening data infrastructure of networks, storage and analysis. Not so much a moment of rupture then, but of an escalation of data capitalism built out of earlier and already established forms.


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